Room at the Inn for Improvement
There are various reasons why you might want to watch "Jamaica Inn"; there is the fact it is a Hitchcock movie, there is the fact it is an adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel, there is the fact it stars Charles Laughton. But for me the attraction is Maureen O'Hara as whilst not her first movie this was the movie which officially introduced her thanks to Charles Laughton who insisted that she be cast in the movie. The ironic thing is that for what ever your reason is to watch "Jamaica Inn" I doubt it will be a satisfying experience because even when taking into account its age it is still remarkably ordinary and spoiled by some over the top acting.
Having arrived to live with her Uncle & Aunt at their home "Jamaica Inn" on the Cornish coast Mary (Maureen O'Hara) soon becomes aware that the Inn is the hideout of a gang of ship wreckers. When she witnesses them stringing up a new member called Jem (Robert Newton - They Flew Alone) she rescues him and they both flee to the nearby home of Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton - Spartacus) where Jem reveals the truth that he is in fact an undercover lawman who is after the man who is behind the gang's ship wrecking operations. What neither Mary nor Jem know is that Pengallan is the man behind the ship wrecking operation.
Now I have heard that this adaptation of "Jamaica Inn" is not the most loyal adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's novel, I can't tell you whether it is or isn't but I guess that whilst attempts were made to create the atmosphere, character changes and actors altered the vision. The trouble is that in the end it just fails to excite despite the fact we have the interesting storyline with Mary and Jem unaware that Pengallan, the man they have turned to for help is in fact the man behind it all. It is a familiar idea where we are meant to watch in eager anticipation of what will happen when they discover that Pengallan is the man but that sense of fear never materialises. Instead it almost feels like a procession as things happen, betrayals occur but none of it truly has you gripped.
The question is why did it go wrong as Hitchcock even in his pre-Hollywood movies was brilliant at getting you gripped and I am in the camp who says Charles Laughton is the problem. In a movie where every actor goes for authenticism we have Laughton delivering a very stagy performance, an over the top performance which borders on the camp which is too much. He basically steals every single scene by being OTT and it spoils the movie when all you end up paying attention to is the ridiculous eyebrow make-up he wears.
Aside from Laughton the rest of the cast are good, Robert Newton is dashing as Jem whilst Leslie Banks may not be imposing as Uncle Joss is at least genuinely evil. But for me the reason to watch is because of Maureen O'Hara and whilst not by any means her greatest performance it is an interesting one because on the scenes she shares with the likes of Newton and Banks is solid but then in those with Laughton she is forced to over act to compete with him.
What this all boils down to is that considering the various people involved in "Jamaica Inn" it is not the great movie you would expect. It is watchable but the chances are you may end up a little disappointed and possibly bemused by Charles Laughton's over the top theatrics.