Jamaica Inn (film)

Jamaica Inn is a 1939 British thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock adapted from Daphne du Maurier's 1936 novel of the same name, the first of three of du Maurier's works that Hitchcock adapted (the others were her novel Rebecca and short story "The Birds"). It stars Charles Laughton and features Maureen O'Hara in her first major screen role. It is the last film Hitchcock made in the United Kingdom before he moved to the United States.

Jamaica Inn
Film poster for the US release
Directed byAlfred Hitchcock
Produced byErich Pommer
Charles Laughton
Written bySidney Gilliat
Joan Harrison
Alma Reville
J. B. Priestley
Based onJamaica Inn
1936 novel
by Daphne du Maurier
StarringCharles Laughton
Maureen O'Hara
Leslie Banks
Robert Newton
Music byEric Fenby
CinematographyBernard Knowles
Harry Stradling
Edited byRobert Hamer
Mayflower Productions
Distributed byMayflower Productions
Release date
15 May 1939
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The film is a period piece set in Cornwall in 1819; the real Jamaica Inn still exists, and is a pub on the edge of Bodmin Moor. The score was written by Eric Fenby.


The film is set in 1819. Jamaica Inn is the rural headquarters of a gang of cutthroats and thieves, led by innkeeper Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks). They are responsible for a series of engineered shipwrecks in which they extinguish coastal warning beacons, causing ships to run aground on the rocky Cornish coast. They then kill the surviving sailors and steal their cargo. On one evening, a young Irishwoman, Mary Yellan (Maureen O'Hara), is dropped off by coach near the inn, at the home of the local squire and justice of the peace, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton). She requests the loan of a horse so she can ride to Jamaica Inn to re-unite with her Aunt Patience, the wife of Merlyn. Despite Pengallan's warnings, she intends to live at Jamaica Inn with her dead mother's sister. Shortly after, we learn that Pengallan is the secret criminal mastermind behind the wrecking gang; he learns from his well-to-do friends and acquaintances when well-laden ships are passing near the coast, determines when and where the wrecks are to be caused, and fences the stolen cargo. He uses the lion's share of the proceeds to support his lavish lifestyle and passes a small fraction of them to Joss and the gang.

In another part of the inn, the gang convenes to discuss why they get so little money for their efforts. They suspect Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), a gang member for only two months, of embezzling goods. They hang him from one of the rafters of the inn, but when they leave, Mary cuts the rope and saves his life. Trehearne and Mary flee the gang, narrowly avoiding capture by swimming for their lives. The next morning, they row a boat ashore to seek the protection of Pengallan, unaware that he is the gang's benefactor. Trehearne reveals to Pengallan that he is actually an undercover law-officer on a mission to investigate the wrecks. Pengallan is alarmed but maintains his composure and pretends to join forces with Trehearne. Mary overhears their conversation and goes to the inn to warn Patience that she must flee in order to avoid being arrested as an accomplice. However, Patience refuses to leave her husband.

Meanwhile, Pengallan learns of a ship full of precious cargo headed near the coast. He tips off Joss and the gang, who travel to the beach, dousing the coastal warning light, waiting for the ship to appear. However, Mary re-lights the warning beacon, and the ship's crew avoid the treacherous rocks and sail by unharmed. The gang angrily resolve to kill Mary as revenge for preventing the wreck, but Joss, who has developed a reluctant admiration for her, rescues her and the two escape by horse-cart. Joss is shot in the back and collapses when they reach Jamaica Inn. As Patience is about to tell Mary that Pengallan is the secret leader of the wrecking gang, Pengallan shoots and kills Patience from off-camera. Joss dies of his wound as well. Pengallan then takes Mary hostage, ties and gags her, and tells her that he plans to keep her now that she has no one else in the world. He drives her, still tied up and covered by a heavy cloak, to the harbour, where they board a ship bound for France. Back at Jamaica Inn, Trehearne and a posse of soldiers take Joss's gang into custody. Trehearne then rides to the harbor to rescue Mary and capture Pengallan, who attempts to escape. At one point during the chase, he climbs to the top of a ship's mast, from which he jumps to his death.


Character actors

Besides Laughton and O'Hara, secondary characters are played by several notable stage-and-screen character actors of the time, including "bruiser-type" actor Leslie Banks (who played Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game) as Joss Merlyn, and Robert Newton in an uncharacteristic role as Jem Trehearne, a suave young secret-police agent.


Charles Laughton was a co-producer on this movie, and he reportedly interfered greatly with Hitchcock's direction. Laughton initially was cast as Joss, but he cast himself in the role of the villainous Pengallan, who originally was a hypocritical preacher but was rewritten as a squire because unsympathetic portrayals of the clergy were forbidden by the Production Code in Hollywood.[1] Laughton then demanded that Hitchcock give his character greater screen time. This forced Hitchcock to reveal that Pengallan was a villain in league with the smugglers earlier in the film than Hitchcock had initially planned.[2]

Laughton's acting was a problem point as well for Hitchcock. Laughton portrayed Pengallan as having a mincing walk that went to the beat of a German waltz that he played in his head,[3] and Hitchcock thought it was out of character. Laughton also demanded that Maureen O'Hara be given the lead after watching her screen test (her acting in the screen test was sub par, but Laughton could not forget her eyes). After filming finished, Laughton brought her to Hollywood to play Esmeralda opposite his Quasimodo in 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where she became an international star.

In March 1939, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood to begin his contract with David O. Selznick. Thus Jamaica Inn was his last British picture until the 1970s, as well as one of his most successful.[3][4]


Critics disparaged the film, largely because of the lack of atmosphere and tension which was present in the book, with its light-hearted, often camp banter, and portly landlord, far removed from the darker characters and sinister inn and coastline depicted in the book. Today it is considered one of Hitchcock's worst films.[5][6] Hitchcock was disgusted with the film even before it was finished and stated that it was a "completely absurd" idea.[7] However, the film still garnered a large profit (US$3.7 million, a huge success at the time) at the box office.[2] Daphne du Maurier was not pleased with the finished production and for a while she considered withholding the film rights to Rebecca.[3]

In 1978, film critic Michael Medved gave Jamaica Inn a place in his book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.[8]


  1. Harris, Richard A.; Michael S. Lasky (1 December 2002). The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock (revised ed.). Citadel Press Film Series.
  2. Leitch, Thomas (31 May 2002). The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock: From Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Vertigo. Facts on File.
  3. Duguid, Mark. "Jamaica Inn (1939)". filmonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 11 November 2007.
  4. Brenner, Paul. "The Lady Vanishes". Allmovie. Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  5. Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo. pp. 184–185. ISBN 0-306-80932-X.
  6. Griffin, Susan; Nadel, Alan (1 March 2012). The Men Who Knew Too Much: Henry James and Alfred Hitchcock. Oxford University Press. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-19-976442-6. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  7. McDevitt, Jim; Juan, Eric San (30 April 2009). A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks With the Master of Suspense. Scarecrow Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-8108-6388-0. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
  8. Michael Medved: The Fifty Worst Films of All Time
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