Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Jamaica Inn - The Term Paper

I’m Finally done. God damned thing nearly killed me. Here it is, without further ado, possibly the world’s most insightful paper on Jamaica Inn ever. Copyright Sacha Orenstein and all of that jazz. Quote me as a source but don’t steal it. Bad karma and what not. Oh, and there’s no index photos online yet.

Jamaica Inn
Introduction: Critical Reception: the form and style of Jamaica Inn
If we are to believe popular critical opinion; Hitchcock’s final British film Project Jamaica Inn was a rushed, minor film labored upon while the director was busy attempting to negotiate a contract with Selznick International Pictures. Hitchcock’s own words to Truffaut describe the film as a project agreed to in desperation and one he never truly controlled: “Realizing how incongruous [my relationship with the producers] was, I was truly discouraged but the contract had been signed[1].” While both audiences and critics were generous to it upon release, praising Maureen O’Hara’s performance in particular, the unfavorable view of the film caused by a difficult production is the one that has survived and become more or less canonical among those studying the director’s work. How could such a discrepancy between the original positive reception and the latter day dismissal be possible? It’s with a fresh eye that I propose that while not a masterpiece by any means; Jamaica Inn is a quality film with stylistic and formal traits unaccounted for by critics content to relegate it to a footnote between The Lady Vanishes and Rebecca.

Charles Laughton’s over the top performance and the acting in general has oft been a point of question about Jamaica Inn, yet there has been little attention to the film’s surprisingly interesting minimalist visual style, the very aspect that put the emphasis on the performances in the first place. Hitchcock has ably shot a film dominated by atmospheric sets, camera work and editing without much in lieu of resources or budget, giving the film an almost theatrical quality. For those who believe Hitchcock put no effort into the film, one has only to look at the early sequence in which a merchant ship capsizes and is accosted by the Cornish pirates. A montage heavy affair involving rapid cutting on action and varying points of view, it stands as the film’s visual highpoint and one showing the director’s prescience and planning. That Hitchcock then delegated post-production work to producer Erich Pommer, proves that through simple shot choices and editing instructions, the former had already planned and constructed the film well ahead of time and it was only a mechanical procedure to get it in camera[2] and cut. Hitchcock’s precise way of filming to achieve accurate final results without concentrating much energy in the post production process makes it clear that from the initial visual design to the final cut, he was doing more than going through the motions. Thus, while analyzing Jamaica Inn, I intend to examine where and how this “throw away” surpasses the norm but also where despite good intentions, the stylistic choices fail due to either material constraints or simple bad choices.

Set Design: Success and failure in Jamaica Inn
One can identify five major locations in Jamaica Inn: the interior of the inn itself, the interior of Pengallan Manor, the rocky cave covered coast of the shipwrecks, the final scene’s harbor and the barren “exterior” surrounding these locations. Visually, the inn and the exteriors are the most interesting elements, deriving their charm from their unabashedly crude nature though also dating rather poorly. The painted backdrops and artificial terrain[3] fail from a realism standpoint (even by 1939 standards), though the film gains a theatrical minimalism from this flaw contributing to its uniqueness. Long shots of the Inn in particular, reveal it to be a craggy, twisted structure (or super imposed model), owing its design to the aesthetics of German Expressionism, barely standing, caving in on itself in certain parts while protruding from others[4]. Whereas the model buildings in Hitchcock’s previous film The Lady Vanishes were realistic for the time though perhaps unremarkably functional, the inn exudes a foreboding character, remaining central to the proceedings despite a severe lack of budget. Indeed, Jamaica Inn doesn’t actually demand much visually and likely wouldn’t improve dramatically with richer surroundings. In moments where action is necessary, the film’s set construction reveals itself to be surprisingly dynamic; the detailed shipwreck for example is filmed in a way which makes the waves and environment seem quite realistic. It has been noted that Hitchcock was merciless during the filming of those scenes and that an Edwin Greenwood, an actor, died due to complications stemming from pneumonia caught during an extremely long wet shoot[5]. If anything, this uncompromised attitude shows that Hitchcock was definitely unwilling to accept substandard work, tinkering with the sequence until it was perfect and camouflaging the perhaps rudimentary decor. The result features numerous camera angles and fast cutting giving the battle an energy and focus perhaps missing from the more pedestrian sequences which were more easily composed, thus revealing design flaws. The outside of Pengallan Manor, for example seems assembled out of little more than two columns and a wall placed against the film’s false horizon[6], becoming more of a prop than a set so to speak. Such intrusions alongside substandard back projection and matte paintings certainly hurt the film, but as a whole they also contribute in part to its odd style: the simplicity of its theater like backdrops leaving much to the imagination without being out of place.
Still, one remembers that while most of Hitchcock’s previous film (The Lady Vanishes) took place in a single setting outside of its introduction and conclusion, it had far superior production values and its miniatures still remain impressive to this day. Additionally, the director’s following film and first foray into Hollywood (Rebecca), translated another DuMaurier novel in far richer tones, again reinforcing the idea that Jamaica Inn is an ugly duckling in Hitchcock’s catalogue. Despite these accusations against the production however, Hitchcock would work with Set designer Thomas Morahan twice again on The Paradine Case and on Under Capricorn years later and would ask to work with camera man Harry Straddling on Rebecca (to Selznick’s displeasure), indicating that it was most likely a lack of time, funds and interest on Hitchcock’s part that hurt the film rather than a lack of talent. The attention lavished on certain scenes such as the shipwreck was clearly not maintained through out the whole production.

While the film’s exteriors shifted from extremely creative to thrown together and substandard, the film’s interiors are more detailed and realistic but no less distinct from one and other. For instance, the inn’s twisted insides easily match the exterior’s expressionistic squalor: stone walls are illuminated directly causing huge shadows, stairs and walls seem too big for those inhabiting them[7] and the twisting layout gives this “ogre’s dungeon” a maze like quality. The film’s storyline calling for Maureen O’Hara’s Mary to evade her uncle in a game of cat and mouse, it is my opinion that more than any other, this set is perfectly suited for the film as its atmospheric visual style combined with its functionality, allows for one of the film’s most suspenseful scenes (the escape of Trehearne). While far from the technically perfect grandiosity found in Rebecca, the set’s visual starkness complements the somewhat overstated performances, tying the minimalist exteriors and classicist acting to a more realistic set as best possible. In contrast to the squalor of the inn however, Pengallan Manor is nothing less than a finely crafted environment, immediately setting it apart from the rest of the film and even its own outside façade. Yet for all of the attention to detail, the mansion still resembles a cardboard cutout: hollow and unbelievable. If the inn had a certain weight to it, resembling its owner, the brutish Joss, the manor seems light and fabricated much like Laughton’s over the top performance. The disparity between the props and the sets themselves is equally distracting: the dinner table scene takes place surrounded by seemingly authentic chairs, candleholders and other accessories yet the walls around them are undeniably constructs[8]. Similarly, when Trehearne and Mary arrive at the mansion after their escape, the close up shots are effective but when the main hall is seen in longshot, the mansion looks rather artificial.

The disparity between the sets and the subsequent lack of visual cohesiveness is the film’s greatest stylistic flaw. While certain sets exude charm and character (the inn) and others are simply effective at telling the story (the sea shore) and more still seem out of place (the exteriors, the manor), it is clear that there is a lack of unity between them. The spectator can rationalize this as the barren desolate world that the people live in is diametrically opposed to Pengallan’s mansion making him seem even more villainous, but the narrative does not reinforce this notion as Pengallan is shown as a pitiful rather than detestable villain at the film’s conclusion. The environment of Pengallan’s death is in fact even more distracting as we now find ourselves in a busy harbor completely separate from the previously stark countryside we’ve been introduced to throughout the film. Thus, from a stylistic angle, it is safe to say that despite some interesting characteristics, the film’s set design while not ill adapted to the story, fails to convey the reality of the film’s era. Hitchcock himself disliked the film, thinking of himself as a poet of modern times ill suited for period material[9]. Surprisingly though, this would not be his final foray into the genre as he would continue to adapt such works in later years.

Criticism of style: Montage and Suspense.
Having examined the set design of Jamaica Inn in depth, we can conclude that while certain elements were interesting in retrospect, it was often too little too late to save the film. Francois Truffaut in his conversations with Hitchcock did not mince words: defending Under Capricorn, he said “even if this picture was a flop, it can’t be put in the same class with Jamaica Inn. (…) it is clear you believed in it.”[10] The assumed belief that Hitchcock put no effort into Jamaica Inn however, belies the stylistic quality of several sequences of which the initial shipwreck and pirate attack is easily the most impressive and flamboyant.

Lasting three minutes and fifty four seconds from when we first see the ship (3:18) until the final shot of the waves (7:12)[11] and composed of no less than 69 shots by my own count*, the sequence includes many formal elements overlooked by critics, most of whom were perhaps caught in the intensity of the scene, content to label it as generally impressive and then move on. The 0.28 shot per second average of the sequence for example seems extremely fast paced compared to most cinema being done at the time and while it’s unfair to compare to the pace of a single action sequence to that of an entire film, the number of shots in the sequence is by far over the average of standard western filmmaking of the time if we are to believe Barry Salt[12]. Additionally, the sequence is rendered even more dynamic as the aggressive waves tend to result in illusory in-camera “cuts” or “wipes”[13] further contributing to the dynamic pace of the scene (and incidentally foiling my repeated shot count). Further more, repeated viewings of my DVD copy revealed the presence of jump cuts within the sequence such as when we see sailors falling off the ship. These are a major point of contention: were frames of the print used to make the DVD damaged or was the effect voluntary? None of my research has indicated any acknowledgement of the cuts though again, this is perhaps due to a lack of thorough analysis of the sequence by most authors. If one is to believe that these are legitimate cuts, it’s then interesting to note such a strong cinematic rule being broken so early in history as at this point conventional editing was the only accepted form of montage outside the Soviet Union and Japan. The only reason one could assume such a technique was used would be for purely visual reasons as the cuts serve to increase the chaos inherent in the scene and the speed at which the perspective shifted. Final judgment on the matter however, should be reserved until further comparisons between versions of the film can be made though the scene remains the undisputed highlight of the film regardless.

While the shipwreck sequence was by far the most stunning visually, Hitchcock’s oft noted use of suspense is most noticeable in the escape sequence from Jamaica Inn. While outside of the traditional paradigm defining style and perhaps unquantifiable compared to camera movements or cuts; suspense in Hitchcock’s oeuvre can be interpreted as stylistically interesting as his ability to combine technical camera and editing choices with narrative elements was unparalleled and was the cinematic calling card that lead him to Hollywood’s attention. However, an examination the escape scene and the film’s construction as a whole reveals that while the use of suspense is unusual and unique compared to most Hitchcock films, in this case it is also flawed. Beginning 28 minutes into the film when Mary discovers a way to observe Joss’ proceedings through a hole in her room, the sequence in notable in Hitchcock’s canon as the audience has an omniscient view of the situation. Whereas Hitchcock has often relied on at least partially hiding elements from his characters and the audience, the only withheld information in this case is Trehearne’s identity as a lawman which is revealed in a matter-of-fact way later on. Hitchcock himself noted that it was a whodunit (…) logically the judge should have entered the scene only at the end (…) therefore it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton [as] the justice of the peace[14]. Thus the suspense in the scene does not arise from the audience’s questioning of who is behind the shipwrecks but rather the more direct question of how Mary will help the victim of the hanging. While it would have been typical to see Joss disappear off screen to meet with his mysterious benefactor leaving the audience in doubt, we immediately learn of Pengallan’s role in the plot and the attention instead shifts towards Mary’s cutting of the rope and subsequent rescue. The result is formally awkward: a mystery which relies on the audience knowing what the protagonists do not. When Trehearne returns with Pengallan later, the noble deftly maneuvers, playing both sides against each other with surprising ease (infuriating the “plausibles” as Hitchcock called them) but revealing little new information to the audience. By the time Mary has averted the final shipwreck, the film’s conclusion seems inevitable. Hitchcock’s over the top finale ends the film on a high note though, as Laughton’s literal fall from grace is a suitably shocking visual end to a film which lies between an interesting aesthetic minimalism, a high intensity exercise in montage and a rushed classicist period piece production.

Conclusion: a closer look at Jamaica Inn
In my opinion, Jamaica Inn deserves its reputation as one of Hitchcock’s minor films thus disproving my initial assumption. While I do believe that it is unfairly overlooked, the film does not succeed as a whole as weaker elements prevent it from gelling cohesively as a quality work of cinema. That said, the set design of the inn itself and the Shipwreck scene are two particular elements which are unfairly forgotten as quality accomplishments in Hitchcock’s career, the latter being an extremely precocious example of montage which seems impossibly out of place at first glance. In conclusion, I believe that this film is worth examining, if not only for its own merits, than to dispel its reputation as a film of little interest. There in lies its paradox: Jamaica Inn is a film of great interest, though of rather minimal actual success.

McGilligan Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock A life in Darkness and Light. Harper Collins, September 2003
François Truffaut-Hitchcock: revised edition. Simon & Shuster, February 1984
Barry Salt –Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis Chart given in class. Starword
David Bordwell, Kirstin Thompson – Film History: An Introduction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, McGraw Hill, 2003
David Bordwell, Kirstin Thompson – Film Art: An introduction , University of Wisconsin-Madison, McGraw Hill, 2004

Jamaica Inn – Alfred Hitchcock 1939
The Lady Vanishes – Alfred Hitchcock 1938
Rebecca – Alfred Hitchcock 1940
Sabotage – Alfred Hitchcock 1936

[1] François Truffaut-Hitchcock: revised edition Page 122. Simon & Shuster, February 1984

[2] McGilligan Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock A life in Darkness and Light Page 219. Harper Collins, September 2003
[3] See Index 1-1
[4] See Index 1-2
[5] McGilligan Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock A life in Darkness and Light Page 225 (interview with Gilliat). Harper Collins, September 2003
[6] See Index 1-3
[7] See Index 1-4
[8] See Index 1-5
[9] McGilligan Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock A life in Darkness and Light Page 228. Harper Collins, September 2003
[10] François Truffaut-Hitchcock: revised edition Page 187. Simon & Shuster, February 1984
[11] See Index 1-6
* Several of my counts resulted in different numbers but 69 seemed to be the most reliable. The shot per second average I used was based on this number (69/246 seconds=0.28sps)
[12] Barry Salt –Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis Chart given in class. Starword
[13] See Index 1-7
[14] François Truffaut-Hitchcock: revised edition Page 122. Simon & Shuster, February 1984


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