From: Thomas Leitch, The Encyclopedia of Alfred Hitchcock: From Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Vertigo (Facts on File Inc., 2002)

Irony; Jamaica Inn

[Editor's note.  Two excerpts this time, to give the flavour of the author's excellent and comprehensive encyclopedia.  Professor Leitch teaches in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.  His further publications include Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (1991).  See also "Note on Hitchcock's villains" elsewhere on this website.]

(1) Irony. Since Hitchcock’s public persona, especially in his playful introductions to each segment of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR, is clearly ironic not only in its disingenuousness but in its contrast with the melodramatic intrigue of his fictions, it may seem unnecessary to suggest that the director has never had his due as an ironist. But although, as Sidney GOTTLIEB notes, he has been analyzed as a humanist, a romantic, and a sadist, no one has yet produced a comprehensive study of Hitchcockian irony.

Irony is central to Hitchcock’s films in ways that have never properly been realized. In a 1934 essay written in connection with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the director condemned most British films as “stodgy” because of their imprudent determination to maintain a single unmodulated tone throughout. American films, he noted by contrast, achieved much broader emotional effects and incorporated many more possibilities for surprise, by mixing drama with comedy, even farce. His new film, he promised, would follow the Americans’ lead on this point. Indeed it has become a platitude of Hitchcock criticism that virtually all the director’s most successful films except VERTIGO depend on incorporating a broad range of tones. There is much merit in this observation, but it makes Hitchcock’s films, despite their unmatched narrative pull, sound a bit miscellaneous in their variety. A more positive, and more incisive, way of describing their special achievement is to recognize their dependence on irony as an organizing trope. Hitchcock’s irony begins in motivic contrasts—between comedy and farce, between what characters know and what audiences know, between the routines of the normal world and the melodramatic irruption of intrigue, between Hitchcock’s avuncular physical presence and his adolescent sense of fun—but becomes the armature for most of his successful films. A film like CHAMPAGNE is full of small ironies, from the lovers’ quarrels aboard the ship she has commandeered her father’s airplane to meet to the fantasies it hints about the sinister, but ultimately benign, older man who is watching the heroine, and is shaped by a single structuring irony: the heroine’s false belief that she must support herself and the millionaire father she thinks has gone broke; it fails not because it is insufficiently ironic, but because its ironies are insufficiently integrated and thus finally meaningless. The pattern is repeated in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, which is structured as a series of effectively ironic sequences (the picturesque windmill that hides a nest of spies, the assassinated diplomat who is really alive, the peace organization which is a front for espionage, the hired killer who ends up killing himself) in search of any larger ironic vision consistent with the film’s intermittently rousing patriotism. LIFEBOAT is more successful in focusing its story on a single powerful irony: the susceptibility of liberal democracies to authoritarian rule by virtue of their very liberalism.

But the ironies which shape Hitchcock’s most penetrating films are less often political than moral, psychological, social, representational, or more broadly relational, as in the intimacy first sought, than rejected in horror, between Charlie Newton and her beloved, murderous uncle in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, or between the earnest adulterer who wishes his wife were dead in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and the charming villain who is only too happy to oblige. MURDER! and STAGE FRIGHT both take theatricality as a radical metaphor for the characters’ duplicitous or disingenuous behavior; REAR WINDOW invites audiences to savor the irony of a man so averse to romantic commitment that he becomes deeply invested in proving that his neighbor has murdered his nagging wife. When later Hitchcock films like SPELLBOUND or UNDER CAPRICORN or I CONFESS or TOPAZ falter, it is not because they are not ironic enough—though all four of these films restrict themselves to a narrower range of tones than most of Hitchcock’s work—but because their leading ironies—a man must turn detective to unearth the secrets of his own unconscious; the dissolute aristocrat who ran off to Australia with her own groom is the murderer whose guilt he has taken on himself; a priest cannot save his life by revealing the confession of murder made to him; international politics poison every intimate relationship they touch regardless of particular partisan sympathies—cannot be compellingly visualized or dramatized. And when Hitchcock’s films succeed most completely, it is because their structuring ironies are powerful enough to pull together as many episodes as in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, or because they can motivate two tones as dissonant as the horror and black comedy of PSYCHO, or because they can sustain a single, fatally dreamlike mood for over two hours, as when Scottie Ferguson falls in love with the woman he is supposed to be protecting, not realizing that she has been manufactured expressly in order to make him try and fail to save her—or that he is about to repeat the process himself. Hence Vertigo is not an exception to the rule of Hitchcockian irony because the contrast of tones the director commended in 1934 is only one possible way of revealing the irreducible inconsistencies that underlie all representation, all desire, and all action.

(2) Jamaica Inn. Alternative titles: Riff-Piraten, La taverne de la Jamaîque, La taverna della Giamaica. Mayflower. Producers: Erich Pommer [and Charles Laughton]. Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier. Continuity: Alma Reville. Additional dialogue: J.B. Priestley. Cinematographer: Harry Stradling, in collaboration with Bernard Knowles. Set decoration: Tom Morahan. Costumes: Molly McArthur. Makeup: Ern Westmore. Production manager: Hugh Perceval. Special effects: Harry Watt. Sound: Jack Rogerson. Editor: Robert Hamer. Music: Eric Fenby. Musical direction: Frederick Lewis. With Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Horace Hodges (his butler [Chadwyck]), Hay Petrie (his groom [Sam]), Frederick Piper (his agent [Davis]), Herbert Lomas, Clare Greet [Granny Tremany], William Devlin (his tenants); as Pengallan’s friends: Jeanne de Casalis, Mabel Terry Lewis [Lady Beston], Bromley Davenport [Ringwood], George Curzon [Pengallan’s friend], Basil Radford [Lord George]; Joss Merlyn’s household: Leslie Banks (Merlyn), Marie Ney (Patience, his wife), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Yellan, his niece); as Merlyn’s gang: Emlyn Williams (Harry the Pedlar), Wylie Watson (Salvation Watkins), Morland Graham (Sea Lawyer Sydney), Edwin Greenwood (Dandy), Mervyn Johns (Thomas), Stephen Haggard (the Boy, Willie Penhill), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne) [and Robert Adair (Captain Murray), Aubrey Mather (coach driver), O.B. Clarence, Marie Ault (coach passengers), Mary Jerrold (Miss Black, housekeeper), John Longden (Captain Johnson), Roy Frumkes, Archie Harradine, Harry Lane, Sam Lee, Alan Lewis, Philip Ray, Peter Scott, A. George Smith]. Distributed by Associated British. Running time: 100 minutes. Released May, 1939.

On the eve of departing for America on the 1938 trip that would climax with his signing a contract with David O. SELZNICK to direct a single film that turned out to be REBECCA, Hitchcock, despite his aversion to costume pictures, agreed with MAYFLOWER PRODUCTIONS, a partnership between Erich POMMER and Charles LAUGHTON which had already produced two vehicles for Laughton, to direct a film based on Daphne DU MAURIER’s previous novel, Jamaica Inn. On returning to England, Hitchcock read a screenplay Mayflower had commissioned from Clemence DANE and immediately tried to withdraw from the project, but Laughton, an old acquaintance, insisted that he honor the contract. Other difficulties soon arose. Laughton decided that instead of playing Joss Merlyn, he would give that role to Leslie BANKS and play the story’s villain, a Cornish parson who turns out to be the head of a smuggling ring responsible for wrecking and plundering passing ships. Since the Hays Office forbade negative portrayals of clergymen, the role was changed from a parson to the local squire, and since Laughton was clearly the film’s star attraction, his part was expanded and his involvement in the smuggling (which could hardly have been kept secret for long) revealed earlier in the story. Although the rewriting offered Hitchcock the opportunity to work with Laughton’s old friend J.B. PRIESTLEY, whom he had long admired, the novelist announced publicly that she was dissatisfied with such a free adaptation, insisting that Selznick treat Rebecca with greater circumspection. When shooting began in September 1938, Laughton proved an equally intransigent performer, demanding that Hitchcock shoot only closeups, backgrounds, and scenes without him until he had found the right walk for Squire Pengallan. Although Hitchcock told the press that he expected the film to provide opportunities for the sorts of action sequences he relished, he completed the filming in October with more relief than enthusiasm, and like all his costume dramas, it was an inert piece of filmmaking, as the same reviewers who had rhapsodized over his preceding film, THE LADY VANISHES, were quick to point out. The film turned a small profit, but it cannot have made Hitchcock more reluctant to leave his homeland behind.

Like du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock’s 23rd film is first and foremost a drama of homelessness for its orphaned heroine, sent from Ireland to Cornwall to live with relatives she has never met and finding instead of a proper home a neo-Gothic nightmare of intrigue. What the screenplay adds to the novel is a structuring opposition of false homes, as Mary Yellan, en route to the inn kept by her Aunt Patience’s husband Joss, stops for help at Squire Pengallan’s, where she finds bright company, rich furnishings, and a host suspiciously epicurean in his tastes. From then on she oscillates between the world of Jamaica Inn, which is overrun by lowlife ruffians, to the leering care of the Squire, who treats her, not as the lady she thinks she is, but as one more object, like the figurine or the horse he had so highly prized just before her arrival, to add to his collection. In offering her a choice between too little culture and too much, the film seems determined to sever all ties between acculturation and genuinely social behavior, and to offer its heroine no alternative to commodity status. The exception to these grim alternatives is Jem Trehearne, the member of Merlyn’s gang of smugglers and jackals who is actually an undercover peace officer. After Mary saves Jem from hanging by the gang and they escape the gang together, their romance seems assured. And so it is after further adventures, deaths, and revelations, though the performances of Robert NEWTON, who had not yet found the hammy range that would serve him so well in roles like Long John Silver, and Maureen O’HARA, whose fighting spirit seems to conceal not demure sexuality but an amateurishly narrow acting range, are completely overshadowed not only by the antics of Laughton but by Horace HODGES as Pengallan’s long-suffering butler and the programmatically colorful gang members who infest Jamaica Inn. Despite occasional touches of Gothic atmosphere, the film demonstrates the truth of Hitchcock’s dictum that his costume pictures failed because he never knew what the characters inside the costumes were thinking or feeling; since it never creates any sense of normalcy which its quaint horrors might be thought to disrupt, there never seems to be anything substantial at stake for the orphaned Mary or her blandly roguish lover.