In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson cuts the career of larger-than-life English actor Charles Laughton into conveniently bite-sized, dismissible chunks, noting that many of Laughton’s “great performances” — the snide quotation marks are Thomson’s — have dated badly. But then, perhaps it’s all too easy to miss the point of Laughton, even though he was oversized in more ways than one: He doesn’t so much star in a film as take up magisterial residency in it, at times filling the frame to bursting.
That’s certainly true of his performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 Jamaica Inn, which plays in a crisply restored version at Film Forum on February 4, 5, 6, and 7 as part of a three-week Laughton festival. Adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s 1936 pop-gothic novel, Jamaica Inn is a tale of piratey intrigue set in 1820 Cornwall: The orphaned naïf Mary (Maureen O’Hara, in her film debut) treks to the dark-and-stormy inn of the title to live with her aunt (Marie Ney), whose husband (Leslie Banks) leads a group of sleazy, murderous smugglers. These creeps lure merchant ships to their doom, killing every crew member and plundering the goods. Down the road a piece there lives a corpulent country squire given to wearing fine velvets and ruffled shirts, Laughton’s Sir Humphrey Pengallan. He sees Mary as a tasty little morsel, gawping at her like a fish circling its next meal.
To describe what Laughton does, and how he looks while doing it, is to risk
descending into the uncharitable. But he knew he wasn’t a handsome man, and he took that self-awareness as a license to go as wide and deep with a character as he pleased. That’s not a liability — it’s the glory of him. In our first glimpse of Laughton in Jamaica Inn, he holds a boiled potato aloft on a fork in his left hand, using the knife in his right to slice off hunks of it, which he then shovels handily into his rubbery gob — all while giving a trilling speech about how newly crowned King George IV just doesn’t have as much class as he used to. Laughton is compelling from the first instant: His Pengallan is at least five of the seven deadly sins rolled into one, a cheerfully loathsome creature with wide-set eyebrows and a multitude of chins, Jabba the Hutt in a jabot. You want to look away, but you just can’t. Yet in the end, you find a few tatters of sympathy for him — he only wants to be the boy with the most cake.
Hitchcock disliked working with Laughton, finding him egotistical, temperamental, and inefficient: “He wasn’t really a professional film man,” the
director told François Truffaut. And New York Times critic Frank Nugent, reviewing the picture at the time of its release, picked up on something that would prove true: “Jamaica Inn will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture.” Laughton may have been the only actor capable of rendering one of the most stylistically distinctive directors of the twentieth century nearly invisible. And that’s a pretty big slice of cake.