Jamaica Inn (1939)

Those who are used to Hitchcock’s Hollywood productions will find a great many surprises among the genres of his earlier films made in England. But although very different from his “classic” suspense thrillers, these films should not be dismissed off-hand. Many show excellent qualities and you can see Hitchcock perfecting his skills. The last film of any kind that Hitchcock made before moving to Hollywood was the historical thriller Jamaica Inn.

Charles Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

The film centers around Jamaica Inn on the coast of Cornwall (a real place, apparently still in business) which is the base of operation for a band of cutthroats and plunderers, who lure ships to run aground on the rocky shores. To this accursed and feared place, young Mary (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to visit her aunt, who is married to the innkeeper. The plot thickens as one of the gang members (Robert Newton) is suspected of taking loot for himself. From there on it is a sometimes tight, sometimes slightly contrived plot of chases, changing loyalties and secret identities.

It appears that neither Hitchock himself nor Daphne du Maurier (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) liked the finished film. Certainly, it does have a number of shortcomings, but it is nevertheless worth watching. It has a dark and eerie tone which, coupled with some unexpected comic relief, gives the film a unique creepy feeling. Jamaica Inn may not be among Hitchcock’s greatest films, but regardless of what people say, it is far from one of his worst.

This film is best enjoyed as part of Hitchcock’s legacy, but another good reason is Charles Laughton who plays the bad guy. I have seen few films with Laughton, but I find that he is always excellent. Even though Maureen O’Hara (also good) may nominally be the protagonist, Laughton tends to take over and dominate the picture, all for the good. Other films with him at the Internet Archive include The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Captain Kidd (1945).

Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

Jamaica Inn
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.5 G)

The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
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Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

Beat the Devil (1953)

Humphrey Bogart, while perhaps best remembered for romantic dramas like Casablanca (1942) or film noirs like The Maltese Falcon (1941), participated in a wide range of genres during his long career. One of his many lesser-known but excellent performances is in the thriller comedy Beat the Devil.

Marco Tulli, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Ivor Barnard and Gina Lollobrigida in Beat the Devil (1953)

While perhaps not Bogart’s typical kind of movie, the character he plays in Beat the Devil retains many of the traits from his more famous roles. He is cool, callous, cynical and clever, yet somehow endearing. He is Billy Dannreuther, an American in Italy who has lost all his money and sees the opportunity to make more by joining four crooks in some shady land deals. They all travel by boat, hoping to get to British East Africa, but Destiny wills otherwise.

Gina Lollobrigida (who is still alive as I write this) plays Billy’s wife Maria in a marriage that appears to have very little love left in it. On board the ship to Africa, they meet with the Chelms, an English couple (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones). Billy and Maria each start to flirt with Mrs. and Mr. Chelms, respectively, which in turn leads to entaglements.

But in spite of all the other exciting and colourful characters, perhaps the most interesting of the lot is the band of four criminals played by two well-known and experienced actors (Robert Morley and Peter Lorre) and two that never achieved stardom (yet also very good). These four throughout most of the film appear as a single unit, almost as one character with four faces. The directing of their appearances is absolutely brilliant.

It has been said that Bogart himself did not particularly like this movie. Well, I like it, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who takes a fancy in the good old black-and-white classics.

This film is best enjoyed for its fantastic actors and characters, and their wonderful dialogue. The plot (to the extent that there is one) plays a very minor part in this movie.

Marco Tulli, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida in Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil
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Year: 1953
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Directors: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (856 M)

Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

The Internet Archive may be an absolutely fantastic site. Scope and depth are both tremendous, but they come at a price. The problem is finding what you are looking for. Or, sometimes, trying to determine which one of several available versions is the best. With the popular films, it is not unusual to find anywhere between five and ten different uploads. There is next to no information about source or resolution, and unfortunately the quality claims made by the uploaders do not always hold up to scrutiny.

Gulliver’s Travels is a good case in point. This is a classic animated adaptation created by Dave Fleischer, who had previously done Betty Boop and Popeye, and who was to participate in the creation of the Superman animated series. Gulliver’s Travels was one of only two feature films he made.

Gulliver (Sam Parker rotoscoped) in Lilliput from Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Jonathan Swift’s original Gulliver’s Travels contained four parts, but this film only covers the first part, about the adventures among the Lilliputians. To some extent it follows the original plot, in that Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island Lilliput. The inhabitants are first suspicious and try to tie him down, but when he intervenes on their behalf in a war, they treat him with friendliness. There are some changes in the overall plot, but the main difference is an added plotline about a romance between a princess of Lilliput and a prince of the rival Blefuscu kingdom.

Obvious influences in the production are not only Fleischer’s previous short films, but also Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many of the ordinary townspeople look more than a little like one of the dwarfs, and the Lilliput princess is more akin to Snow White than to Betty Boop.

Nine uploaded versions are known to me, not counting the original theatrical trailier. More may exist, as I have not searched all possible misspellings.

The trick is finding the best version. One thing you may want to compare between versions is length. In the case of Gulliver’s Travels, two variants of different lengths exist. One is about 72 minutes and one about 76. Assuming that we want only the more complete version, we can immediately dismiss three versions (1, 2, 3).

File size is another indication, but also tricky. Internet Archive’s classic interface (still available at the time of writing) had immediately available facts about this, but the new interface requires that you click “Show All” in order to get this important piece of information. File size depends on a number of factors and large size is no guarantee for a good copy. However, as a rule of thumb, a good copy of a feature-length film will not fit into less than, say, 500 MB, and even then it may be fairly heavily compressed, which may cause all sorts of weird artifacts in the images. Another two versions (1, 2) fall slightly below this limit, and are indeed of such low resolution that pixels are clearly visible when watching.

Next, it is a good thing to look at the comments for the remaining versions. Here we can find information that two more versions (1, 2) are “digitally restored,” but in a way that creates a fake widescreen (the original was in 4:3 ratio) by cropping and stretching the image. Also, the images have been blurred, so that many details are smeared. I nevertheless did download these versions to look for myself, and though the information is correct, the colours and sound of these versions are far superior to any other I have seen. So you may opt for one of these, if you do not care that you will miss some details from the original version.

Two versions remain, and now we are down to downloading and looking at them in order to judge which is best. They are about equal size, but it turns out that one has lower resolution. Thus, my own choice is definitely the final one. This one is not perfect. It has visible scan lines, sound could be better and it is pretty dark. So someone else may have another favourite.

While on the subject of Gulliver adaptations, there is another one at the Internet Archive that I also want to mention. Georges Méliès was a pioneer of cinematic special effects. Many of his films are available for download (I counted 88 at one point), but many are also of very low quality. One that is fairly good, however, is his version of the Gulliver tale, Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (1902). Beautifully hand colorated, this one is not to be missed if you have an interest in early literary adaptations or in early special effects.

The 1939 film is best enjoyed as close to the original as possible. Finding the best possible version at the Internet Archive can be hard work. Or you can just go to this blog. I always try my best to do the job for you and link to the most watchable version.

Gulliver's (Sam Parker) hand with  Princess Glory of Lilliput and Prince David of Blefuscu in Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Gulliver’s Travels
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Dave Fleischer
Stars: Sam Parker, Pinto Colvig, Jessica Dragonette
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (734 M)