The Cornish coast in the 19th-century is swiftly sketched as an overture couched in pure silent German gothic: The sea storm and shipwreck are from Murnau, in the stagecoach Maureen O’Hara notices a passenger cradling a goose (Der Müde Tod). A horse is posed amid the candles and marble of Charles Laughton’s banquet, the titular tavern gives a home to some of Shakespeare’s loveliest bit scoundrels, and still people say Alfred Hitchcock’s heart isn’t in it. Cutthroats guide vessels into rocky shores, slaughter their crews and plunder their riches, all of it orchestrated by Laughton’s deranged squire, whose love of beauty has him mildly annoyed at the blood on the ransacked fine linens. "Smugglers, eh? Any good brandy got through?" Daphne Du Maurier’s narrative puts the Irish orphan (O’Hara) between the dandified sadist and the undercover agent (Robert Newton), but to Hitchcock that’s merely a jumping-off point to explore the harrowing bond between the heroine’s aunt (Marie Ney) and her brutish buccaneer of a husband (Leslie Banks), a dilation of the conjugal shackles briefly noted in The 39 Steps. A second-long overhead shot of a rope tightening over a beam (seen through a breach in O’Hara’s room) is enough to state a hanging, the fugitive couple’s bickering echoes in a seaside cave as the Bible is lowered by the villains above (Emlyn Williams recommends the "Fear and Trembling" hymn, "it makes dying a pleasure"). Laughton’s gourmet ghoulishness and sly belly-steering make it clear that he’s playing Hitchcock, just as he would play Renoir in This Land Is Mine; his final flourish is staged atop the ship’s mast like the culprit’s swan dive in Murder!, the camera leaves the traumatized heroine and contemplates the masterless servant, gazing desolately at us. With Basil Radford, George Curzon, Wylie Watson, Morland Graham, Edwin Greenwood, Horace Hodges, Mervyn Johns, and Stephen Haggard. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce