The enduring WWII-era cinematic adaptation of Jane Eyre is Jacques Tourneur’s hypnotic B picture I Walked with a Zombie, which, lurid title aside, captures the melancholy tone of Charlotte Brontë‘s classic novel, but the Fox version is a well-constructed piece of studio work, with vivid black-and-white cinematography under matte painting skies that creates a turbulent, oppressive mood. Former orphan turned governess Jane Eyre (Joan Fontaine) finds employment on the estate of the mysterious, frequently volatile Mr. Rochester (Orson Welles). Their brimming attraction toward one another is hindered by class barriers as well as the unfortunate fact that he’s married to a crazy woman locked in the attic. This potentially intense Victorian Gothic scenario feels too indebted to the literary source material (often cutting to highlighted text from the novel accompanied by voice-over narration), but when the stars appear on-screen together they are able to generate some heat. Together, Fontaine and Welles transform the beautiful chiaroscuro-lit sets into a sultry playground. Fontaine, a wonderfully expressive actress, seems forever locked in close-up compositions as Bernard Herrmann’s orchestral score pummels the viewer with the force of her yearning. Meanwhile, Welles tears into scenes with restless vitriolic fire. When he gets quiet, his charged stillness feels magnetic. If the expressionistic Tourneur had crafted this Jane Eyre with these two leads, it would have been an adaptation for the ages. File that “movie that might’ve been” right alongside a Welles version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness starring Boris Karloff as Kurtz.
Fox does a splendid transfer on Jane Eyre, with crisp black and white that looks brand new, with only the occasional shimmer. The audio is well balanced, with dialogue not overwhelmed by the striking Bernard Herrmann score.
Two full-length audio commentaries go into nitty-gritty detail about the production history of the film, the ways Orson Welles made power-plays on the set ("Let's start with page four," he announced on day one of shooting), how director Robert Stevenson wrangled the egomaniacal star, and lingering questions about Welles's behind-the-scenes contributions. Historians Nick Redman, Steven Smith, and Julie Kirgo give a surprisingly lively commentary, perhaps because they announce right up front that they are all friends. As they share their thoughts on the picture, it's chummy for sure but also bright and informative. Kirgo in particular delights in comparisons between book and film, and even though she clearly adores the picture she doesn't let it off the hook for its abrupt climax. The commentary by Welles scholar Joseph McBride and actress Margaret O'Brien is a little dry, but thankfully they don't just talk about the Welles-Stevenson collaboration. McBride actually discusses the participation of esteemed writers Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, and how they tried to get around making a "post-notes version of the novel." A brief featurette on Welles and Stevenson features many interviews with the latter's family and their defense of him as a popular entertainer whose films found a much wider audience than anything by Welles. Also included is a wartime propaganda film directed by Stevenson, which may be of mild historical interest.
Have fun with this hot-blooded Victorian soap opera.