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.
- 20th Century Fox
- 96 min
- Robert Stevenson
- Aldous Huxley, Robert Stevenson, John Houseman
- Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Margaret O'Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, John Sutton, Sara Allgood, Henry Daniell, Agnes Moorehead
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