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Jane Eyre spotlights Orson Welles’ perfect romantic antihero

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Jessica Hausner’s peculiar period piece Amour Fou coming to theaters, we extend our hand to other 19th-century romances.

Jane Eyre (1943)

In 1943, Orson Welles was coming off of two films that still stand as his greatest auteur creations: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Jane Eyre might have seemed like an unlikely follow up, but the murky, gothic, romance-as-horror-story was an ideal fit for Welles. And both legend and hearsay have it that he might have had more to do with the film’s success than just starring in it.

Welles was actually an (uncredited) producer on Jane Eyre, and his Mercury Theatre co-founder, John Houseman, collaborated on the screenplay. In a later-in-life interview, Welles admitted to director Peter Bogdanovich that he “invented some of the shots”—presumably the signature low-angle ones—and the biography Citizen Welles states that “he tried to get as many of his own technicians as possible to work with him on the picture,” including frequent musical collaborator Bernard Herrmann. However it happened, Jane Eyre became a perfect showcase for Welles’ dramatic talents, and offered a side of him only really seen in this movie: the romantic antihero.


Welles was already familiar with the role of Mr. Rochester, as he had performed it for his radio show, The Campbell Playhouse, taking full advantage of his mellifluous baritone. But on-screen, his Rochester was suitably dark and brooding, a tortured soul with many secrets who believes he doesn’t even deserve happiness. Citizen Welles called it “a role that once again incredibly suited his temperaments and talents.” Joan Fontaine had a tendency to be outshone by more dynamic leading men (like Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier), but here her Jane is formidable as she not only stands up to Rochester, but wins his heart. This all results in one of the bleakest and most bizarre marriage proposals ever put on film, complete with actual lightning strike:

Beyond Welles, Charlotte Brontë’s insane source material deserves some credit for the greatness of this adaptation. Little Jane has a nightmarish childhood, with an unfeeling aunt and a miserable girls’ school (where a very young Elizabeth Taylor is her only friend). By the time Welles shows up about a half-hour in, the viewer is grateful for the surge of dynamism he provides, personifying Brontë’s magnetic beast. What could have been a traditional governess/benefactor romance is heightened by Brontë-inspired elements, including Nosferatu-worthy stairways, omnipresent shadows, a series of fires, and oh yes, what Rochester has hidden away in the attic. But Welles sells this torture so well, and Fontaine possesses a quiet strength. A scene of the two leads shaking hands is hotter than anything in Fifty Shades.

By the end of the decade, Welles became disgruntled by the Hollywood studio system and efforts to put controls on his unbridled creativity. As he fought for artistic independence, he managed more triumphs, including The Third Man, The Lady From Shanghai, and Touch Of Evil. But Jane Eyre remains the shining example of Welles the romantic lead.

Availability: Jane Eyre is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon or possibly from your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix and YouTube.