Orson Welles as Edward Rochester

February 2011


Quietly nestled in the center of the long and varied career of George Orson Welles, sits the small wartime black-and-white film Jane Eyre. Today, the film is considered one of the best portrayals of the story, primarily attributed to the multi-faceted expertise of Welles.


Born under the sign of Taurus in 1915 in Kenosha, Orson Welles became a household name at age 23 following his famous Mercury Theatre on the Air performance of The War of the Worlds. The dramatic reading of the H.G. Wells’ novel took place on Halloween Eve in 1938 and although reports of widespread panic of an actual alien invasion were exaggerated, it still brought both Welles and Wells onto the public’s radar. Welles established himself again with the groundbreaking 1941 film Citizen Kane, still considered one of the greatest films ever made. The film’s major accolades go to Welles’ revolutionary direction, innovative cinematography, dramatic use of sound, and nonlinear narrative structure.


Welles was considered a Hollywood quadruple threat, working in films with varying degrees as director, producer, actor, and screenwriter. Welles occasionally chose to act in other director’s film to make enough money to fund his own projects. In 1944, Welles starred in Jane Eyre with Joan Fontaine, receiving screen credit as actor only, but also functioning as associate producer. Welles had such a distinctive style as director that Jane Eyre has been analyzed by film historians to infer which shots and scenes Welles likely had directorial control. As director, Welles was known for extreme contrast lighting, innovative camera angles, long takes, and creative sound effects borrowed from his radio background. For Jane Eyre, some of the screenplay may also be attributed to Welles’ since the Mercury Theater on the Air version of the script was used for core material and Welles had collaborated on its creation.


Welles’ performance in Jane Eyre can be interpreted as overbearing and unrealistic, but the story itself is operatic in nature due to its extreme characterizations. Welles’ booming voice and over-dramatic dialogue fits the perception of Rochester as seen through Jane’s point of view. She sees Rochester as larger than life, holding her delicate future in his strong hands. Welles’ piecing eyes, baritone voice, and perfect timing all blend to make the perfect Rochester.


Musical Director Bernard Herrmann, also a favorite of Hitchcock, brings to the film his uncanny ability to portray emotions through music. Herrmann was writing the full-length opera Wuthering Heights at the same time he was scoring Jane Eyre, sharing some themes in both pieces. Sweeping throughout the film, Herrmann’s magical score supports and surrounds Jane and Rochester, lifting them to their operatic destinies.