Jane Eyre (1943)

Jane_Eyre.jpeg.jpeg

No wonder you’ve rather the look of another world. Orphaned and raised in an abusive home, little Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) is dispatched by her cruel uncle and aunt to a bestial charity school for the poor where her best friend Helen (Elizabeth Taylor) has her hair hacked off and dies of pneumonia. A teenaged Jane (Joan Fontaine) eventually becomes a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she cares for little Adele Varens (Margaret O’Brien) and falls for its older aristocrat owner, Edward Rochester (Orson Welles). However, numerous obstacles stand in the way of Jane and Edward’s romance, and their love may not survive a series of dramatic and unfortunate events – not least the discovery of the identity behind the madwoman in the attic … Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel about the orphaned governess who wins the lottery and marries the rich old adulterer gets the full Hollywood Gothic treatment even casting Fontaine, the ‘I’ in Rebecca, of which this is its natural progenitor, as the titular narrating heroine. Wan, withdrawn yet strangely self-possessed she wanders through the oppressive patriarchal corridors with a guttering candle and eventually winds up the wife of the preening pervy dark lord. As you were! Adapted by Aldous Huxley, Henry Koster, John Houseman and director Robert Stevenson who collectively serve this up filleted and done to a tasty turn.

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca movie poster.jpg

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again … One of the most famous opening lines in a novel. Daphne du Maurier got the A-treatment by new arrival to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, working closely with producer David O.Selznick to bring a hugely popular bestseller to the screen. It’s the story of ‘I’ (we never do learn her name) companion to obnoxious American woman Mrs Van Hopper, who escapes her bullying to marry Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the widower of the eponymous Rebecca, a glamorous socialite who supposedly drowned. When she arrives at their country house Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) jealously guards her late mistress’ domain and tries to drive this innocent girl mad … Joan Fontaine made a spectacular impact as the ingenuous Second Mrs de Winter in a production dogged by censorship problems – look at what they had to do the ending! But the recovery from those issues (adapted by Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood) works beautifully and is adorned by superb performances elsewhere –  George Sanders as Jack Favell, for instance, can’t you practically smell the sweat on his adulterer’s shirt collar?! There are so many great scenes – the hotel bedroom when Mrs Van Hopper stabs out her cigarette, when Fontaine arrives at the costume ball in the dress Rebecca had worn, when Danvers encourages her to commit suicide, the boathouse …    And the overwhelming monogrammed R  … It’s a textual dream. The final images are unforgettable. Rumours abounded that Selznick took over the film and overruled Hitchcock one too many times leading him to edit in camera in future, but du Maurier’s work had a strong influence not just on the great director but on Forties cinema in general. I trace the powerful connections between this haunting drama and Hitchcock’s later Shadow of a Doubt, here:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Who-Knew-Too-Much-ebook/dp/B01KTWF08U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1480331252&sr=8-1&keywords=elaine+lennon.

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman movie poster.jpg

Stupid teenage girl has a one-night stand with a musician, has his bastard and years later when she approaches him after a concert to tell him their offspring is dying of typhus he doesn’t remember her. No, this is not the sorry tale of some dumb narcissistic rock groupie but a startling adaptation of a novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Lisa writes Stefan a letter following their disastrous ‘reunion’ which he receives on his way to a duel and finally he remembers her from all those years ago. The duel is against Lisa’s husband following her death. He finally remembers the times that they met. Howard Koch’s screenplay manages to elicit an extraordinary response from the viewer, gifted with a most touching performance from Joan Fontaine playing opposite that cad, Louis Jourdan. There is a significant change from the novella, and that’s why this is so emotional. The way turn of the century Vienna is evoked in this one-sided romance is quite unforgettable and the direction by Max Ophuls, who had a talent for making wonderful films about women, is simply classic. A beautiful combination of filmmaking talents. One of the most moving films you will ever see.

The Witches (1966)

The Witches movie poster.jpg

A fascination with the occult is obviously what drives most of the Hammer output. This adaptation of the novel by Norah Lofts writing as Peter Curtis (and sitting accusingly on my bookshelf, for, oh, maybe 20 years at this point) by Nigel ‘Quatermass‘ Kneale, has a lot to recommend it. Not least is the leading actress, Joan Fontaine, in what would prove to be her last screen appearance, although there are those who swear Kay Walsh (once Mrs David Lean, the first of 4 in that role) is better. Anyhow, Fontaine is a schoolteacher who returns from a traumatising stint in Africa only to discover there’s a coven of the eponymous in a little English village where she has presumed upon a quiet life. There’s a fascinating supporting cast – Alec Cowen, Ingrid Boulting, Leonard Rossiter, Carmel McSharry, to name but some. Oh, that boy playing Ronnie is of course Martin Stephens, the little fiend from The Innocents. It was his final screen appearance – he went to Queen’s in Belfast and trained as an architect. A different time.

Born to Be Bad (1950)

Born to Be Bad movie poster

Hardly the sort of fare you’d associate with director Nicholas Ray if you’re a newbie to his oeuvre and you won’t detect his fabled stylistic traits here. This is part of Movie4Men’s series of RKO films – a never-ending archive of noir and melodrama. Joan Fontaine plays a maneater – she steals her cousin’s wealthy fiance (Zachary Scott) then cheats on him with a novelist (Robert Ryan). Only the talents involved make this interesting:  Fontaine as the villain is a challenge to viewers who only know her from Rebecca ten years earlier while Scott is hardly up to the role of the cuckold and Ryan never gets much to do. However it’s stylishly adapted by Edith Sommer from the source novel and is entertaining, finishing on an atypically upbeat note.