Delbert Mann has one great lesson to
teach all television directors: camera placement is what makes
pictures, and pictures are what television is all about. You may
move your camera along lines of perspective obtained from Boys
Town (rectilinear there, but here on elongated diagonals),
and find surprising images without any effort (an easy quotation
from Giulietta degli Spiriti, for example). No amount of
set decoration or acting can take the place of the created image,
which defines the placement of objects and the status of
Mann's power to create pictures is, to me, literally hair-raising. When Jane Eyre first emerges from her room at Thornfield, the mere camera angle creates a sense of bizarrerie; he cuts to the little girl at the river and whip-pans back to her and Jane on the hill below the manor above them, so that in a few seconds an extraordinary abridgment of elaboration builds up fleeting, monumental images without ponderousness. His close-ups, the mainstay of TV work, are portraits.
It sadly goes without saying that this is a summit to which network television has not since aspired, and the Peeb not for some time. But when you are able to impart Charlotte Brontė's observation of social manners with a look or a gesture, merely by placing your camera just so, it can't be a question of fiduciary constraints ("It costs more to make a bad picture," John Huston said, "but we can make 'em that way."). When you think how much the BBC spent on Vermeer sets for its Shakespeares, you will laugh watching this.
It is, in fact, the most convincing and lifelike representation of nineteenth-century life I think I have ever seen, as well as being a great achievement of Seventies art. Each shot is, to my way of thinking, more thrilling than the last, a gallery of vivid images which I should like to describe in detail if space permitted, but suffice it to say that they can go from formality to intimacy in a trice by camera movement, and back again.
While Delbert Mann is quietly generating his masterpiece with a sensible gravity of motion, you might not mark perhaps that the composer whose work is put to the test as Jane plays it "a little" at the piano is none other than John Williams.
I will put the candlelight scene on the landing against any, including Barry Lyndon's. The first meeting of Rochester and Jane is better filmed than in the 1944 version. Though I say so, being an American, I do not believe I have seen a film more quintessentially English. The camera imbibes its locations and transmutes them into their sources and origins, as it were, which is to say the cinematography is excellent.
There is a crucial scene where the rather ęsthetic Romanticism of Rochester confronts the rationality of Jane, and Mann places it among flowers and twittering birds in a long shot that zooms to a two-shot, very nervously, and then to a close-up of Jane. It is the only use of the zoom in the first Thornfield sequence (it reappears as an echo at the parsonage, along with a characteristic over-the-shoulder two-shot which spills over into the final scene), it is repeated, it is artistically apt. Is it necessary to point out that the mad scene is as simple as Hogarth, with a hint of Munch (which prepares the Ibsenesque parting that follows)?
The clear advantage of television which Mann perceives is the tight fit of the image, so that a very precisely weighed calculation of content and picture can be found to occupy a different sense of expectations and fill a different sense of time. Television is easily brought to the surface; the trick is to allow it depth in a rhythm suitable to it. It is simply possible to cover more ground faster with television, or the same ground more fully, if you capitalize on its intimacy and avail yourself of its resources.
Or so it seems to me, watching Jane Eyre. Television's long iconoclastic subservience to radio was at last abandoned, for the space of two hours, and decades of debt wiped clean.
The clearest evidence of the fortitude of Mann's technique is in Jane's declaration to the parson, which is made against a hilly background of verticals and horizontals that is a formulation I derive from Whitman and Mondrian to fit such circumstances. But, of course, love is blind.