Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Daisy Kenyon (1947)
Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon is essentially a women’s picture made in a film noir style. Made at Fox in 1947, this is also a superb example of Preminger’s film-making at its best. Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is a successful New York commercial artist. She is having an affair with a married man, high-flying lawyer Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). Dan’s marriage is obviously an unhappy one - his wife Lucille (Ruth Warrick) would have been described in the 1940s as neurotic and she takes out her frustrations on their two daughters. She is also dating a troubled veteran, Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda). All the main characters are damaged in some way. Peter is still getting over the war and the death of his first wife. Dan is aware that he has been a bad husband and father. He longs for a satisfying relationship with a woman but lacks the courage to either rebuild his marriage or make a clean break. Daisy is lonely and longs for love. Lucille is bitter and jealous and resentful. All four characters need to make decisions about their lives. Daisy does make her choice, but then she seems to regret it. She remains torn between the two men, unable to let go of either. The tension builds as all four people start to unravel and there seems to be a real chance that violence or some other tragedy will be the result. Daisy, Dan and Peter are all well-rounded characters with their own strengths and their own flaw. Even Lucille, the most minor and least-developed of the four, is not entirely unsympathetic. Preminger was famous for his “objectivity” - his refusal to manipulate the audience into making judgments on the characters. He wants the audience to weigh up the evidence and then make their own judgment without being told what that judgment should be. Preminger trained as a lawyer and admired the US legal system and wanted his audience to be as impartial as a jury. It’s also an essential part of Preminger’s approach that his films contain very few simple villains. He preferred stories with complex characters who were a mixture of good and bad and he was careful to show both sides of his characters and to give them a fair hearing. He encouraged the actors to look at things from the point of view of the characters they were playing and to understand that the characters had their own reasons even for actions that might appear to others to be destructive. This is very obvious in Daisy Kenyon - this is a very even-handed film. Preminger is, as always, cool and controlled. This is a strange approach to melodrama but it works. This is melodrama played seriously. The characters are all out of control in their own lives which contrasts nicely with the controlled feel of the film. The viewer is never pushed into taking sides. When Preminger made genre films he never made the mistake of despising such films and in this case he treats the women’s melodrama with respect. We are never made to feel that these people’s lives or their problems are trivial. It’s a movie about love, marriage and families and Preminger understands that these are not trivial subjects. Preminger always took the problems of his women characters seriously. There are no token girlfriend characters in a Preminger movie. Crawford was a decade too old to play Daisy but was very keen and convinced Darryl F. Zanuck she could do it. Whether Preminger was happy about this is uncertain but he gets a fine performance from her, managing to tone down her excesses. Crawford is controlled and she’s excellent. Dana Andrews was always good in Preminger’s movies and he’s superb here. Actors have won Oscars for lesser performances. Henry Fonda is the big surprise - he’s terrific. Both Andrews and Fonda underplay their roles, which is exactly the right approach. The performances are unemotional, but the emotions are suggested subtly. Preminger always trusted the American movie audience to have the intelligence not to need to be spoon-fed and Andrews and Fonda (and Crawford to a great extent as well) give him the sorts of nuanced performances that he valued. Ruth Warrick on the other hand is all barely suppressed hysteria, but again the fact that she’s trying to keep a lid on the cauldron of her emotions adds to the emotional depth of the film. Suppressed emotions are always more disturbing than overt emotionalism. The DVD is typical of Fox’s film noir releases - a glorious print and packed with high-quality extras. Foster Hirsch’s commentary track is well worth the listen and there are two documentaries, one on the movie itself and one on Preminger’s career at 20th Century-Fox. This is what all DVD releases would be like if we lived in an ideal world and Fox are to be congratulated for treating a fine film with the respect it deserves. The DVD era has seen Preminger’s reputation not merely rehabilitated but growing by leaps and bounds. This is only just. This is a superbly crafted movie by a master film-maker. One of the best of all the hybrid women’s noirs of the 40s, and one of Joan Crawford’s best pictures.