I finally sat down with Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon this weekend–and man, was it good! I don’t know why I was surprised–none of the director’s Fox noir stuff has ever failed to thrill me–but, somehow, I had low expectations for this one. Part of it, undoubtedly, was caused by the lingering effects of overexposure to Leslie Halliwell‘s obtuse worldview as a child (stay tuned for a weekly-series type thing: The Halliwell Hate-on! You can play too!). But an even more nagging doubt was rooted in the fear that Joan Crawford and Otto Preminger might do grievous harm to one another…
The region 1 DVD contains some excellent supplementary materials, including a commentary track by Foster Hirsch that addresses exactly this concern. The genial scholar takes pains to point out the ways in which the director works to keep Joan’s very un-Premingerian emotionalism under wraps (notably by giving her lots of bits of physical business to tie her to his meticulously blocked scenes and keep her fury from taking flight), and there’s definitely some merit in these observations. Of course, the question then becomes, why cast Joan Crawford if you want a “cooler” star? (like Preminger perennial Gene Tierney) The answer, of course, is that Daisy Kenyon wouldn’t work with Gene Tierney. Not, at least, as well as the film that we do have.
Ya see, the (to quote Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story) blank unholy surprise about DK is that, while Preminger does get a tremendously civilized performance out of Crawford for most of the film’s running time, he also lets her go nova at exactly the right time. Look at that image above. Is Norma Shearer in her headlights? Baby Jane? An alien invasion force?
She’s just… “clearing her head.” (with a little help from a quasi-intentional “death-roll” right off the interstate)
And it’s so right–a fitting climax to a genuinely nerve-wracking tale of emotional undecidability (the Bermuda of romantic triangles!) Hirsch–who wrote a biography of Preminger–disagrees here, arguing that the scene’s not quite the tour-de-force that it needs to be, precisely because this kind of grand gesture sticks in the director’s craw(ford)
In a sense, he’s absolutely right–this is not the canonical Preminger’s cup of tea. On the other hand, I don’t see any evidence of that on the screen. As far as I’m concerned, the sequence works amazingly well. This may be one of those instances in which the psychological pieties of auteurist interpretation have played havoc with a critic’s perceptions. Then again, perhaps my determination NOT to toe the auteurist line is leading me down the garden path (and right into a ditch)?
You be the judge, dear reader/viewer!
But enough of that! The main thing I wanted to examine here is the age old question of “what’s in a noir”? (this would have provided the material for Juliet’s next set of musings, if Romeo–never much of cinephile–hadn’t interrupted her)
Here again, Daisy Kenyon now seems invaluable–if only because Fox slipped it into their Fox Noir series of DVDs.
Of course the noiristas on the IMDB (and, I’m certain, elsewhere) are out for blood! The studios are polluting the pure black stream of cinspiration with their endless attempts to capitalize on bleak nostalgia. Is every shadowy film of the late 1940s a noir?
No. Of course not. Or, then again, just maybe: “yes.”
It seems to me that some of these people are getting a little more caught up in the details of the plot than is good for them. As we know, “noir” is not a genre (genres are consciously produced by studios–while “film noir” is a concept imposed retroactively by scholars), and thus has no business being defined that way. Or anyway, that’s how I feel about it. Noir, to me, is pretty much all cinematography. A way of looking at filmed events that took a firm grip on many Hollywood filmmakers during an extremely horrifying time in human history (all times are horrifying, of course, but some of them are more self-consciously so than others)
To wit–noir is this:
Look at those faces (I dare ya! You can’t SEE them!) Look at that mailbox–or is it a coffin?
That’s a noir scene.
And then again–it’s just a run-of-the-mill date between two bewildered people. (there are hundreds of sequences like this–set in cities and small towns that all have exactly the same ratio of bricks to leaves to desperation–in the movies of the 1940s… one of my favourites is in Dieterle’s I’ll Be Seeing You–which I’m due to re-watch very soon) But isn’t that the point of noir? It’s not that crime and vice are rampant–that’s not a new thing in films in the 1940s–it’s that life has become perilously close to meaningless for a larger number of Americans than it ever had been before (AND that, in true existentialist–or should I say Transcendentalist, which is sort of the same thing–fashion, Hollywood quickly found its way to the beauty in that meaninglessness…)
Anyway, given that (possibly idiosyncratic) construction of film noir, Daisy Kenyon qualifies as a paragon of the style. This is a story of almost exclusively “nice people,” desperate to live well and treat each other properly, who nevertheless fail to reap the expected rewards of such behaviour. (i.e. the amazing scene in which the newly coupled Fonda and Crawford admit that they are using each other–mutuality is the one thing that no one has a prayer of achieving in this film) Some of the scenes in the script–especially the many three-way chats between the principles–might “read-through” like Noel Coward set pieces; but the characters, despite the Cowardlike (Cowardly?) situations–are, I repeat, genuinely admirable–not formula philanderers/madcaps disconnected from the plebes.
Yes, Dana Andrews is playing a rich adulterer, but he’s an intelligent, friendly, idealistic (fighting for the rights of a California Nisei dispossessed of his farm during the War) and loving (with his kids–who are being abused behind his back by his wife) adulterer…The actor is a revelation here. I mean, he’s always good, but he didn’t usually get a chance to spread out emotionally this way–and he nails every single opportunity that he’s given in this one. Fonda is a (slightly) less hysterical version of his The Long Night self here (although, if you, like me–and, undoubtedly, many moviegoers in 1947–watch DK with the Litvak film in your memory banks, you can’t help expecting him to go off any minute, especially once he starts doing things like following her to movie theatres and waking up in crazed, nightmarish cold sweats–and it seems to me that Preminger makes perfect use of that metatextual element to sustain tension). But he’s also fun and quite charming at times–there’s a (still shadow-laden–about 90% of the movie takes place in the dark) moment at a nightclub when he tells Crawford “I think I’ll kiss your neck” that’s really quite disarming. Meanwhile, Joan anchors the film with her determinedly sensible performance, serving, strangely enough, as the audience surrogate as she takes the measure of these complex men. Hirsch is right when he argues that they have by far the more interesting roles–although I think he underestimates the value of Crawford’s car ride, the existence of which trumps all of the “civilized” stuff that has preceded it (and that will follow). In going off the road, besieged by the imagined sound of would-be lovers on the telephone, she conveys the real psychological cost of the loss of faith in the possibility that any of the choices we have to make here on earth (symbolized by the various romantic configurations offered by the plot) can really take us anywhere we want to go.
good night friends!