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The wait for a new batch of Fox Film Noir has paid off with #23 in the series, Otto Preminger's superior Daisy Kenyon. Although somewhat noir by tangential evidence -- a dark shooting style, people with psychological complications -- Daisy Kenyon's sophisticated attitude contrasts strongly with ordinary Hollywood photoplays, even that of Preminger's earlier noir hit Laura. Basically the working-out of a romantic triangle in post-war New York, the film's lovers are more than a collection of character traits and star-persona shorthand. Easily one of Preminger's best efforts, Daisy Kenyon is dramatically and emotionally satisfying.
Daisy Kenyon transcends stylistic notions of soap opera and film noir to present a riveting story of interesting, complex people. All three actors are subsumed into their character roles to a degree we don't expect in a 1947 romance. Both Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda exhibit unexpected non- matinee idol behaviors and weaknesses, and Joan Crawford is almost unrecognizably subtle in her approach and mannerisms. Her levelheaded working girl isn't always the center of attraction, and her acting is much less strident than usual. Daisy Kenyon is Daisy Kenyon, not Joan Crawford throwing her persona around the screen.
Fans of Otto Preminger will like Daisy Kenyon. His unique style avoids simple explanations for behavior, and his direction is always open to the idea that people are always more complicated than we think. Peter Lapham holds his past as a widower in reserve, withholding a hurt reaction when Daisy ventures a crack about soldiers who leave their wives after coming back from war. The selfish Dan O'Mara likes to pamper his daughters and make his fussy wife squirm under his authority, but he's also a principled champion of liberal causes. Dan's demanding nature is annoying (he likes to call people pet names, like Honeybunch) but when Daisy's trying to figure out where she stands, Peter's low-key passivity can be maddening as well. Preminger's characters don't always blurt out the first thought that enters their heads. We identify with their efforts to determine the true nature of their relationships.
The details tell us more about the characters than what they say. Peter and Daisy are too proud to accept Dan's help in getting a table at a choice restaurant. Peter talks like a man with low self-esteem, but as soon as he sees a fishing scow in need of repair, he's back to his career as a boat designer and builder. Daisy has strong instincts of self-preservation, that conflict openly with her notion of the right thing to do. She's both miserable and proud that Dan and Peter are competing for her, in completely different ways.
Preminger sells us on the reality of his scenes by using deceptively long takes, and by ending his scenes on neutral images. This adds a measure of ambiguity: the director doesn't claim to have all the answers. Dan's office staff follows his affairs closely, yet we aren't encouraged to condemn the behavior. Dan's father-in-law is also his law partner, and he treats Dan's marriage as just another facet of his partnership duties. But he doesn't come off as a villain, any more than Dan is a snob because he knows waiters and celebrities on a first-name basis.
Dan's family situation is equally complicated. His wife Lucille is a nervous wreck. She takes her frustration out on her children, and hits young Marie for taking her father's side. But we don't know whether Lucille's behavior is the cause of Dan's infidelity, or a symptom. Peter still suffers occasional nightmares from the war, but Preminger and his screenwriter David Hertz don't suggest that they're symptomatic of a permanent disturbance. Peter appears to be the damaged party in Daisy and Dan's legal and emotional entanglements. He turns out to be just as resilient as they, with his own 'strategic' way of getting what he wants. In the best Preminger movies people can't be pigeonholed until all the facts are in, and even then they are full of surprises.
Fox's DVD of Daisy Kenyon is a perfect encoding of this handsome B&W show, with a subtle score by David Raksin. Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch appears on the well-made Trailer Park making-of featurette Life in the Shadows with Eddie Muller, Alan Rode and several other author-notables. We're surprised to learn that none of the stars liked the film very much or thought they were good in it, especially considering how much better it is than Crawford's vehicles before and after: Humoresque, The Damned Don't Cry. From Journeyman to Artist: Preminger at 20th Fox features excellent clips of Otto acting in Margin for Error, and too-brief excerpts from the beautiful Technicolor Forever Amber, a hotly-desired Fox title. Fox's extras round off with a still gallery, the original trailer and one of their interactive pressbooks.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Daisy Kenyon rates:
Supplements: Featurettes on Otto Preminger career, film making-of; still gallery, trailer, interactive pressbook; audio commentary by Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 9, 2008
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