Friday, March 20, 2009
Daisy Kenyon is a surprisingly quiet, understated melodrama, slow-moving and restrained when it could just as easily be torrid and unsubtle. There's a certain coolness to it, likely the result of director Otto Preminger's iron hand — Preminger may have been a notorious tyrant on the set but he rarely allowed hysterics to disrupt the placid surfaces of his films. This is a love story in which logic and rationality eventually win out over heated passion, which is rare enough in any romance, let alone in a weepy big screen melodrama. Preminger bathes the film in deep shadows, giving the film the visual texture of a noir and doing such a good job of it that he apparently convinced Fox that it is a noir — the studio recently released the film on DVD under their noir banner. But Daisy Kenyon is not a noir, its shadows are more lushly romantic than ominous, and its title heroine, beautifully portrayed by Joan Crawford, is hardly a femme fatale. Instead, she's a working woman, a professional illustrator, as well as the unhappy mistress of big-time corporate lawyer Dan O'Mara (Dana Andrews), who, it's increasingly apparent, will never leave his wife for her despite his declarations of love. Daisy wants to leave him, but can't quite bring herself to do it until she finds herself being improbably drawn to the troubled World War II vet Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda), who's still haunted by the death of his own wife and the things he saw in Europe. When Peter proposes to her, Daisy somewhat unexpectedly accepts, trying to make a clean break with her past and hoping that the two of them, both still in love with unattainable others, can love and help each other instead.
The love triangle between Daisy, Dan and Peter drives the film, with the two men in Daisy's life representing opposite emotional extremes. Dan is explosive and passionate, prone to lose his temper or be overcome by strong feelings of grief, desire, rage, depression or love. He's an open philanderer, coolly making the situation clear to his wife Lucille (Ruth Warrick), who stays with him more or less so as not to rock the boat. And he adores and coddles his two daughters (Peggy Ann Garner and Connie Marshall), who worship him in return. Peter has his own emotional troubles, but they mostly tend to boil beneath the surface, hidden from view, and he's capable of being surprisingly lucid and rational about his feelings. One of the film's key exchanges between the two men is when Dan, after asking the boat designer Peter to describe the reason why a boat is made a certain way, says that he doesn't trust logic: "anything logical makes me want to fight for some reason." The mathematically inclined Peter's capacity for calm, rational discourse about complicated emotions is infuriating and sometimes puzzling, but Fonda does an excellent job of dealing with the subtleties of this complex man, who is capable of caring deeply while outwardly seeming disinterested.
In fact, the film's acting is uniformly extraordinary, and is one of the crucial factors in elevating it above a conventional melodrama. Andrews and Fonda are scintillating as the opposite corners of this love triangle, mostly because they consistently underplay the tensions between them. They even seem to like each other, and their rivalry over Daisy is friendly and courteous rather than fierce; they play games of oneupsmanship but maintain a respectful aloofness. In fact, despite the heavy topics in this film — divorce, child abuse, multiple love affairs and reversals and reconciliations — the overall emotional register of the material is strikingly cool and calm. Another director would have simply gone with the story's natural tendencies, encouraging the actors into emotional breakdowns and over-the-top histrionics at every point; there are more than a few scenes that seem to call for such fireworks. Instead, Preminger gets a trio of sensitive, supple performances from his main actors, letting the emotions arise naturally and slowly rather than simply bursting out in messy spasms. This has the paradoxical effect of increasing the film's emotional impact, since its moments of catharsis are all the more moving for the general restraint that surrounds them. At one point, after seeing his daughter with a bad earache, Dan abruptly remembers that his distraught wife had hit the girl while upset over her philandering husband's long affair with Daisy. For the first and only time in the film, Dan quietly cries for a few moments, realizing what he's done to his family, the ways he's hurt his beloved daughters, both mentally and physically.
Even Crawford, seldom known as the most subtle actress, is here disarmingly low-key, allowing her character's indecision and confusion to come through without overacting. She's a woman who doesn't quite know what she wants, who is controlled by the men in her life, men who, despite their genuine feelings for her, sometimes seem to be maneuvering and bargaining for possession of her without so much as consulting her first. Daisy is also, to some extent, slighted by the script, which permanently traps her between the two men and gives Crawford little chance to create any substance for Daisy's character beyond her romantic relationships. She says that her illustration career is important to her, but based on how often she's seen actually doing any work in the film, the audience has to simply take her word for it. Even her non-male connections seem transitory: she has a dog who disappears with no explanation halfway through the film, never to be seen again, and a best friend (Martha Stewart) with whom she shares paltry screen time. Daisy is defined by her romances, by her men, which is of course typical of a melodrama but especially sad in a film whose theme purports to be a woman trying to break of such dependencies.
Nevertheless, though Daisy Kenyon suffers from occasionally trite plotting and a hesitant approach to the story's drama, the film remains affecting and enjoyable. Its quiet, simple emotions and shadowy beauty convey a mood of bittersweet melancholy; in its aftermath, the film leaves behind only the ghostly afterimage of its autumnal emotions, suspended between the fiery heat of a summer romance and the icy chill of a love affair's end. Daisy Kenyon is not about passion or hatred but about more ordinary and transitional feelings: the slow development of love over time, the cooling down of lingering lustful desire into friendship, the tension between professional goals and personal emotions. Preminger locates in these small-scale dramas a much more interesting dynamic than the usual melodramatic tendency to inflate, to blow up, to explode outward. Instead, Preminger's characters burrow inward, exploring themselves; it's a film about introspection, about finally coming to terms with one's own self.