By Sheila O'Malley
Peter Bogdanovich observed that Otto Preminger's films were "a trial in which the audience is the jury." He wasn't just speaking of Preminger's penchant for stories involving the law and institutions; he was talking about Preminger's style as a director. He preferred long, unbroken takes, and he used close-ups sparingly. A close-up is the most efficient way into a character's psyche; Preminger resisted that efficiency, preferring to let the audience do half of the work—to be "the jury." Preminger said, in an interview with Bogdanovich, "...every cut interrupts the flow of storytelling. When I want a close-up, I either have the people come closer to the camera or move the camera closer to them. But always with some motivation, not wildly. You can cut without being too obvious, but it still interrupts the illusion, unless you want to use a cut to shock the audience. But this is only a theory, and I am an enemy of theory." Preminger's almost-meandering long-take style creates a supremely unbalancing effect. You keep waiting for the opinion to be handed to you, you keep waiting for the judgment to be rendered for you, but it does not come.
You search the characters' faces for clues, clarity. You find yourself switching sides. David Thomson, in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, says of Preminger, "For all his Viennese origins, Preminger's cool is never spiked on Wilder's cynicism or warmed by Ophulsian tenderness. He is essentially lucid, as convinced as Renoir of everyone having their reasons and enriching his films with doubt. The process is unique, and if it is best used in later films, it was present from the beginning."
Which brings us to Daisy Kenyon (1947). If any a film is "enriched with doubt", it's this one. Daisy Kenyon is, for all intents and purposes, a "woman's film", the plot a dime a dozen really. Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) tells one of her lovers (Henry Fonda) when he confesses something to her, "I believe the facts all right, but not the melodrama." Preminger appears to have felt the same way about the so-called "woman's film." Daisy Kenyon could have wrung every last drop of sentimentality out of its plot, and there's certainly a market for that kind of film, but Preminger wasn't interested. He uses the same approach with Daisy Kenyon that he uses with his other films: long unbroken shots, very few close-ups, and a general avoidance of editorializing effects. It's a terrific movie, and can be seen during the upcoming 23-movie Otto Preminger Retrospective at Film Forum in New York City (January 2 - 17).
The plot is deceptively simple: Daisy Kenyon is a successful magazine illustrator, a single gal, one of Joan Crawford's many insightful portrayals of a working modern woman. She has been carrying on a long-term affair with Dan O'Mara, a married man, played by Dana Andrews (a Preminger favorite). O'Mara is a lawyer, the kind of guy who represents sleazebags and has no integrity (or so it seems). His marriage (to Ruth Warrick) is loveless. They have stayed together for the sake of their two children. Kenyon has been patient, waiting for O'Mara to decide to divorce his wife. She has also been busy with a career (Crawford always played women who had a lot going on, besides a love affair). Into this picture enters Peter Lapham, played by Henry Fonda, a soldier home from the war, who begins to court Daisy in a sweet and innocent manner (completely unlike the swaggering pinstriped O'Mara, who calls everyone from Daisy to the doorman "honeybunch".) Kenyon is torn between the two men. It seems that her choice should be clear: choose the un-married guy, the "good" guy! All will be well then, right? Not quite. Suffice it to say that things do work out, but in a most unexpected manner.
The complexity here is psychological. As per Bogdanovich's observation, Preminger puts the audience in the position of "jury" and presents film as the body of evidence. Perhaps we start off by judging appearances: O'Mara seems too arrogant, and the fact that he is having an affair already is a strike against him. Lapham is single, soft-spoken, treats Daisy tenderly and looks like Henry Fonda. But appearances are often deceiving; as Daisy Kenyon delves into those expectations and the assumptions audiences bring, we see how we have perhaps under-estimated O'Mara, or only seen one side of him, and realize that there is a steely aspect to Lapham—a part that will not budge. The art direction of Daisy Kenyon adds to the film's unbalancing effect. Spaces are shadowy, cramped, dark. The ceilings of Daisy's apartment are visible, which imparts a claustrophobic feeling to her life. Frosted-glass doors show dark silhouettes beyond: faceless, identity-less. The film feels like a noir. Much of this was a practical solution to a problem: Crawford was a bit too old for the part, and so she is lit very carefully, shrouded in shadow most of the time, with bands of soft light across the middle of her face. But what this visual style does overall is warn the audience: Look and listen carefully. Things are not at all what they seem. Don't judge until you hear the whole story.
I've always liked Andrews (I'm particularly fond of his ridiculously funny turn as Joe Lilac, the gangster in Ball of Fire), and Preminger obviously had high regard for him since he used him so often. As Dan O'Mara, the cocky lawyer, Andrews has never been better. What initially seems a one-dimensional portrayal becomes the film's most moving performance. Isn't that so often how we judge other humans in real life? Don't other people often seem one-dimensional to us, until something happens that shocks us out of that assessment? O'Mara takes Daisy for granted, yes. He has been her "friend with benefits" for years now and has gotten complacent. But watch the scenes that place him in another role, as father to two young girls. Watch the tenderness he shows both of them—his humor, his obvious regard for them as human beings. You suddenly understand why he has stayed in a joyless marriage: he loves those kids. Andrews shows us this with very little sentimentality. It's in the way he cups his youngest daughter's chin with his hand, making her look up at him, and the way he takes them both aside to talk to them seriously. The two girls don't seem like movie children—props for the adults. They have identities. They are both being torn apart by the strife in their parents marriage. And we learn, eventually, that O'Mara's wife (Ruth Warrick) is no saint, no martyr. O'Mara has reason to fear what would happen if she got sole custody of the children. Andrews keeps all of these balls in the air with his performance. Dan O'Mara could have been a cliche. But by the end of the film, it was his character I felt for the most.
Henry Fonda plays Peter Lapham as an odd lover, shy and inconsistent. He keeps Crawford waiting by the phone one day when they were supposed to go to a baseball game. His excuse for not calling? "I forgot." There are shades of On Golden Pond's Norman Thayer Jr. in Peter: A willingness to be hard and ungiving and a disinterest in being liked - which is often detrimental to actors, who need the audience to side with them. Fonda here is willing to let "the jury", so to speak, be out on his character. He makes the viewer uneasy. Did he love Daisy? Or was he just looking for salvation, an escape from the horror of war? And does it really matter? What the heck is going on behind those gleaming bright eyes? We can only guess. Fonda has the true mystery at the heart of every great movie star. He cannot really be pinned down. That Preminger cast him as the "rival" to swaggering Andrews is quite interesting. It's not the obvious choice, but it works marvelously.
And now a couple of words on Crawford, who has been on my mind quite a bit this year. I recently saw 1952's Sudden Fear for the first time and was blown away by her acting. I know I'm not the first person to discover her skill, but I also know I'm not the first to think that perhaps she has gotten short shrift over the last 20 years due to her daughter's vicious autobiography Mommie Dearest and the subsequent Faye Dunaway film. I can't think of another Hollywood memoir that has done more damage to an artist's reputation than that book. Child abuse is obviously an important issue, and Crawford obviously had a lot of anger towards her mother, perhaps well-deserved. But the effect of that book can be felt to this day. It ruined Joan Crawford as an icon. Faye Dunaway's portrayal of Crawford is a personal camp favorite (and she actually has said that she approached the role not as a realistic portrayal, but as almost-Kabuki theater) but to have Crawford's illustrious body of work boiled down into Dunaway's freakout over wire hangers is a disservice to an American great.
Crawford deserves a Renaissance more than any other actor I can think of. Her later work was pushed into a misogynistic parody of itself—the grotesque strong-woman, wrinkled into a pale reflection of her former beauty. But anyone who wants to experience Crawford for the first time should rent Sudden Fear. The film contains a long, wordless scene in which Crawford listens to a tape recording of a conversation that devastates her and crushes all of her character's hopes. There are few close-ups; the scene is mostly played in wide shots that require Crawford to act with her body and gestures. It is a tour de force. She goes from shock, to horror, to grief, to anger, and finally has to run to the bathroom in the back to vomit. I have never seen anything like it. Crawford is a classic, and what she didn't know about film acting is probably not worth knowing. Crawford's "style" of acting was old-school; Method acting came along and barely affected her approach. But why mess with something that worked so damn well? Beyond that, she was a consummate professional, and very few people (besides her children and, of course, Bette Davis) have anything bad to say about her. As an actress and a colleague, she worked well with others. Directors loved her. She was on time, knew her lines, had ideas about how to play the part, but was also wonderful in the right director's hands. Most admirable of all is Crawford's rigorous self-knowledge. This is an actress who knew who she was. The parts she lobbied for show that. She lobbied for Sudden Fear, she burned to play Mildred Pierce, and there are stories that she actually begged Preminger, on bended knee, for the part of Daisy Kenyon. So many actors do not know who they are, and do not understand their own limits. All actors cannot play all parts. Crawford understood her own persona to such a sophisticated degree that she was able to control and corral it. I'd put her toe-to-toe with Streep any day.
Crawford's Daisy Kenyon is a working girl. She has put marriage concerns on the back burner, mainly because her lover is already married, but also because she has a career. Kenyon's apartment, with its work-room, and its shadowy foyer, the doorway to her bedroom, the low coffee table, feels like a real apartment. I believe that Joan Crawford lives there. Daisy Kenyon makes a big deal out of her apartment. She has lived there for years, she doesn't want to move out and into another place with Peter Lapham when they get married. She has worked hard to maintain her own life and she is not willing to give that up. Crawford moves through the space as though she belongs there. This is no small accomplishment, and it's one of the reasons why I think Crawford's acting can be underestimated—because she makes such feats seem easy. She fluffs pillows, she boils coffee on the stove, she has her easel, she puts on a smock to go to work, she moves through the rooms with familiarity and comfort. Crawford herself lived in a mansion. Daisy Kenyon has a small apartment. Crawford never seems like she's slumming in these parts. She treats "working girls" with respect, embodying their hopes, their dreams, their small pride in possessions, their sadness. Crawford came from nothing herself, and her trip to the top was probably interspersed with many questionable choices. She understood compromise. She knew what it took to make it. So when I see her in Daisy Kenyon putting on a smock to get to work, fluffing up her couch pillows, crying because she's had a fight with O'Mara or lying in bed disgruntled because Peter didn't call when he was supposed to, I am not aware of Crawford the actress acting. I see Daisy Kenyon doing the best she can, trying to work things out. Crawford's so good when she's trying to work things out.
There's a line in Daisy Kenyon that struck me as the key to the character: "I have to fight to stay happy." So there is something self-willed about Daisy's cheerfulness and industry. That quality is quintessential Crawford. To watch her in action in this role is a revelation. It's quiet at times, introspective. Other times it's quite funny (Crawford? Funny? Yes!) You think she needs to kick O'Mara to the curb, but then you realize why she doesn't quite trust Lapham either. Until the last moment of the film, you aren't sure which way it will go. That's a testament to Preminger, who moves his camera slowly, inevitably, curiously, from face to face and back as though his camera was asking questions—"...and how does she feel about that? .... and what is his response to that? ... and I wonder what she will do now?"—never lingering too long, never getting too close, keeping his distance from the characters, letting them work out their problems on their own.
House contributor Sheila O'Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations. For information on Daisy Kenyon and other Preminger films, click here.