Fairly recently, Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon has been starting to get some of the acclaim and attention it deserves, not only as one of the director’s best films, but as a troubling and ambiguous portrayal of three real, unknowable characters (and actors) in constant flux, which means constant danger, both emotional and physical. “There’s nothing like a crisis to show what’s really inside people,” says Daisy (Joan Crawford), a tense, willful woman unhappily involved in an affair with a married man, attorney Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). Actually, Preminger’s film proves through patient, almost medical analysis that people are even more difficult to figure out when they get pushed to their limits.
Daisy tries to keep her angry resentment going whenever she sees Dan, yet she always drifts into self-pitying love for him. On the rebound, she takes up with widower Peter (Henry Fonda), who gets stiffly drunk and tells her he loves her, very seriously, at the end of their first date, then asks her to marry him, much too quickly. After we see him waken from an anguished nightmare, it seems clear that Peter is deeply troubled, but when our supposed heroine Daisy tries to comfort him, her eyes glint as she preaches will power, and she suddenly seems crazy, for just one startling moment. There are no heroes or heavies here, not even Dan’s wife (Ruth Warrick), who takes out her frustrations by beating her younger daughter.
Preminger delights in scrutinizing the often inscrutable masks of his three lead actors, gliding his camera like a panther in and out of their lonely, studio-set darkened spaces. The contrast between Preminger’s smooth, neutral style and his people’s tentative yet brutal interactions starts to become harrowing midway through the film, when Dan forces himself on Daisy. This physical struggle is staged in a relentless way, and Crawford’s reaction after the violence feels primal in its hysterical hurt feelings.
Daisy Kenyon, which was generally dismissed as a slick triangle melodrama, has emerged as one of the most adult of all post-war noirs, filled to the brim with subsidiary characters who seem to have their own life and cares. If you want to see what a major director can do with standard material, just watch the way Preminger handles a late restaurant confrontation between his queasy love triangle, alternating close-ups and off-kilter framing until the tension reaches such a boil that it starts to burn away everything but the salient, courtroom-like facts of the matter. Soap opera is distilled to its real-life essence, until what’s left is nothing less than the ultimate mystery of art.