Daisy Kenyon Review

Commonly shoved in with female-oriented fare and now dubiously labeled on DVD as a film noir, Daisy Kenyon is an excellent play on audience expectations and the effectiveness of mood in cinema. It's an Otto Preminger film, first and foremost. Other banners will just have to be content with simplifying thumbnail descriptions. Preminger makes astonishingly good use of a bestselling novel that would seem to be nothing if not a typical Joan Crawford movie. By instead deemphasising an apparent inevitability and, in turn, creating subtle conflict with every step, Preminger and cinematographer Leon Shamroy transform Daisy Kenyon into a film that looks and feels like noir, though one completely missing crime, death, and other traditional staples. The story doesn't lend itself to the style, and therefore it shouldn't be considered film noir, but the atmospheric tension is there, lurking in the shadows as darkly as a dimly lit apartment staircase.

The film's most evident strength lies within that psychological undercurrent, a postwar malaise on American society and the realisation that perfection isn't what it used to be. Henry Fonda's Peter Lapham has returned from WWII as a widower suffering from newfound culture shock. The audience first sees him exiting a taxicab on the way to Daisy Kenyon's Manhattan apartment. The cab is like a revolving door for Lapham and Dan O'Mara, played by Preminger favourite Dana Andrews. They meet in this early scene, and a similar situation will repeat itself twice more during the film. It's a perfect illustration of the push-pull relationship they have with Daisy. Crawford's character is pursued with passive guile by soldier and yacht maker Peter and aggressively by married lawyer Dan. The triangle is a cold and complex one.

Preminger's objective coolness has rarely been able to so convincingly twist this kind of conventional source material. All three characters are deeply complicated persons searching for someone to soothe their problems. Though Crawford was in her early forties when the film was shot, Daisy is a decade or so younger in the novel. The difference in age, while perhaps straining the story's credibility, makes the character more fascinating. A woman in her early thirties who's unmarried and chronically indecisive becomes even more prone to questions of spinsterdom when she looks like she's ten years older. That she spends an unusual amount of time in strangely intimate encounters with her younger and prettier fashion model friend Mary, played by Martha Stewart, the ill-fated Mildred Atkinson from Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, seems a bit odd, as well. The female empowerment seeps more than pours. Daisy only has a facade of control, and seems to be looking for Peter or Dan to coax her into submission. To that end, the more successful suitor happens to be the one who outwits through persistence. Daisy succumbs, but happiness is hardly assured.

It's to the film's credit that neither Crawford nor her character overpower the rest of the movie. Both Andrews and Fonda were cut from a similar, understated cloth and both men would work with Preminger on multiple occasions. Andrews' character here is a man of tidy wealth who doesn't take to losing. The relationship with his wife Lucille (a finely-layered Ruth Warrick) seems ruptured, whether this is the cause or result of the affair with Daisy remains unclear. Dan has three slightly different faces, one each for Lucille, Daisy, and his daughters. With Daisy, he's forceful and confident, but doesn't show the warmth he has for the little girls or the chilly indifference he gives Lucille. It would be easy for the audience to vilify this adulterer, this lawyer, but Preminger makes sure to even things out by giving Dan a social conscience and a heart that melts for his children.

Similarly, Peter can be difficult to pin down. He initially comes across as odd, even aloof, as he mumbles an "I love you," to Daisy and walks off. He fails to call her after setting up a date for a baseball game, and, after Daisy makes light of Peter's apparent marital separation, he guardedly tells her that his wife is dead. Add to that the character's difficulty in adjusting to civilian life and Fonda's keen ability to portray men of uneasy strength, and it becomes clear that this is someone who's full of hurt and neuroses. His All-American weakling here can never be trusted or entirely understood. However, with Fonda in the role, the audience automatically expects him to be upright and appealingly ordinary. This dichotomy, a struggle between letting the viewer use easy labels like good and bad, exists for all three characters, and it's a particularly effective touch that's common in Preminger's films.

At some point, it occurs to wonder why these two men even bother in their pursuit of the not entirely remarkable title character. She's a wilting lily who's often harsh and almost never attractive in any sense of the word. Crawford plays Kenyon effectively without hysterics, but it's still her on screen. It's Crawford's affectations, her bold-lettered acting, and her eyebrows. Daisy Kenyon isn't Mildred Pierce or Vienna from Johnny Guitar, but they're all Joan Crawford. When trying to figure out why a high-powered, married attorney and a widowed war veteran are both so intent on claiming Daisy for themselves, it might help to look closer at the respective pursuer(s) than the pursued. For Dan, she provides the sexual charge his wife no longer can, and she's noticeably less volatile. Aside from the obvious spousal surrogate that Peter aches for, something to make his postwar life resemble the one from just five years earlier, Daisy also gives him someone he can slyly influence, as evidenced by a curiously quick marriage and the film's slightly quizzical ending.

It's a standard conclusion built on wobbly cliches and unlikely intimacy, but it's also the safest way to finish up a somewhat daring exploration of modern adult life. Preminger had been anxious to make Daisy Kenyon for a little while, and it was actually filmed in between the end of production on the controversial Forever Amber and re-shoots of the same film that were dictated by the Legion of Decency. Any extensive battles against censorship would have probably been ill-advised. Regardless, Daisy Kenyon exists as a sobering anti-love story that bucks convention by refusing to shower the audience with fairy tale romance or swelling musical scores. David Raksin's orchestrations are constantly subdued, unmemorable, and sparsely used. There are scenes when music would seem mandatory for a film of this era, but Preminger instead chooses solitary silence. On more than one occasion, Dana Andrews walks into a room with Raksin's score playing and he immediately goes for the record player, muting the false emotion.

Preminger despised the spurious tendency of movies and Daisy Kenyon is a perfect representation of that concentration to strip away just a little of the Hollywood edifice. Excepting a few instances to the contrary, it's a film where adults act like adults instead of adults acting like they're in a movie. Those who view Preminger as one of the most vital and enduring directors to successfully move through the studio system and into independent productions should see Daisy Kenyon as an essential film. The beautiful compositions, perfectly embodying the director's intentions at any given moment, and the elegant camera movements that eschew the need for constant cutting are on full display throughout the film. Faces are half-covered in shadows, rain pours just past a closed window, and darkness lurks both inside and outside the characters. It's not film noir, but it's probably as close as a film like this can get.

The Disc

The 1.33:1 full frame transfer is acceptable, but not one of Fox's stronger outings. Detail and sharpness are generally inconsistent and underwhelming, with some expected grain. On multiple instances either side of the frame looks blurred while the middle portion retains the expected sharpness. Though damage is minimal and the print seems mostly clean, a vertical damage line can be seen for several seconds just before the 10-minute mark. Also, a very brief bit of combing is visible on Martha Stewart's face at approximately 58:42 into the film. Black levels are not especially impressive, but fit consistently with the transfer as a whole, which falls somewhere in the good, but not great area. For the budget price tag, however, complaints seem misplaced, and, the blurred segments aside, the quality never approaches the point of distraction.

Audio is presented in a two-channel English Dolby Digital mono track that comes through nice and cleanly, with no significant problems. The film is mostly dialogue with intermittent use of David Raksin's score and volume levels are consistent throughout the picture. Optional subtitles, yellow in colour, are provided for English, French, and Spanish.

After an agonising wait since the last wave of titles, Daisy Kenyon is one of three new entries in the R1 Fox Film Noir line. Though the majority of the two dozen releases qualify as film noir only under the most expansive of definitions, Fox's commitment to putting out quality films with solid extras at a low price will always be celebrated. As with the other Fox Film Noir DVDs, Daisy Kenyon has an audio commentary, a four-page booklet, and a collection of additional bonus material. The supplements have actually been increased here, with the addition of two featurettes. The first, "From Journeyman to Artist: Otto Preminger at Twentieth Century Fox" (21:14), traces the director's career from Vienna through Laura, Fallen Angel, and Daisy Kenyon and features restored film clips, including not yet on R1 DVD Margin for Error and Forever Amber, and interviews with film historians. A second featurette, "Life in the Shadows - The Making of Daisy Kenyon" (16:08), briefly discusses the origins, casting, etc. of the film and has more input from people like Foster Hirsch, Eddie Muller, Robert Osborne, Preminger's daughter, and Dana Andrews' children.

Some of this information is repeated in an otherwise informative and interesting commentary by Foster Hirsch, author of books on film noir and Otto Preminger. He resists the urge to simply narrate and gives the listener a nice mix of history and analysis. The Daisy Kenyon portion of his Preminger book is somewhat underexplored, and most of it is understandably repeated on the track, so his insight was perhaps even better than I had anticipated. Hirsch is also a film professor and his commentary very much feels like a class lecture spent discussing this particular film. It's well worth a listen. Finally, a collection of publicity shots and promotional images can be found on the disc, along with an interactive pressbook and the film's theatrical trailer (2:46), narrated by Joan Crawford. Trailers for other Fox Film Noir titles, Black Widow, Dangerous Crossing, Laura, and Vicki, are also included. The four-page insert is typical of the Fox Film Noir series in that it provides a smattering of photos and basic background information on the movie.

Final Thoughts

Daisy Kenyon is one of Otto Preminger's finest films, below the likes of Laura, Anatomy of a Murder, and Advise & Consent, but hovering near Angel Face and Where the Sidewalk Ends. It's a sober, complex look at adult relationships that feels like film noir, even if it isn't. The effort put in by Fox on this DVD is highly impressive. The transfer is decent, the commentary is quite good, and the remaining extras are largely worthwhile. For a retail price of only $15, the disc is a true bargain.

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