ften we watch a Hou Hsiao-hsien film as if it was Jerry Bruckheimer product. Maybe The Wedding Crashers has more in common with Preston Sturges than audiences thought. Thanks to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can attain a restored older film or once out-of-print foreign film, A Second Take allows a writer to describe why a film was overrated or overlooked the first time. We do not expect our readers to agree, which is precisely the point: consensus occludes independent thinking.
It’s said that Henry Fonda only agreed to do it because he was trying to finish up a restrictive contract with Fox; that Dana Andrews only agreed to do it because Joan Crawford was doing it (and that he then tried to back out after he read the script); and that Joan Crawford only did it because Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews were doing it. “If Otto Preminger hadn’t directed it, the picture would have been a mess,” Crawford said later. “It came off. Sort of.” Otto Preminger, for his part, claimed to have no memory of Daisy Kenyon.
Greeting its release in 1947, a naturally dismissive review in the Times nailed the film’s brilliance while passing it off as creative laziness: “The weakness here is the scenario, for after David Hertz builds up his problem he obviously doesn't know how to resolve it,” wrote the anonymous reviewer, adding, “at least, not with any noticeable ingenuity.” The assumption there being that characters are nothing more than vehicles of stories, emotions, and swanky looks, stacked up against each other in interesting configurations, and folded up together at the end—an assumption never made (as most assumptions weren’t) by Otto Preminger. In Daisy Kenyon, two men love a woman, the woman loves the two men, and one of the men also probably loves his child-abusing wife, who happens to love him as well. To make matters worse, they all seem to realize that there aren’t any easy solutions (or resolutions) to their loving; and so they try to distract themselves by doing noble and horrid things, and when that fails, they sit around playing cards with each other, wondering what the hell to do.
As much as the Times reviewer, they’d probably like a resolution of “noticeable ingenuity,” but it’s Preminger’s genius, as it’s always Preminger’s genius, to leave these desperately civilized creatures stranded in front of the camera without any hints from behind. He literally puts them in the dark for most of the movie, allowing little patches of lights on their eyes, shooting them in wonderfully fluid long takes that refuse to privilege one person over another. As the critic Miranda Popkey has written about Preminger, “he is not a director who is interested in proving a point, but rather in telling a story as gracefully as possible, revealing the contradictions and tensions which lie at its heart, without resolving them.”
It’s clear from the start that Dana Andrews is the smooth one, flaunting class and cooing “baby” like a period at the end of every sentence, and that Henry Fonda is the nerd, the nice guy who makes up for his lack of style with spontaneous, stammering honesty. But with these stereotypes in place, the picture (as in Preminger’s masterpiece of masterpieces, Anatomy of a Murder) is more interested in ramming them up against each other and watching how the characters betray themselves and expand when given the chance; what trajectory there is follows Fonda, as he learns to coolly calculate his options, and Andrews, as he miscalculates at every move.
In a film about societal restrictions in which no one can act as they’d like, Preminger gives them complete freedom to react as they will—with the major narrative of the love triangle nearly refusing to budge, most of the picture seems to be made up of spontaneous little moments in which the characters can finally do as they please. In one perfect moment (which itself can spur any sort of reaction), Fonda, kissing Crawford and desperate for a place to channel his passion, suddenly remarks, looking at the thing closest to his eye: “I love your ear.” In another, earlier on, Fonda and Crawford small-talk outside her apartment after a first date, both a little drunk, when Fonda blurts out, “I love you.” Well aware how daring and awkward he’s being, he smiles, with nothing to add, and walks off on the sidewalk.
Above all else, Daisy Kenyon is a film of reactions—of three much too reasonable debaters debating their love lives as though they were playing cards (and revealing their hands at every move), able only to share their responses to the imminent travesty without doing anything about it. Preminger’s camera, impassive as always, likewise stares on, making no attempt to manipulate the action; it is all he can do to observe. And the horror of an attempted rape or a woman finding out the truth about her husband skyrockets as the camera just sits there, like the victims, relentless in its dogged refusal to cut away, and yet almost lazy in its refusal, really, to do anything at all.
In Preminger, as in cinema’s arch-modernist, Jacques Rivette, the action seems so self-perpetuating as to be nearly impenetrable by the camera at all; nobody’s better grounded than he is, in the physicality of a scene in his long-takes and the psychology of his characters (and Preminger characters are absurdly reasonable only moments after following their worst impulses, whether they’re logically dragging a dead body out of sight or calmly singing about jealousy and despair), but no one’s better at watching how the ground is always shifting out from everyone either. Which is to say, once again, that despite the methodical characters, Preminger (something like a scientist) is open to their reacting any which way around each other—and often acting duplicitously—so it’s impossible to know just what, in Hollywood screenwriting lingo, they are “like.” As Dan Sallitt has put it in one of the few good discussions of Daisy Kenyon, “More than anything, Preminger is about using style to make a unified presentation of elements that are in dramatic opposition to each other.”
But Preminger’s own essential reasonableness, not to favor one perspective over another, but to survey them all in collision, is particularly appropriate in Daisy Kenyon, which itself is something of a lament for the civilized lovers, for their ability to see things from each other’s point of view, and for their need, then, to compromise rather than battle. When Dana Andrews offers to fight Henry Fonda for the girl, Fonda responds quite sensibly that he would like to if it would actually end up doing any good, and Andrews—of course—sees his point. One person might be stronger, but everyone has their reasons, and so Daisy Kenyon surveys a sort of homegrown courtroom (like the more official and barbaric one in Anatomy) in which settling is the only resolution there is.
They talk and talk and talk, talking every second, and then there’s a car accident in the snow, and this sudden explosion leads to sudden quiet as Joan Crawford emerges from the wreck, and the camera slowly moves back as the snow flutters down and she gathers herself up. It’s silent, and it’s here, we find out later, that she finally makes her choice, with some dramatic action proving necessary to moving forward. As ever in the movie, even without a chance of absolute resolution, there is, at least, this constant possibility of grace.
By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-07-12