Director: Otto Preminger. Screenplay: David Hertz. Producer: Otto Preminger. Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy. Music: David Raksin. Cast: Joan Crawford (Daisy Kenyon), Dana Andrews (Dan O’Mara), Henry Fonda (Peter Lapham), Ruth Warrick (Lucille O’Mara). 20th. Century Fox. 99 minutes.
Since reference books on film noir published before Michael Keaney’s Film Noir Guide (2003) didn’t cite Daisy Kenyon as a film noir, it’s fascinating to see “Fox Film Noir” on the front of the Daisy Kenyon DVD case. It’s further evidence that a broader view of what constitutes film noir is taking hold, one that is eclipsing the former, narrower view in which film noir was “normalized” in terms of hardboiled characters and plots.
The audio commentary is by “Film Noir Historian Foster Hirsch.” The author of a new biography of Otto Preminger, Hirsch helped establish the “normalized” view of film noir in terms of a hardboiled paradigm. For example, in his book, Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen (1981), Hirsch only discussed masculine literature in his chapter on the “literary background” of film noir. “Combining the objectivity and harshness of naturalism with the tough, stylized realism of the hardboiled crime school, film noir draws on a rich literary tradition.” Hirsch made no mention of literature written for a female readership. However, the sources of a huge number of film noirs were novels, short stories and plays (plus original screenplays) whose primary audience was women, such as Elizabeth Janeway’s novel, Daisy Kenyon: An Historical Novel 1940-1942 (1945). Except for the femme fatale, Hirsch didn’t discuss any prominent female character types (like the woman-in-distress) or female-centered story patterns. “The dominant image [of the woman in film noir] is the one incarnated by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity: woman as man-hating fatal temptress…The investigator, the victim and the psychopath are the central figures in noir’s basic story patterns.” Every one of his examples of these central figures was a man, never a woman. But that was then. Today, Hirsch’s admirable commentary about Daisy Kenyon as a film noir can be appreciated as both a refutation of his earlier perspectives about film noir and a demonstration of the reappraisal of film noir that is gaining ground.
Daisy Kenyon strongly satisfies the two most essential criteria about film noir: visual style and character. The chief element of the noir style, chiaroscuro, pervades the film; interior scenes are nearly always shadowy. Expressionist camera angles and close-ups are rare, and Hirsch explains why this absence is fundamental to Preminger’s style of film-making. Hirsch is also attentive to what it means when characters are shot in deep focus or when they are framed by such things as window panes and doorways. But the most notable aspect of the visual style, and about which Hirsch excels in his commentary, is the unusual camera movement. Preminger tries to avoid cutting as much as possible. Instead, the camera flows with characters -- sometimes it follows them; other times it precedes them. The movement of the camera is kept in sync with a character’s own motion. Scenes merit re-watching to savor the extraordinary fluidity of the camerawork.
The film begins in post-war Manhattan. Daisy is in love with Dan, but he’s in no hurry to divorce his wife. He’s a corporate attorney and, as Tom Wolfe would say, a Master of the Universe. When Daisy is upset with Dan for breaking a date, he easily gets her back in his arms. When his wife loses her temper and alludes to his lack of love for her, he easily calms her down. When his two daughters are mistreated by their mother, he easily soothes them and convinces them of her affection for them.
Peter is a decorated veteran. He meets Daisy, falls in love with her and, shortly afterwards, marries her. However, his head is messed up from memories of his first wife's tragic death in a car accident and the war. He says to Daisy, “The world’s dead and everybody in it’s dead but you.” In a strikingly expressionistic scene at their house on Cape Cod, Peter has a nightmare. Afterwards, he tells Daisy that she hasn’t ever said she loves him, and he wants to hear her to say it, but only when she’s ready. In the next scene, she says she loves him. To celebrate, he pours two small glasses of wine. For the rest of the film, Peter’s self-confidence increases.
Dan can’t get over losing Daisy, and he believes she still loves him. After he lets his wife divorce him and take full custody of their children, Dan tries to get Peter to agree to divorce Daisy. In the climax of the film, the three of them confront each other at the house in Cape Cod. Peter says he wants to hear Daisy tell him that she wants a divorce. When she says nothing, Peter goes outside. Then Daisy tells Dan she’s no longer mixed up about him, and it’s over between them. Hirsch says, “The woman is given agency. She decides, at least in this relationship. In the Henry Fonda relationship, it’s the male who makes the decision.” However, what actually happens doesn’t support Hirsch’s interpretation. Dan leaves the house and gets in a cab. He’s surprised when Peter doesn’t join him. Peter says he’s going back inside his home to his wife. As he enters the house, there’s a low-angle shot, which, as Hirsch notes, “empowers him. He looks a bit larger than life, as he should. He’s won.” But Hirsch doesn’t explain Daisy in the scene. The film cuts to show Daisy in the foreground, facing the camera, with her back to Peter. She’s already poured two small glasses of wine! Hirsch says Peter “turns out to be the strongest and the shrewdest.” That description is more apt for Daisy. She’s strong enough to dismiss Dan and shrewd enough to pour the drinks even before Peter has come back to her -- because she knows he will.
As Daisy and Peter embrace and kiss, music comes onto the soundtrack and the film ends. Sound and silence are critical in Daisy Kenyon. However, Hirsch only says, “This score is by the numbers.” Hirsch remarks that each time Dan visits Daisy’s apartment, he immediately turns off her phonograph, which is always playing the same record. But Hirsch doesn’t give any significance to this. What it means is that music is an integral part of Daisy’s life, and music in the film is associated with Daisy’s life without Dan. Essentially, the soundtrack is silent in every scene that pertains to Dan. But on the few occasions when Daisy is distanced from Dan, there’s music. It’s upbeat when Daisy and Peter are newlyweds on a wharf on the Cape. It’s warm in the scene when Daisy first says she loves Peter. That music is played again when Daisy returns to the Cape house to be alone from Dan and Peter. At the end of the film, when we hear the same melody that we’ve repeatedly heard in Daisy’s apartment, it gives this “melodrama” closure that is symbolic as well as romantic.
The only other film noir reference book that includes Daisy Kenyon is the Film Noir Bible (2004), which says, "[T]he disappointing ending takes this out of noir territory." I disagree, on two counts. First, how a film ends shouldn’t determine whether it is a noir. Second, the end of Daisy Kenyon clinches the case that it is a noir.
In addition to the film’s superbly noirish mise-en-scene, no fewer than four persons are noir characters, albeit at different points in the story. In the first half of the film, Peter is a noir character. However, once Daisy says she loves him, his weltanshaung stops being bleak, and he stops having nightmares.
Dan makes his wife, Lucille, into a noir character. She’s so embittered at his loveless treatment of her that she vents her anger on their daughters, even physically abusing the youngest. She sues Dan for divorce, but she doesn’t imagine he’ll give up the children for Daisy. When he calls her bluff, to her dismay, she loses the man she loves and she becomes fully responsible for raising the girls, which she knows is too much for her. As Dan exits the court, he doesn’t just haughtily leave Lucille in misery, he callously leaves his daughters prey to her vengeance.
Near the end of the film, Dan’s unrelenting pursuit of Daisy drives her, figuratively and literally, over the edge. Not long after she arrives home on the Cape, she gets a phone call from Dan. He’s with Peter and they’re coming to the house. She hangs up. The phone rings again, louder and louder. There’s an expressionistic (if not surrealistic) closeup of the telephone. Daisy runs outside, gets in her car and speeds off down an icy backroad. The ringing persists on the soundtrack. Daisy loses control and the car overturns into a snowbank. (I agree with Hirsch that the scene lacks a dramatic wallop, but during this episode Daisy is absolutely a noir character.) Uninjured in the crash, Daisy walks home. Dan and Peter are already there, playing cards. Daisy is now strong enough to break up with Dan for good.
The final and most emphatic noir character is Dan. This is shown by the visual style and the plot. Dan is not only in scenes without music, he’s in scenes suffused in chiaroscuro. At the start of the film, he’s thoroughly in control of and successful in all of his personal relationships. At the end of the film, he’s smashed. The narrative is not only about Daisy getting the right man; it’s also about the decline and fall of the wrong man. Dan’s life is ruined not because he committed a crime but because he wouldn’t commit to Daisy when he could have had her. As a Master of the Universe, he wanted it all: his family and also his affair. But, as with any important noir character, he winds up with nothing. Because Dan will have to live the rest of his life without the love of his life, the ending of Daisy Kenyon takes us to the veritable heart of noir territory.