DAISY KENYON SYMPOSIUM
Published in 24fps, February 2004.
Part Three (Damien Bona)
appropriate, Zach, that you call Daisy Kenyon "one of the
loneliest films" in terms of its reputation - which I think is
accurate - because the movie itself is very much about loneliness, or more
specifically, alone-ness. To me, the major theme of the movie
is the attempts of people to connect, a process which entails breaking
through various personal and societal barriers, barriers that exist in the
script and which are heightened by Otto Preminger's visuals.
Zach wrote, "Part of the aim of this symposium is either to debunk or complicate the standard characterization of Preminger as a cold objective omniscient presiding over his characters with limited interest."
I think the beautiful Daisy Kenyon shows beyond doubt that Preminger was much more than the detached observer he is often tagged as. In the film, he does not make moral judgments, but presents his characters with great delicacy and feeling. (What is often cited as "ambiguousness" regarding the people in Preminger's films derives from the fact that they tend to be so emotionally complex and multi-textured.) The viewer is able to identify with any and all of the members of Daisy Kenyon's triumvirate but, as Dan wrote, "Daisy, intelligent and balanced, is not a creature of power, and is buffeted about by the superior strategy of her lovers." She is the audience surrogate, and I can't think of another romantic film in which it is so up in the air throughout which suitor will triumph (well, maybe Wilder's "Sabrina," but that picture's narrative development doesn't make a whole lot of sense) - and in Daisy you can't even simply take the usual short-cut of seeing which actor received higher billing. But the character of Daisy does know her two men better than they know themselves.
Dan wrote that Dana Andrews's character's "joy is in his exercise of power." An intriguing aspect of the movie is that for all his professional and monetary success - and his self-satisfaction - Andrews's Dan O'Mara is actually fairly ineffectual. He uses swagger to intimidate his hapless father-in-law and to get a good table at the Stork Club, but as a lawyer he loses the one case in his life that is of any real import and as a father he doesn't protect his youngest daughter from the abuse of his wife. He willingly relinquishes his duty to safeguard his little girl because he's essentially a weakling. A prisoner of his own passions, Dan's personal happiness takes precedence over his familial obligations. And when he tries to use physical force with the now-married Daisy, it is a fiasco and he ends up bloodied. (It says a lot about Dana Andrews's ability as an actor and Preminger's skill with performers that the character of Dan remains fairly charming throughout.)
The counterpoint to Andrews's Dan not being as in control as he seems at first blush is, of course, the strength that Henry Fonda's seemingly feckless Peter eventually reveals. In terms of self-awareness, Fonda's Peter tries to be the film's most articulate character, a sort of semi-existentialist given to pronouncements such as explaining his decision to stay in the Army after the war as "They changed Sixth Avenue into something called Avenue of the Americas. It wasn't New York. It wasn't home." And "The world's dead, and everybody in it's dead but you." Yet, conversely he is much less given to articulating directly his feelings about Daisy than is his rival. Daisy insists she sees through Peter's angst, telling him "If everything had gone dead for you, you wouldn't know it. You wouldn't be sitting here trying to sound like a case history." I like Dan's description of Peter's "two frequencies [that] are superimposed upon each other." He is drunk when he tells Daisy he is love with her, and it's also striking that when Daisy eventually tells Peter she loves him, it's another unconventional visual set-up - the two actors have their backs to us. During the gamesmanship orchestrated by Andrews's character, Peter keeps things close to his vest and we're never quite sure what he's thinking, what his strategy is. Early on, he is incompetent as a suitor - he forgets the plans for a second date, but he becomes devoted to Daisy because she indeed does cut through his self-indulgence. Similarly, she also reveals to Dan that what he proudly likes to believe is humility is actually self-pity. Each of the three has his or her own elements of power, Daisy's being her innate understanding of human (or, at least, male) nature.
Two things especially knocked me out watching Daisy Kenyon for a second (and then third) time. One is how masterfully, with judicious camera placement and movement, and the positioning of his actors, Preminger created a sense of alone-ness among his characters. He created the perfect visual language for a film in which, as Zach so accurately put it, "on a narrative level every character is hopelessly out of pace and place with the others." The first time we see the eponymous character, she is very specifically set apart from the others in the room, Dana Andrews and Martha Stewart (who plays her model, Angelus); each of the three occupies an individual visual plane. (This film may well constitute the best use of deep focus photography I've seen; the cinematographer was Leon Shamroy). And similarly, when we have our first look at Dan's home life, Preminger's deep focus again is a separating mechanism. Dan is in the foreground with his valet, while in the background down a hall and in another room, his wife, Lucille (Ruth Warrick), is busy with a maid. Husband and wife are then briefly together, but quickly move to separate rooms while remaining in the frame, with Lucille chattering at Dan while he is on the telephone, her yammering interfering with his conversation. Everything we need to know about the state of this marriage is conveyed in this one scene. (Traditionally, deep focus, such as when William Wyler employed it, served to bring various characters together - fascinating how Preminger's incisive blocking of his actors achieves just the opposite). Throughout Daisy Kenyon, the placing of the characters in separate spheres is a dominant visual device.
Andrews's Dan attempts to be part of a couple, to break down the singleness of human existence, through his pursuit of Daisy. One recurring motif which emphasizes Andrews search for a happy home life is the way he immediately, almost instinctively, pours himself a cup of coffee when he goes to Daisy's apartment - a stolen moment in imitation of normal domesticity. Later, Dan's desperation becomes even more pronounced: things between him and Daisy are at a low point and she doesn't allow him inside, so Dan is reduced to drinking from the milk bottle in the hallway outside her apartment.
One of the great moments in Daisy Kenyon for me is the phone call between Dan and Daisy, in which he avers that his love for her is the most important thing in his life. What makes the sequence so striking is that Preminger gives the scene to Dan's wife, who listens in on the conversation on another line. It is very telling that the high-strung Lucille is not at all a sympathetic wronged-wife, but watching her face reflect the sudden realization that her marriage has been a charade is nevertheless absolutely chilling and heartbreaking. A director who functioned simply as a clinical observer would not have given this moment such heightened emotionalism. When Lucille speaks up on the phone, there is a look of complete horror on Daisy face, and as another example of individual solitariness in the movie, Angelus - now Daisy's roommate - is seen in the background, calmly and obliviously reading in bed.
The follow-through is equally amazing. As Dan angrily confronts Lucille - he even talks of killing her - their troubled younger daughter, Marie (Connie Marshall), suddenly appears, as if a specter, from the right hand frame of the screen, her look of pure anguish a representation of the O'Mara's miserable family life. Then Preminger uses a dolly shot to take the moment away from Lucille and gives it to Dan as he walks away with his two daughters. The execution of the scene is similar in effect to the visuals mentioned in Dan's Point two: "it's very Preminger to keep the 'I love you,' Daisy's modifying reaction to it, and Peter's surprise departure all in the sameshot. More than anything, Preminger is about using style to give a unified presentation of elements that are in dramatic opposition to each other." Here. within one take, Andrews's character transforms from enraged adulterer to loving father, while Warrick's remains overwhelmed with anger and despair.
The idea of the separateness of each person is specifically spelled out in the script when Daisy, bewildered and disoriented by her tangled situation after Dan becomes free, says, "I have to be alone for a few days." Zach wrote that the characters "articulate their most private, latent emotions to each other," and by this point these emotions have gotten so intense, confused and out-of-control that Daisy is overwhelmed to the extent that her actions and reactions have become almost primal. She orders Angelus to hang up the phone on Lucille, she soon after herself hangs up on Dan when he tells her that he and Peter have followed her to Cape Cod, and to escape the two men she goes to her car as if in a trance.
I was also struck by Preminger's use of movement. The characters are on the go, and a theme of the film is the striving to find a place - both physical and emotional - of contentment (the difficulty of which is nicely conveyed in short-hand by Peter's Avenue of the Americas remark) and Preminger's camera is similarly in motion. The very first thing we see in the film is a woman (an extra) walking briskly down West 12th Street in front of Daisy's apartment and looking at her watch. Then a cab pulls up and Dana Andrews gets out. He asks the driver to wait, but the cabbie tells him "I can't wait" -- everyone's in transit in the universe of Daisy Kenyon. When Dan enters Daisy's apartment, the camera tracks from behind him, emphasizing his movement.
In this early scene inside Daisy's home, the two lovers have an argument about a broken dinner engagement, and Daisy walks off to another part of the apartment, leaving Dan off-camera. He re-enters the frame, following Daisy as he tries to patch things up. As he exits the building, he gets the cab in which Henry Fonda's Peter enters the movie (with the object of their affection, Daisy, watching from her window above.) Later in the film they have another taxi hand-off, an indication of the integral role coming-and-going plays in their romantic competition. (Another key moment involving a taxi comes when Dan, intending to go home, inadvertently gives the driver Daisy's address.) And when Peter made his first appearance at the apartment, he had to follow Crawford into her bedroom. I think some of the tracking shots in the film border on the Ophulsian.
The most pronounced example of movement in the picture is when Daisy is driving recklessly - with David Raksin's music churning melodramatically - as she tries to avoid her two men and ends up crashing. When she gets out of the car, she's in a daze, struggling in the snow. Preminger's camera pulls back to make her appear small, helpless and even child-like. The film is suggesting that attempting to escape one's fate is futile as Daisy is forced back to the house where Dan and Peter await her. When she returns, they are playing cards - in a parody of friendship - and Dan tells her, "Baby, you've got to stop running away." Yet, ultimately, when Daisy rejects Dan, it is because, she tells him, in pursuing her what he was actually doing was trying to run away from responsibility. Deflated, the heretofore smug Dan walks out of camera range one last time, leaving Daisy in the frame. Preminger's visual scheme has remained consistent throughout.
By the way, I did a Google search for Elizabeth Janeway's novel, to see if I could find a copy (it's nowhere to be found on eBay). Interestingly, the book, which was published in 1945, has a subtitle: "An Historical Novel of 1940-42."