Published in 24fps, February 2004.

Part Seven (Dan Sallitt)

Maybe I'm just riffing on the word "horror" here, but I've always thought that Preminger created some of the most terrifying moments in movies: the shots in Angel Face that start with the mundane and end with the cars flying backwards toward the embankment; the sudden jet of flame that leaps at Saint Joan at that film's climax.  In each case, the horror comes from rejecting the obligatory cut and holding on to the frame so that the upheaval occurs within an unchanging visual context. Nothing quite like that in Daisy, of course: the threat, such as it is, emerges from Fonda's mild, perfectly lucid, perfectly unknowable gaze, and from the suddenness with which loved ones become the Other. Remember the way Peter Lapham overlooks Daisy's hostile reaction to the mention of his wife, even changes the subject, then administers the death blow after Daisy pushes him: "She's dead"?  That's Premingerian acting.  To similar effect, Dan O'Mara begins to panic as familiar Daisy transforms into the unknowable: "You're going to marry him."  "I have married him."  The audience too has lost track of Daisy's movements at this point in the film, as O'Mara has.

I agree that Preminger wouldn't have been comfortable with the structure of Janeway's novel, but then few entertainment directors would have been: such an interior story would be quite arty in a Hollywood context. Preminger is not alone among the Hollywood greats in preferring to work from a base of story-driven drama, and even melodrama. (Have you noticed how the characters in Daisy refer to melodrama a few times? Hertz's script is mildly reflexive as a light-hearted way of distancing itself from Hollywood cliche: "Bottom of stairs symbolic of starting over again.")

I ran across this Joan Crawford quotation (from Conversations with Joan Crawford by Roy Newquist) on the net: "If Otto Preminger hadn't directed it the picture would have been a mess.  The script was cliche.  The usual triangle helped out by two very handsome young men, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda.  It came off.  Sort of."  The literature is full of slighting comments like this.  What it is about this film that made its virtues so invisible to contemporary observers?  The mind boggles.

Perhaps Daisy has perplexed so many because it favors the rational in a culture that distrusts rationality, and gives the advantage to a passive strategy in a culture that celebrates action.  Or are we confused that its dark, romantically flawed hero departs from his genre-determined fall and rise, and is revealed as an essentially joyful person fighting to get back to joy?  What a concept.  When one thinks about it, Preminger and Hertz betray so many of the tenets of romance drama that we can reasonably see Daisy as a refutation of that tradition rather than an exponent of it.