There is some debate as to the film noir status of Otto Preminger’s 1947 picture Daisy Kenyon and there are certainly arguments for and against its inclusion in the genre. These arguments come down to how one defines film noir, of course. The case for Daisy Kenyon as film noir includes its visual style and the complicated, sometimes disturbed nature of the characters.
It’s tempting to flippantly discard this picture as a “woman’s movie” or a romance, but that misses the point. Based on a 1945 novel by Elizabeth Janeway with a screenplay by David Hertz, Preminger’s movie delves into the psyche of the participants of a love triangle. It wrangles with issues of domestic violence, child abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and gender roles.
Joan Crawford stars as the title character, a Manhattan-based commercial artist living on her own. She’s having an affair with the lawyer Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews), who is married to Lucille (Ruth Warrick) and has two daughters. Daisy isn’t content to sit around waiting for Dan to ditch his wife, so she continues to date. One night, she sees widowed war veteran Peter Lapham (Henry Fonda).
Things evolve with Peter to the point that he proposes marriage, shocking her at first. She agrees to the proposal despite her feelings for Dan, which eventually come to a head. Lucille, meanwhile, discovers her husband’s infidelity and wants a divorce. There are more complications as the case heads to trial, with Daisy’s personal choices dragged out into the open.
There are no murders or explosions in Daisy Kenyon, but this is an incredibly sinister motion picture. Every character is troubled. Every character has demons, even if they all come from different places. This gives the film a certain fatalism, as though to suggest that Daisy and Co. are doomed by mere virtue of being alive.
Peter is more overtly tortured, both by his memories of World War II and the death of his first wife. He’s not over her, but he “pushes himself into” Daisy’s life. His initial proposal comes during a particularly tense scene as he holds Daisy too close and tiptoes right to the line of untainted spookiness. She asks to reset their relationship, clearly disturbed by his dim mishandling.
Dan, meanwhile, believes he can keep Daisy on the hook as long as necessary. He’s used to being the winner, whether in relationships or in his domestic situation with Lucille. He sweeps in and plays hero to his daughters, while the obviously overstressed wife explodes in violence and shouting matches. Dan’s indifference to his wife’s plight is juxtaposed against his Daisy fixation.
This makes him a very dangerous man and he does threaten to kill Lucille, giving Daisy Kenyon some serious darkness. Dan is destined for personal hellfire because he wouldn’t commit to Daisy when he had the chance, so this sets his life on a calamitous course. He loses a critical case. He’s assaulted in a courtroom. He’s humiliated by the divorce. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
And Daisy is at the centre of this psychological hurricane. She spends time with her friend Mary (Martha Stewart) and tries to put together some semblance of a life. She’s clever and relatively content. Things don’t really start to get out of control until Peter says he loves her and Dan starts ramping up his intensity to the point that he nearly rapes her.
Does Daisy love Dan? That’s a good question. Crawford astutely strings her lines with a sense of pity for Andrews’ character. She sees something in him and there’s an unquestionable magnetism, but unquestionable magnetism doesn’t make the coffee taste any better.
In that sense, everyone’s wearing a mask. Nobody’s motivations are pure or the least bit “romantic.” Even Peter obfuscates the ghosts of his past by clinging to his next option, which renders the conclusion as suitably noir as it need be. Daisy is firm and downright enlightened, but there’s a thread of melancholy running through her veins.
Cinematographer Leon Shamroy is complicit, tiptoeing the lens through the apartments and offices like he’s looking for love. The strings of David Raskin’s score often swell in anticipation of desire, but something always keeps them from reaching full flight. Preminger’s direction insists on keeping the clichés at bay, instead couching Daisy Kenyon in permanent unease and lovely desolation.