Daisy Kenyon (1947)

Directed by Otto Preminger

When is a film noir not a film noir? When it’s 1947’s Daisy Kenyon, a film that looks like it could be, even should be, a noir but when you actually watch it, it isn’t. Or is it?

The story is what use to be referred to as a “woman’s movie” but today is called a “chick flick,” with the unnecessarily disparaging baggage that accompanies that term.

It’s a good movie – not great, but good – and fascinating to watch for a number of reasons.

The movie is a romance, yes. That is why it is called a woman’s movie. It stars Joan Crawford as Daisy, a woman who manages to put herself in a triangle with Dana Andrews (as Dan) and Henry Fonda (as Pete).

Making it more difficult for her, Dan is married; Pete isn’t. Yet it is Dan she is drawn to, despite her better judgement. What to do?

The movie nicely complicates things by layering relationship complexities on one another so that there isn’t really a simple answer to anything. You would think, “Dump the married guy.” As Dan himself says, he’s a cad. But as Fonda’s Pete points out, “I kind of like him.” There are no bad guys here (unless everyone is), only troubled and mysterious people.

So how does a movie like this, which seems to be pretty clearly a romance, get confused with being a noir? It has to do partly with the film’s look and partly with the characters.

Director Otto Preminger has not made this movie simplistic. It’s also worth noting that noir is less a genre than a style and the style of Daisy Kenyon is noir, in contrast to its ostensible story (romance). (Even the ending, though a romantic one, is equivocated and, frankly, not terribly romantic.)

The movie uses shadows and high contrast lighting quite a bit, giving it a noir look. It turns out this may not have been entirely an aesthetic decision. Joan Crawford would have been in her forties at the time of this film, about fifteen years older than the character she is portraying, Daisy. The film’s noir look helps to mask that age difference.

But I don’t think that is the only reason it has this look. When you look at the themes, issues and characters in the movie you see it’s considerably more forward thinking than other movies of the period. As suggested in the special features, because it seemed to be a genre film rather than an A movie from the studios, it may not have been as strictly examined as it might have been by the production code commission.

Dan’s wife in the movie isn’t simply a bundle of insecurities; the movie strongly suggests she abuses her children – at least the youngest one. Dan himself is essentially a good-hearted philanderer until he takes on a case, gratis, of a Japanese American who has had his property taken from him simply because of his ethnicity – not a common topic for cinema back in 1947.

Henry Fonda’s character of Pete is a soldier back from the war and he is suffering from what we know would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – he can’t decide what he wants to do with his life, is moody, and has nightmares.

As for Crawford’s Daisy, is bundle of neuroses too. Some have suggested that Preminger even slipped in a vague suggestion of a lesbian relationship, or inclination, in her connection with her friend Lucille (Ruth Warrick).

In both cases, uncommon themes for 1947 and the kinds of things, if spotted by the commission, would have to be cut out.

When you pull all of this together in a movie you get cinematic sleight of hand: it’s a romance masquerading as a noir just as it’s a noir masquerading as a romance. But if you define noir more as style and mood as opposed to a genre, such as murder mystery, you don’t really have any contradiction.

What you have is one of the more intriguing romances because of its complexities.

1 Response

  1. Stephen says:

    With regard to the lesbian relationship you mentioned in the third to last paragraph of your review, I think you mixed up the characters a little. Daisy’s friend, Mary Angelus, a model, was played by Martha Stewart, not to be confused with the television personality Martha Stewart.
    Lucille was Dan O’Mara’s wife and not on friendly terms with Daisy.

    I really enjoy your reviews.

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