Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Not A Joan Crawford Film?
By Kevin John
What originally prompted me to write on "the Joan Crawford film" in the two previous "Continuity Error" columns was "Daisy Kenyon," a 1947 film starring Joan Crawford that always left me cold. Left me cold, that is, until I started to learn more about the auteur theory and discovered that Otto Preminger, a favorite of auteur theorists, directed it. Watching "Daisy Kenyon " through an auteur lens, it suddenly intrigued me as an apposite sample of Preminger's style. In short, where previously "Daisy Kenyon " failed as a Joan Crawford film, it now succeeded as an Otto Preminger film.
Despite their overall moody, laconic feel, Preminger's films become unbearably intense upon subsequent viewings because he never seems to be commenting on or critiquing characters that beg such scrutiny. This aspect of his filmmaking became increasingly pronounced in the late 1960s (although his 1952 "Angel Face" is perhaps the face-scratching epitome of this intensity). Characters who would traditionally be punished, killed off or obsessively investigated Noel Coward in "Bunny Lake Is Missing" (1965); Nicol Williamson in "The Human Factor" (1980); the entire cast, save for possibly Jackie Gleason, of "Skidoo!" (1968) are merely regarded from a cold distance in Preminger's hands. His cinema is a creepy one indeed.
Unsurprisingly, it is a cinema not conducive to starmaking (or even star-maintenance). Stars are made and upheld in the glistening wet of the close-up, in the power plays of the shot/reverse shot. Preminger's camera is too busy framing and reframing its vantage point, as if it were planted on shifting sand, to borrow a phrase from critic Fred Camper. He is clearly making the film happen, structuring it through his desire "Daisy Kenyon " no less than "Bonjour Tristesse." And it is for this reason that "Daisy Kenyon " does not feel like a "Joan Crawford film."
All throughout "Daisy Kenyon," Preminger will gaze at doors, peer through thresholds. He will already be waiting in the room when a scene starts and remain in the room after everyone has left and the door is closed. He is an eerie stalker, ever on the ready to observe the enervated gender relations of post-WWII America. The arty drift of his camera underlines itself as a singular viewing subject. In fact, at one point in the film, the camera follows Dan (Dana Andrews) through three doors into his office, mimicking the eyework of someone on his trail, panning left and right to catch the secretaries' reactions. This is how Preminger makes his presence felt, quite literally materialized in the fluid movements of his camera. One could come home to find him there already waiting to take his ambiguous observational stance on whatever comes before him.
But if "Daisy Kenyon" is indeed an "Otto Preminger film," it occupies a rather vexed position within Preminger's oeuvre. He himself had completely forgotten the film by the 1970s. And critics have scratched their heads over how to situate it against his relatively uncontested masterpieces. Perhaps there is something about the melodramatic form of the woman's film itself that seems to run counter to the materialist gestures of a Preminger, leaving "Daisy Kenyon " a curious draw in the end. As Crawford herself said of the film, "If Otto Preminger hadn't directed it the picture would have been a mess. It came off. Sort of."