Dark Ladies of Classic Film

Mar. 23, 2008
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Daisy Kenyon starts on a cheery note as Dana Andrews exchanges breezy words with the cabbie while handing over his fare. But moments later, once he steps into the dimly lit vestibule and up a stairway of oddly angled shadows, Daisy Kenyon turns dark visually.

The 1947 movie has been issued on DVD as part of the Fox Film Noir series. But while director Otto Preminger suffused Daisy Kenyon with the look of film noir, at heart it belongs to a different genre. Daisy Kenyon is one of the era’s “women’s pictures,” dramas that portrayed the romantic longings and social insecurity of contemporary women. Frankness was always balanced against the strictures of the Hollywood Production Code, the censorship regime that once dictated the content of movies from all significant American studios.

Daisy Kenyon stars Joan Crawford as an independent woman uncertain of whether she wanted independence. Crawford plays a commercial artist in a charmingly Bohemian Greenwich Village apartment. She has been having a long-term affair with a married man, a successful lawyer played by Andrews. He’s not about to surrender his wife (and his berth at her family’s posh firm) to romance or lust.

The situation is electric with sexuality but affords her no emotional fulfillment or security. He’s happy with the arrangement and, curiously, doesn’t even mind his mistress’ other flirtations, including an apparently casual fling with a returning GI played by Henry Fonda. Fonda’s character is gawky and awkward under his nice guy veneer. In today’s world he’d be seen as troubled, a stalker traumatized by memories of his late wife (and perhaps his wartime experiences). In any world Andrews plays a cad. He’s entirely self-centered but for a remarkable tangent where he represents a Japanese-American war veteran who lost his property during the internment of his fellow Japanese during World War II. But there are signs that he took the pro bono case less from social conscience than to irritate his father-in-law and impress his mistress. As for his emotionally needy wife, he seldom has time for her anyway.

Crawford’s career woman will find the greatest sympathy among the characters from today’s audience. She is getting old in a society that even nowadays diminishes older women until they are virtually invisible. She has achieved economic independence but the social pressures against staying single are finally impossible to overcome. Despite the tacked on “happy” ending, which must have been devised to satisfy the Production Code’s thorny provisions against adultery, the agonized resignation in Crawford’s eyes speaks more eloquently than the screenplay. Given the choice between a man who must always have his way and a man who behaves like a ghost, she might be better off alone.

Along the way to its unsatisfying conclusion, Daisy Kenyon makes some sophisticated observations about the confusion between love and need, romance and the memories of romance that haunt the heart.

Another entry in the Fox Film Noir series, Black Widow (1954), also involves dangerous independent women and is set partly in Greenwich Village. It stars everyman actor Van Heflin as a Broadway producer who foolishly befriends an unknown aspiring woman writer. When his wife (Gene Tierney) returns from a trip, she finds the young woman dead in their bathroom with a suicide note incriminating her husband. Soon enough her death looks less like suicide and more like murder.

Black Widow was unusual in film noir for being shot in color. The hyper-real Cinemascope tones worked better in brighter spirited movies, musicals, romantic comedies and the like. But the plot is classic noir drama as Heflin descends into a labyrinth of deception. He is an innocent man hounded by a relentless police detective (George Raft), who amasses an impressive case against him. It’s a Kafkaesque scenario with Heflin as Josef K., trying to find the exit from a situation where everything has gone unaccountably wrong.


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