A little known adaptation of a novella by Henry James, Peter Bogdonavich’s Daisy Miller is a reminder of a period in American film when sophisticated directors could command big budgets for personal projects and expect sympathetic audiences. While I would be very surprised if it made much money, someone at least thought it might, which is perhaps the most remarkable thing about it.
Frederic Raphael’s screenplay seems to lift the dialog almost verbatim from the book, which isn’t incidental, because one of the hardest things to get past is Daisy’s non-stop, almost neurotic chatter. The fact that James’s torturous circumlocutions can be tough to understand when read, much less when spoken, makes a quick review of the story almost de rigeur if you hope to follow the movie. Bogdonavich doesn’t help matters by encouraging the actors to race through the dialog as quickly as possible. Perhaps he had a mistaken belief that by having them speak the lines rapidly, the talk would seem more natural. The effect is the opposite. You strain so hard to follow what people are saying that the dialog, or rather its delivery, becomes almost the only thing you can take away from the film.
Which may explain why, on this second viewing, I enjoyed Daisy Miller more than the first. Having seen it once, and having read the story just before the screening, I was less worried about what was going on or who was saying what and more able to concentrate on the sumptuous surroundings and Bogdonavich’s touches. A hard core auteurist and former critic, Bogdonavich perhaps has a bigger talent for remembering cinematic flourishes by directors he admires than for creating new ones. He nonetheless is able to come up with suitable applications of borrowed style. With a little Lubitsch here, a touch of Visconti there, and a dash of Hitchcock mixed in to keep things interesting, Daisy Miller can at least entertain as a recognition game. If slightly precious, this cineaste’s approach is preferable to the flaccid Merchant/Ivory James adaptations, which aren’t even smartly derivative.
It is therefore telling that Cybill Shepherd is most engaging in those moments when Bogdonavich simply shows her face. No doubt that affect results at least partially from Daisy shutting up momentarily, but there is an eloquence in her blank expressions that suggests the director recognizes that sometimes just allowing the image to speak for itself is the best option. Of course, the film was made when Bogdonavich and Shepherd were an item, so his willingness to allow her face to radiate callow, American innocence more effectively than James’s words may express a lover’s smitten affection. That reflection of his feelings is basically the point, however. By expressing Bogdonavich’s response to Daisy/Shepherd, rather than hewing too closely to James’s story, those brief, revealing close-ups achieve more real style than all the self-conscious echoes of others because they are truly felt.