Few situations are more familiar, indeed, more central to storytelling itself, than the love triangle. Guaranteeing sex and conflict, the structure provides plenty of emotional engagement with infinite possibility for variation. Daisy Kenyon starts from that proven trope and dresses it with the shiny surfaces, beautiful people and neatly fabricated environments that make even the most routine Hollywood effort attractive. It then takes those ingredients to give us a little more.
Daisy (Joan Crawford) is a 40ish illustrator involved with hot-shot lawyer Dan O’Meara (Dana Andrews), who is unable to extricate himself from a loveless marriage. Frustrated with Dan’s ritual failure to commit, at the beginning of the story Daisy demands an end to their relationship. He persuades her otherwise, but not before she meets a potential replacement in Peter Latham (Henry Fonda), who has recently returned from army service in Germany.
In other words, a standard love triangle. But if the situation is stock, the characters are not. While Crawford is predictably stiff, she makes us see that Daisy’s confusion results from being all-too aware that both men are manipulating her. Dan, on the other hand, while shallow and unreliable is also frustratingly charming, as much in love with Daisy as she is with him and capable of his own equivocations. The most fascinating character by far, however, is Peter, who never seems quite “there,” an emotional puzzle who floats through life on the back of Fonda’s quiet, unforced performance. (His first “I love you” to Daisy should be a textbook example for aspiring actors on how to turn the trite into the true.)
Director Otto Preminger had a reputation as an absolute monster on set, but the results do not scream at you. Quite the contrary, his best films are smoothly understated, with disarmingly fluid camerawork and invisible editing. An overwrought sequence near the end proves he could hype with the best of them, but it is an exception no doubt necessary to bring Daisy’s turmoil to a head. More typically, Dan’s near rape of Daisy at one point is all the more harrowing for its almost casual lack of heightening. Preminger’s unblinkered recognition of the complexities of human behavior rendered in his deceptively calm, pellucid style makes Daisy almost a definition of “sophisticated.”
There is a downside to these smarts, however: an impatience laced with tedium as the characters bounce back and forth from one attitude to another. Daisy loves Dan, no wait, she loves Peter. Dan won’t divorce his wife, but keeps trying to prove Daisy means everything to him. Peter nods sagely, stays quiet and seems willing to do whatever Daisy wants, but that adds to the problem because it turns Daisy Kenyon into two hours of waiting for someone to make up her mind. Daisy’s indecision is treated with intelligence and sympathy, but perhaps all involved are just a touch too true to the characters’ inconsistencies for us not to get a little antsy.