Otto Preminger may be my favorite of the German emigres from the 1930s and 40s. That’s saying a whole lot when some of the others on that list are Wilder, Siodmak and Lang. I’d be hard pressed to argue any of these others especially, and most obviously, Wilder who’s certainly made more masterpieces than Preminger (off the top of my head I can count 5 – Sunset Blvd, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Double Indemnity – not to mention those that just miss). But a top-notch Preminger flick – a Bunny Lake is Missing, Advise and Consent or Anatomy of a Murder – is a truly great thing.
I’m recently talked about a few Joseph Mankiewicz films on this blog. He and Preminger remind me of one another in there adherence to minimal camera setups. I’m consistently amazed at how much mileage both of these guys get out of a single camera placement or shot. That long sequence from The Barefoot Contessa (https://dcpfilm.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/the-barefoot-contessa-mankiewicz-1954/) is a 10-minute whirlwind of sitting, standing, panning and tilting.
Where Preminger differs from Mankiewicz is the former’s fluid camera. Preminger probably uses fewer setups per scene than Mankiewicz, and his camera is constantly moving and reframing. But it’s all highly choreographed in a brilliant, William Wyler-like understanding of composition and the frame.
Daisy Kenyon is, all told, a pretty minor Preminger flick despite its great cast of Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda. It succumbs to some pretty Now, Voyager-esque melodrama in its love triangle narrative. Crawford plays Kenyon who is loved by, and at one point or another in love with, two men. Andrews plays the slick-talking lawyer Dan O’Mara and Fonda the taciturn former soldier Peter Lapham. Amidst a divorce controversy the two men vie for Daisy, each in their own way.
There’s some pretty sharp one-liners in Daisy Kenyon, a credit to writer David Hertz who adapted Elizabeth Janeway‘s novel. Lapham picks Daisy up to carry her into her apartment and asks “Were you ever carried over your own threshold?” “Not sober, darling,” comes her tongue-in-cheek reply.
There’s many-a-blocking scene to be looked at here. I’ll focus on one. O’Mara enters Daisy’s apartment for the first time in the film.
The camera starts behind him, dollying after him and into the room as he enters:
As he moves left, the camera finishes its dolly and pans the rest of the way, revealing Daisy and her friend Lucille (Ruth Warrick) in the background:
It’s worth noting here that Preminger, for all of this motion, always finds a beautiful composition to end with. Look at the shots above and below. Above is a nicely deep-focus shot, almost evenly balanced, and with the view squarely on O’Mara. Below finds O’Mara turning, thus changing the point of focus from him to Daisy and fully balancing the frame:
O’Mara walks right, and the camera tracks and pans with him into the kitchen:
Up to this point Daisy hasn’t been formally introduced and the camera has been focalized on O’Mara and his actions. The point here has been to establish his routine and the camera does a great job of emphasizing the easy fact that he’s been here before – it’s movement with him is tried and true.
Now we get our first cut to intro Daisy, with Lucille in the foreground:
Another cut to the reverse shot, as Daisy moves out of frame:
And then a slight pan as she turns, reframing her. Note that negative space frame-right. Who do you think is going to fill that?
O’Mara, obviously, in a near-reversal of the opening frames, where Daisy is now in the foreground instead of O’Mara:
Daisy is restless in this scene, and Preminger shows that not only be her acting but through his blocking. She gets up and the camera moves with her:
Not to be outdone in the frame, O’Mara moves up, re-balancing the frame, and trying to assert his dominance:
And so too successfully. Daisy leaves frame, and it’s only O’Mara and Lucille momentarily:
A cut back to Daisy emphasizes her (emotional and physical) isolation:
Back to O’Mara as Lucille leaves:
A trademark of simple, classic Preminger blocking. O’Mara turns, momentarily putting our focus to Lucille for a line:
O’Mara walks to Daisy and the camera pans with him and dollies in:
And into a 2-shot for the kiss:
Daisy walks off, the camera pans with her:
Appropriately, O’Mara is playing catch-up. He’s chasing her, not only in this scene and in this shot, but throughout the film:
The frame is momentarily balanced:
Before she walks off, leaving him to foll0w yet again, in another near-imitation of the initial composition:
There’s a lot going in here (and that’s not even the full scene). That’s a grand total of four camera set-ups. Four! There’s a hell of a lot of action in here for only four set-ups. As mentioned before, that’s definitely a Preminger trademark. The man knows where to put the camera to anticipate the pre-arranged movement, to begin and end in pleasing compositions, and to capture the action that needs capturing. His blocking reflects the subtext of the scene as with that of any great director: Lucille is insignificant, and placed only for the occasional obstruction, barrier, or side remark. O’Mara chases Daisy. Daisy avoids. O’Mara fills in negative spaces (read: goes where he wants, whether he’s wanted or not). The fluid camera plays like a routine, as stated above, and also functions to mirror Daisy’s anxiety and indecisiveness.
I’d also like to briefly look at the lighting in the film. In a later scene in the first act, Peter comes to visit Daisy at her apartment. As they talk they near one another in a profile 2-shot:
Note the lighting on the characters’ faces. They hug and Preminger cuts in for shot-reverse close-ups:
Though we don’t see behind either of them in the initial 2-shot, these two close-ups still feel overly dark in the background. I believe the amount of light on Peter’s face in his close-up, but Daisy’s feels exaggerated. Where is that slash of light coming from? Is Peter partially blocking a light source?
The little lighting continuity snafu isn’t exactly an error here. It’s a dramatic, hyperbolic choice to accentuate the moment and, more importantly, to hit Daisy’s eyes as her decision plays out in them. What’s more important? The space of the 2-shot or the close-up? Why not just bring the overall light level down in the 2-shot so that it’s more believable in the close-ups? I think that Preminger wants this to be a dramatic shift, so he lets the lighting have a little leeway, as demonstrated above. It’s a critical script moment – he tells Daisy that he loves her here – and we can check lighting logic at the door for this short bit.