Sunday, March 30, 2008

From the Fox vaults: not quite noir, but noir enough

On the back cover of every disc in the Fox Noir series is a serviceable, quickie definition of the noir genre/style/cycle. In the case of the three latest additions, this definition seems to exist primarily to convince the prospective buyer/viewer that the titles in question really do belong under the noir umbrella. In fact none of these films would ever pass as anything like a noir avatar, yet in each, to varying degrees, we’re able to trace a sort of dialogue with noir, and their noir elements tend to comprise their most enduring aspects.

Though directed by Otto Preminger, who helmed several prototypical noirs of the classier ilk for Fox, including the masterpiece Laura (1944), the genre that best fits Daisy Kenyon (47) is something we used to call the women’s picture. The story, adapted by David Hertz from Elizabeth’s Janeway’s novel, concerns an independent single career woman –played with unusual charisma by Joan Crawford– torn between two equally precarious suitors. Though its final moment is arguably compromised, this is above all a movie about female self-actualization, though lingering within its peripheries, both figuratively and literally, are dark shadows that imbue it with deep intrigue and considerable psychological complexity.

The frankness with which the film’s themes are addressed is conveyed in the first scenes, which evoke Daisy’s love life as a virtual revolving door. Her long-time boyfriend Dan (Dana Andrews), a hot-shot lawyer, married and father to two girls, leaves her apartment just as Peter (Henry Fonda), a veteran, widower and Daisy’s date for the night, shows up. Too sophisticated to put on macho airs, the men kid one and other about their rivalry while exchanging a taxi. Daisy adores Dan –Andrews is a wonderfully understated, effortlessly seductive actor– but the chances of him leaving his wife feel pathetically slim. Daisy’s strangely drawn to Peter, yet he’s clearly, as Daisy herself describes him, “a little unstable.” Haunted by his wartime experiences abroad –a major noir theme– and uncomfortable with what seems a hollow optimism at home, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, able to switch with alarming quickness from amiability to brooding despair. Their first date ends with one of the most disturbing declarations of love I’ve ever seen, desire and resentment spookily commingling in Fonda’s visage before he turns away from Daisy without farewell to walk back into the tranquil night.

Repressed sexuality, child abuse, racism, divorce, death and capitalism’s disenfranchised victims –these themes loom large over Daisy Kenyon, while the marvelous cast and Preminger, with his clean, cool, actor-driven style, engagingly maintain the centrality of their very adult love triangle, an emotionally palpable drama with no clear outcome. In his informative and otherwise insightful commentary track, historian Foster Hirsch claims that Crawford, 42 at the time, was too old for the part –yet this is precisely what I felt most drawn to in the story, what seemed most touching, the urgency that arises from people no longer young yet still desperate for love. If Daisy Kenyon starred an ingénue, I don’t believe it would possess the same layering, maturity and elegance.

The desperation of adult love also features prominently in Dangerous Crossing (53), a thriller so initially draped in mystery and sinister confusion as to evoke David Lynch. A woman (Jeanne Crain) boards a ship with her very new husband, only to lose him just as they set sail and thereafter have the entire crew deny the fact that the couple were ever even registered as passengers. As directed by Jopseh M. Newman, there's a pleasing emphasis of atmospherics, The camera swoops a lot, the foghorn moans a lot. The phone rings –but her husband has time only to tell her to trust no one. She becomes hysterical. Is she nuts and the whole prelude an unreliably subjective detour, or is some conspiracy being exacted? The only ones sympathetic to her claims are a delightful cougar, played by Marjorie Hoshelle, and the ship’s doctor, played by the same weird guy who played the wise alien Klaatu from The Day the Earth Stood Still (51), so we already know nobody’s going to believe him. Where it all finally goes is, unsurprisingly I guess, not as textured and creepy as the set-up might promise, but the getting there’s still pretty fun.

Set within the milieu of the New York theatre elite, Black Widow (54) was, for its time, as shockingly casual about adultery as Daisy Kenyon. While, disappointingly, it culminates with the sort of drawing room kangaroo court whodunit that is the very antithesis of noir, the film overall is characterized by nicely shaded performances and a seething corruption that infects most of the characters. Broadway producer Peter Denver (Van Heflin) begins his allegedly platonic relationship with nubile aspiring writer Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner, who, oddly enough, played one of Dana Andrews' daughters in Daisy Kenyon) while his stunningly gorgeous actress wife (Gene Tierney) is out of town. When upon his wife’s return Nancy turns up dead in his own home, Peter naturally becomes a prime suspect.

Though director Nunnally Johnson seemed constrained by the dictates of the then-new Cinemascope frame, Black Widow’s dominant aesthetic is suitably theatrical in flavour, if at times awkwardly so, with scenes playing out in large spaces with a minimum of cuts. It’s richest by far when still leading up to the resolution, when it’s still difficult to know who to trust and violence seems always on the verge of erupting. Heflin, who also starred in the superb noir Act of Violence (48), was so skilled, and had such an odd sort of star persona -the large head, the broad face, the round, mesmerizing eyes, the often slack jaw, the paternal ease with which he can take control of a situation, or wrap his arm around a young woman's neck- that his contribution to Black Widow is especially significant: even when we know he’s the hero, he can still kind of give us the creeps.

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