Here’s an odd question: What’s the most adult film you’ve ever seen? Not in the pornographic sense, obviously—I don’t want to have to fumigate the comments. What I mean is a movie that’s devoid of anything remotely childish or immature. Not so much made for adults as populated by adults, and featuring an unmistakably grown-up, no-nonsense sensibility. (That disqualifies doomed romanticism.)
My own nomination for this honor is Daisy Kenyon, a mostly forgotten but almost surreally frank 1947 melodrama starring Joan Crawford, Henry Fonda, and Dana Andrews. Characters who have no time or taste for bullshit are rare; usually, a film has room for only one such maverick. Daisy Kenyon, however, has three, and they achieve a collective directness that seems unique even for post-war Hollywood, when illusions were a luxury few could afford. Director Otto Preminger would go on to make the first studio picture to really challenge the Hays Code (1953’s The Moon Is Blue), but Daisy Kenyon doesn’t seek to be scandalous or irreverent in that way. It’s just… blunt. First-rate drama generally consists of people not quite saying what they really mean; somehow, this one goes the opposite route and makes it work.
By way of example, let’s look at the first scene in which all three of the main characters appear (albeit not simultaneously). Though Fox released Daisy Kenyon on DVD as part of a film noir collection, that’s a major stretch; apart from shadowy cinematography (reportedly employed in part to hide the fact that Crawford, at 42, was about a decade older than her character as written in the source novel), the film doesn’t really boast any of the genre’s attributes. Basically, it’s a rather soapy love triangle, with Crawford’s Daisy, who works as a magazine illustrator, torn between a married lawyer named Dan (Andrews), with whom she’s been having an affair for some time, and Peter (Fonda), a military officer she recently met at a party. Here, Peter arrives at Daisy’s apartment for their first date, just as Dan happens to be leaving. In a short space of time, with tremendous efficiency, we learn important details about all three of them. This information doesn’t come across as exposition, though. It’s too damn weird for that, establishing a singular tone that I’ve never seen in any other movie. Take a look, and tell if it’s just me.
In the interest of keeping that clip at a manageable length, I didn’t include the preceding conversation between Dan and Daisy. No need, really—Dan’s essence comes across clearly even in his brief interaction with Peter in the building’s doorway. The problem is a simple one. It’s raining. Dan needs a cab. Peter arrives in a cab, but plans to keep it, assuming he and Daisy will be heading out in a matter of minutes. In order to justify taking the cab, Dan throws all propriety to the wind, casually explaining that he’s just left Daisy and knows she isn’t dressed for her date yet. Awkward! Dan isn’t the least bit apologetic, though, and offers no reassuring explanation for his presence. Nor does Peter demand one. It’s strictly a matter of logistics: Since Daisy isn’t ready, Dan has time to use Peter’s cab to get home, after which he’ll gladly send it back for them. He even pays Peter’s fare (and doubles his own, making it clear that extravagance is second nature to him). The whole thing is settled without rancor, or even any real discomfort (Fonda indulges one brief startled look), and Peter doesn’t mention it to Daisy at all.
Not that he needs to, since Daisy doesn’t attempt to hide anything. She admits Dan was here and delayed her, but doesn’t contextualize the situation any further, quickly disappearing into her bedroom to change. (She does refer to Dan as a “friend,” which seems a bit disingenuous but is most likely just standard ’40s decorum.) When she re-emerges, Preminger employs brief, elegant camera movements, supplemented with occasional cuts, to continually reconfigure their spatial relationship, and their conversation follows suit. Peter suggests eating at the Brevoort, a hotel that would be demolished a few years later, but which would have signified a somewhat libertine attitude to audiences at the time. Daisy teases Peter about his having drunkenly given her his war ribbons at the party where they met (a scene not shown in the film). And Peter expresses a feeling of rootlessness after returning from Europe, citing New York’s decision to rename Sixth Avenue as Avenue Of The Americas (though New Yorkers exclusively call it Sixth Avenue to this day, so he’s getting worked up about nothing). Already, this is fairly heavy conversation for the first few minutes of a first date, which is usually the polite, self-conscious chitchat phase.
And then it gets even more intense, without any of the emotional fireworks that would usually result. When Daisy asks Peter if he plans to stay in the military, he replies that he’d planned to do so until he met her—the sort of premature declaration that often constitutes strikes one, two, and three. While Daisy looks startled, however, she doesn’t respond in any way, simply letting his remark hang for an instant before continuing as if it had no significance. (At the end of the date, as they part in front of her building, Peter will abruptly say “I love you,” out of nowhere, and then turn and walk away before Daisy has a chance to reply with anything more than a lightly astonished “What?!”) Daisy, for her part, then proceeds to not just accuse Peter of abandoning his wife, but to lump him together with an entire class of such cads. No doubt she’s surprised to hear the words “my wife” (especially given her ongoing affair with a married man), but there’s something remarkable about the bright, cheerful spin she places on a remark that would kill an ordinary first date before the couple even manages to get out the door.
Fortunately, she’s interrupted by the arrival of the cabbie Dan sent back for them. Unable to leave well enough alone, however, she returns to the subject just as they head out: “We were discussing your wife.” “Yes, you were,” Peter replies. “She’s dead.” Is there a hint of reproach in this flat statement of fact? It’s hard to tell, but what’s extraordinary is what happens next: nothing. Daisy registers the information, but she doesn’t apologize, which would be the natural reaction of almost anyone in that circumstance. Nor does Peter appear to be waiting for an apology from her, or for any reaction at all. They leave without another word being spoken, and Preminger dissolves to what’s presumably the Brevoort, where they seem perfectly at ease with each other (until they see Dan there with his family, that is). The subject never comes up again. Movies just don’t operate like this, yet the drop-a bomb-and-ignore-it move is one that Daisy Kenyon employs again and again, to galvanizing effect. I confess that since first seeing the film a decade or so ago, I’ve found myself aspiring to its characters’ weird amalgam of bluntness and equanimity. Sometimes I feel like I never quite became an adult. Watching these people only intensifies the feeling.