Daisy Miller: An International Episode

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

Henry James took as one of his major themes the amusing—more often, tragic—encounters between representatives of the Old and New Worlds. His Americans were brash, uncomplicated, crudely ignorant, or gloriously innocent. He pitted them—sometimes on their own ground, sometimes overseas—against European complexity and wisdom that occasionally ran to decadence. If the New Worlders looked optimistically towards a utopian future, the denizens of the Old were the products of an immensely rich past, and layers upon layers of civilization provided them with a patina of cosmopolitan sophistication and worldliness that the parochial inhabitants of the new Eden could either admire or outrage, but never hope to equal. In a sense, Peter Bogdanovich is similarly caught between two worlds: as a director who admittedly admires the great filmmakers of the past—Ford, Hawks, Welles—his films have been, to a greater or lesser degree, hommages to classical direction, to genres made generic by Pantheon auteurs. But Bogdanovich also lives in the here and now, and his work must look to its future. For he can never really reattain the innocence of those early halcyon days of making movies: he knows too much, is too selfconscious to successfully recreate what the masters originally conceived. Howard Hawks made movies for the fun of it long before the French critics “discovered” and enshrined his films in learned exegesis—and the tone of director-critic Bogdanovich’s films, for me, has always been less fun, more learned.

Perhaps it is Bogdanovich’s innate respect for a past master that makes Daisy Miller the successful portrait in miniature that it is; perhaps, too, it is that respect, that painstaking effort to capture another artist’s nuance and style which prevents the film from transcending itself, becoming more than a tasteful, sometimes brilliant visualization of James’s superbly succinct novella. The very first shot of the film is an obeisance to Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, but it also represents a visual announcement of Bogdanovich’s informed reading of James: the camera pulls away from screen-filling textured gold to reveal the ceiling of what we come to realize is a luxurious hotel; moving, disorienting, it travels down through dim, hushed stages to finally come to rest outside the door of the Miller suite. The door opens, a child immediately identifiable as a brat emerges into a corridor discreetly punctuated by pairs of shoes left out to be polished. Switching shoes the length of the hall, sliding down an elegant banister, boosting a walking stick under the very noses of properly respectful hotel staff, Daisy Miller’s little brother spreads disorder and impropriety as though to herald the more serious breaches of Old World protocol that his sister will eventually perpetrate. The Millers—Americans on the Grand Tour—are clearly out of their depth in the layers-deep, complexly architected system of rules and customs that governs the behavior of Europeans, and more importantly, the American colony in Europe—who ironically, but understandably, exceed even their hosts in punctilio.

One of those expatriates, Frederick Winterbourne (Barry Brown, last seen in Bad Company), is a typically unreliable Jamesian narrator through whose biased eyes and limited sensibility we come to recognize what Daisy Miller (Cybill Shepherd) is and is not, what Winterbourne, who “has lived too long in foreign parts,” seeks only to formulize, and in so doing, kills. Brown’s Winterbourne oscillates between faith in the innocence of this perfectly unselfconscious creature who chatters breathlessly on as though all the world were her oyster, and disenchantment with her “want of finish,” her periodic crudities, and worst of all, what appears to him to be her promiscuous intimacy with socially unacceptable Europeans. Though Bogdanovich uses practically every word of dialogue (and description) from James’s story, he is forced, by the very nature of film, to have Brown act out the ironies of behavior and perception that on the written page create quite a different impact. Thus, over and over, we see Winterbourne’s errors in judgment: Barry Brown’s face must express what James imbeds in prose so cool and civilized that the small horrors it conceals are all the more terrible. Also, in the story, we are locked into Winterbourne’s mind, and his failures in perception are revealed in his own words and thoughts, whereas in the film we can see independently so that Daisy is not just the creature of his imagination, but ours as well. Our sympathies are thereby enlisted much more on her behalf, while James makes us feel for and with a man who misses the point even when Daisy’s deathbed protestation of innocence makes him think he has been enlightened.

Under Bogdanovich’s direction, Cybill Shepherd brings off Daisy Miller to near perfection. Not only does she manage James’s difficult dialogue with admirable authenticity, but her very complexion seems to pale or color in response to the delights and cruelties Europe offers her. That “perfectly direct and unshrinking glance” which so disconcerts Winterbourne in his search for a “formula” in which to contain Daisy telegraphs the self-absorbed innocence that Shepherd expressed so naturally even in her modeling days. The open-flower quality of that face and personality soon wilts under the wintry weight of blanket disapproval and ostracism, so that it’s not so much the “Roman fever” of which Daisy dies, but Winterbourne’s final “relieved illumination” concerning. her heretofore disturbingly ambiguous character: “She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.” Bogdanovich makes his Winterbourne much less lethal, more vulnerable to Daisy’s charm. James’s character remarks Daisy’s death from a distance (literal and figurative): “A week after this the poor girl died; it had been a terrible case of the fever.” Bogdanovich brings it into closer focus, and in so doing slightly shifts our assessment of Winterbourne. The camera remains outside the door of Daisy’s hotel watching through a curtain of ivory lace as Winterbourne, carrying a cheerful bouquet, buoyantly swings through the lobby and is halfway up the staircase when, still outside, we hear a murmured “E morta” and he stops, frozen in midstep. That complexly fashioned lace, like the first shot of the film, accurately indexes the long-established intricacies of custom and mores adhered to by those who have misunderstood and betrayed Daisy to death. (The falling of just such a lace curtain signals the death of Isabel Amberson in The Magnificent Ambersons.)

Bogdanovich also significantly alters James’s conclusion. In the novella, a year after Daisy’s demise, Winterbourne confides to his “exclusive” aunt (who did not care to know the girl) that he has finally understood Daisy’s dying message (that she was not engaged to the odious Italian). It meant that “She would have appreciated one’s esteem.” A lesson learned so late, and so badly, for again Daisy’s life and personality have been reduced in one of Winterbourne’s comfortable formulas. “Nevertheless” (a wonderfully ironic and quintessentially Jamesian word) Winterbourne returns to Geneva to continue his “studies” … of the very clever foreign lady with whom he was linked at the beginning of the story. Bogdanovich is rather more sympathetic to Winterbourne as he stands stricken at Daisy’s grave, learning of Daisy’s innocence from the Italian he so despised, cut dead by Daisy’s unforgiving little brother. He remains after the other mourners have departed, a lonely figure among the cypresses, slowly lost to view as the camera recedes and the frame is gradually suffused by the rich gold with which the film opened. Here, Winterbourne seems more a hapless, helpless victim of his upbringing, to have loved and lost, while James indicts him as a co-conspirator and lets us know the full extent to which he misinterprets his entire experience and how very much he loses, not only in love, but in life, by that misinterpretation.

On the whole, however, Bogdanovich has meticulously followed James even to the reproduction of marvelous details like Winterbourne’s affected curling of his mustache when he denies his aunt’s “You are too innocent.” (She ripostes, “You are too guilty, then!”) Andrew Sarris remarked that there is a great deal of Daisy Miller in Peter Bogdanovich. I would add that he contains more than a little Winterbourne as well. For, like James’s character, Bogdanovich studies rather than grasps instinctively, is so refined in his cinematic sensibility that he never seems to direct spontaneously, by the seat, of his pants. Which is not to say that I don’t think he makes good movies. Only that, like some enormously talented student, he has yet to find his own mode, a style that is inspired by its own momentum, rather than an impetus out of the past.

DAISY MILLER
Direction and Production: Peter Bogdanovich. Screenplay: Frederic Raphael, after the novella by Henry James. Cinematography: Alberto Spagnoli. Art Direction: Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Costumes: John Furness.
The Players: Cybill Shepherd, Barry Brown, Mildred Natwick, Eileen Brennan, Cloris Leachman, James McMurtry, Duilio Del Prete, George Morfogen.

Copyright © 1974 by Kathleen Murphy