This story centers around the character of Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck), who has come home to the small fishing village of Monterey California after years on the East Coast where she was involved with a married politician until his death. He provided for her in his will, but it was successfully contested by his family and she returns reluctantly to what essentially is the only place she can go. She is not exactly welcomed with open arms by her fisherman brother (Keith Andes), but is warmly accepted by his girlfriend Peggy (Marilyn Monroe). Mae has escaped the asphyxiating and restrictive bonds of her hometown, seeking a more independent and perhaps unacceptable existence where she could follow her own instincts and desires. Happiness is not part of her vocabulary, but confidence is a major factor in her search for security. She needs a man who will give her confidence in herself and love does not necessarily play a part in this equation.
Ultimately there is an eruption of violent passion between Mae and Earl. The intensity of their kisses seems almost brutal in their need to satisfy the raging sensual hunger that consumes them both, most particularly when Mae places her hand beneath Earl's undershirt, flesh against flesh, in an attempt to intensify the electric current coursing through them. Earl begs Mae to run off with him, declaring that he can't live without her and vowing to become whatever she wants him to be in order to please her; however, these entreaties have a sinister undertone of power and control not associated with the love that he professes. Jerry still pathetically unaware of the betrayal going on around him is finally enlightened by the innuendos of his uncle Vince, a man who bears a grudge against Mae. in a manner eerily reminiscent of Iago's deadly whispers to Othello about Desdemona. Jerry confronts the couple and Mae admits that she is going away with Earl. Jerry is profoundly disgusted by their actions, referring to them as animals who should be kept in cages away from human beings. Emotionally devastated, he storms out of the room. Vince continues his vitriolic rantings about Mae to a drunken and vulnerable Jerry, whose gentle demeanor is ruptured by an uncontrollable rage that leads him to nearly strangle Earl, in another reference to Othello.
When Mae returns to her home she finds her baby girl missing from her crib and realizes that Jerry has taken her. The shock of this situation forces Mae to acknowledge that the intensity of her relationship with Earl would burn out quickly and she opts for a safe life with Jerry. She seeks him out in an attempt to gain his forgiveness and redeem herself in his eyes. In spite of all the pain Mae has inflicted on him, Jerry is willing to take her back and thus offers her the redemption she seeks.
Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her finest performances as Mae, delivering lines in the natural and unadulterated fashion that made her one of the great screen actresses. Odets' dialogue becomes on-target, rapid machine-gun fire in the hands of this most talented actress. Robert Ryan, one of our great underrated film actors, perfectly embodies the brutal code of life by which Earl lives. As Jerry, Paul Douglas, an experienced stage actor, is a revelation capturing all aspects of Jerry's emotional roller coaster, from naive and trusting soul to a murderous husband scorned. Director Fritz Lang utilized the elements of film noir in his dazzling camerawork and lighting and guides his actors to believably natural performances, never removing them from the realities of the emotional anguish that permeates their everday lives.
Defining this film as genuine or faux noir does not diminish my reaction to its honest portrayal of complex characters trying to find a way to defeat the various demons that possess them and still manage to emerge from that battle with enough strength and hope to continue the search for that elusive defense tactic that will finally give them peace.