Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Clash by Night (1952) - Noir or Noir-ish

There is an ongoing debate regarding the status of Clash by Night as a true representative of the film noir genre. It does not have a crime at its core; however there is the lingering threat of an explosion of violence from one or more of the characters. It is effectively filmed in black and white by noir veteran cinematographer Nicholas Mucurasa, and directed by the legendary Fritz Lang, who took three superb actors and drew from them performances crackling with frustration, self-loathing, disappointment, desperation, the aching need for and the paralyzing fear of love. The film is based on a play by Clifford Odets, which appeared on Broadway in 1941.

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.

Still beautiful and alluring, Mae is courted by the simple, kind, goodhearted fisherman, Jerry who has fallen in love with her. He wants to marry her, although she warns him off, telling him that she will be no good for him and will ultimately hurt him. But Jerry is persistent and Mae starts to imagine that she could change, that domestic life would not be the locked cage that she imagines it to be. At the same time she's introduced to Jerry's best friend Earl, a drunken, woman hating, sexually charged and potentially violent man who works as a projectionist in the local theater. When they meet, the chemistry starts percolating immediately. Jerry is totally oblivious to this attraction between Mae and his best friend and he continues to have Earl in his life not knowing how combustible the situation is. Mae realizes she's made a mistake almost from the beginning and that Jerry's bearlike physical appearance of strength does not guarantee that he will be the one to keep her safe and inspire her with confidence. Mae has a child with Jerry, but this does not solidify the relationship and she is once again beset by a sense of imprisonment in the domestic life she has chosen with Jerry. It is almost painful to watch Mae conforming to the domestic duties of a housewife, hanging sheets. washing blouses, even her interaction with her child. Clearly she is not ready for this way of life.

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.

Forget the noir debate and see one of the finest films of the fifties, compelling, brilliantly directed and photographed, with superb unflinching performances which lay bare the self-inflicted wounds of failed attempts to live life according to one's own rules, no matter whose "throat is cut" during the process.


  1. Saz, this is one of the rare Friz Lang films I have not seen. I'm a big Paul Douglas fan so I have to check this out.

  2. I absolutely love this movie. Paul Douglas is wonderful in this as is Barbara Stanwyck, of course. I've seen it twice, but your write-up makes me want to see it again. Thank you!

  3. The way Barbara Stanwyck plays Mae's self-loathing just sears off the screen. There are very few films in which she doesn't give a great performance. She was such a multi-faceted actress and a consummate professional. The storyline of this film is one of the raciest she ever did. Robert Ryan is good here, because I absolutely hated his character. Nice reference to Othello. I think you use a good label when you refer to this as a faux noir. It's missing too many key elements to be a true noir.

  4. Saz, My favorite part of the film is Marilyn Monroe's, small part. I love how she She looks up to Mae, and confides in her how she does not want to be controlled by men. However, I really do not feel that it is a film noir..

  5. Saz, you truly have a way with words. It has been too long since I have seen "Clash." Like Paul, I am quite a fan of the multi-faceted Paul Douglas who unknowingly forms a fascinating love triangle with the lovely Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan . Your analogy with "Othello" was quite interesting. Thanks for a very thought-provoking review!

  6. Saz, I too haven't seen CLASH BY NIGHT in many years, but your review vividly brings it back to life. As for the film noir argument, at least Warner Bros. considers it a "noir"--it's one of the films in Vol. 2 of the Film Noir Set (along with CROSSFIRE and THE NARROW MARGIN.

  7. Saz, excellent review of this film, one of my favorites. I am a big Robert Ryan fan, and this set off his talents greatly. Of course Stanwyck is always great, and Paul Douglas a wonderful actor. I am ashamed that with all the times I have seen this film, I never put it together with the Othello analogy that you did. I love Shakespeare, and your description of the uncle poisoning Douglas's character with jealousy is right on. And that scene in the kitchen with Stanwyck and Ryan is certainly a steamy one! Good example of sex on film that doesn't need to go any further to set the movie on fire!