Sunday, February 14, 2010

#66: Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952)

Released: June 18, 1952

Director: Fritz Lang; Screenplay: Alfred Hayes based on the play by Clifford Odets; Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca; Music: Roy Webb; Producers: Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna; Studio: RKO

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Mae Doyle D’Amato), Paul Douglas (Jerry D’Amato), Robert Ryan (Earl Pfeiffer), Marilyn Monroe (Peggy), Keith Andes (Joe Doyle), Silvio Minciotti (Papa D’Amato), J. Carrol Naish (Uncle Vince),

- “Listen to me, blondie. The woman I marry, she don't take me on a wait and see basis. I ain't a dress she's bringin' home from the store to see if it fits and if it don't, back it goes. In my book marriage is a two-way proposition - you're just as much responsible as I am. So, that little eye is gonna roam... if what you think is Joe's alright until somethin' better comes along... honey, you better take another streetcar.”

A fitting film for Valentine's Day, no? (If you could see my face now, you would see a sly grin...)

At any rate, I have the same reaction to Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night almost every time I watch it. I tend to come away from each viewing with a positive memory of the film, meaning that each time I re-watch it I go in with the idea that it is undoubtedly among the best American films Lang ever made. Then, about midway through, I start to wonder what kind of fumes I’ve been sniffing, as I start to question how I could be placing this in company with Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. And then, with about 30 minutes to go in the film, I do yet another about-face and return to my original position that Clash by Night really is outstanding work from a master. Its placement in the countdown should make clear that my ultimate judgment comes down closer to masterwork than middling, but I stop a bit short of classifying it as top-flight Lang. As strong as that final half hour is, I have to admit to finding myself wandering at times through the middle.

But… Wow, what a potent conclusion, like a runaway train that you’re watching steaming straight for the end of the tracks. It might not actually go completely over that edge, but it comes distressingly close.

This is yet another noir based on a play, this time with the source material being written by the great Clifford Odets, who himself would write a few classic Hollywood screenplays. The storyline is deceptively simple: Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her hometown fishing village after a failed marriage in the big city, staying with her brother Joe (Keith Andes) and his fiancée Peggy (Marilyn Monroe). World weary and cynical, Mae surprisingly falls for naïve fishing boat owner Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas). The two are married, have a child, and appear to living the ideal small town life. But that façade is shattered when Mae shockingly becomes involved in an affair with Jerry’s longtime friend – and sometimes patronizing companion – Earl (Robert Ryan). Having been a softy his entire life, akin to a big lovable teddy bear, Jerry suddenly snaps when he learns of the affair. Fearing he might due something awful, such as kill Earl, he opts instead to leave with his child.

The themes and implications of the film have been written about by far more astute analysts and scholars than me. For a great analysis, I’ll go ahead and direct people to a review from Tony D’Ambra at Tony is spot on in his reading of the themes, particularly regarding the finale. Clash by Night is, most of all, about redemption, particularly for Mae. Again, check out Tony’s review, as any further analysis by me would mirror the thoughts that he has already penned.

Instead, I just have some general observations that came to me while watching this for the third or fourth time (I’m not sure which). First, it validated the theory I put forth in the entry for On Dangerous Ground, where I wondered if maybe my lukewarm feelings toward Robert Ryan are more a reflection of the characters he played than antipathy toward him as an actor. Earl Pfeiffer is a movie character that I genuinely hate. Even before the affair is revealed, he’s the kind of guy that comes off as absolutely insufferable – always complaining, throwing out backhanded compliments with a smug smile on his face. I know that there are noir villains who do much worse things than him – the usual murders and whatnot that populate noir – but I can’t think of a single one I dislike more than Earl Pfeiffer. Second, that short monologue that is at the beginning of this article is one of great slices of dialog I’ve yet come across. It’s delivered by Joe Doyle (Keith Andes) to Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) right after Mae has left to run off with Earl. Perfectly written, perfectly delivered, it makes an otherwise routine performance from Keith Andes stick out to me. Third, and finally, if anyone needed any further proof that Marilyn Monroe could act, I think that her supporting, albeit minor, performance here should do the job.

The bona fides of Lang and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca are known by everyone reading this, so there really is little need go into detail on their work. I will just acknowledge that they capture the feel of a small fishing town quite well, particularly in the opening sequences of the film. You really get the sense that everything in the town centers on fishing, canning, and everything that goes with it, contributing a unique atmosphere.


  1. A fresh look at an under-rated Lang. Great work Dave.

    Very generous of you to refer to and link to my piece.

    Earl is as despicable as you paint him - he is so very confident his wanton and selfish cynicism will win out - and this Give Mae's ultimate rejection of him so much power. Of course, who but Barbara Stanwyck could deliver such a rejection so utterly free of bathos and melodrama.

    I have a big soft spot for Paul Douglas - he like Bogart is always himself. This is what I say about in him my review of Panic in the Streets: a wonderful actor who always came across as a totally solid guy that you would love to have as your friend.

    In the middle the screen-time given to the sponger uncle is excessive, and this loosens the narrative.

  2. I found this movie very powerful. But then, again, I would watch Ms. Stanwyck in anything. I agree with your sentiments about Robert Ryan: I didn't really like him until I saw "Act of Violence" where I didn't know who I rooted for more: my all-time fave Van Heflin or the formidable Robert Ryan. I would like some day to do a series of pieces on the actors I used to dislike but then changed my mind about, "Appreciating...". Mr. Ryan would definitely be the main character of one of them, but I need to see more of his performances. (Some other actors underappreciated by me till recently are John Garfield, Walter Huston, Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, to name just a few.)

    Going back to the movie discussed, I also likes the performances of Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe (I adore her).

  3. Tony - No problem on the link, it is an outstanding piece and, like I said, my own feelings would likely be parroting what you wrote. I agree with you about Douglas, he certainly has that "lovable teddy bear" quality in his performances. Excellent response, as usual.

    Quirky Character - I think I'm slowly being pulled in a similar direction in terms of my feelings toward Ryan.

  4. Tony - I forgot to add that I think you probably pinpointed what bogs things down in the middle: the uncle. He's somewhat humorous with his taunting of Jerry at first, but it definitely becomes excessive.

  5. Dave, a fine film and a very fine posting. Fritz Lang as expected continues to appear in your line up, as does Robert Ryan. I too can with Stanwyck in just about anything, what a fantastic actress.
    There is an animalistic nature to many of the characters, Ryan's for sure, but also Monroe's and Anders .

  6. I'm expecting more from the great Lang in this countdown, but he's been represented several times, and this admittedly appropriate Valentine's Day choice does indeed fit the bill! Ha! I also remember Tony's excellent Films review, and you have likewise served this outstanding film with a cogent analysis. You may well be on to something with what you say here about Robert Ryan, and how it applied to your sentiments in ON DANGEROUS GROUND. In any case, RKO alumni Musaraca and Webb are central players too, as you astutely observed.

  7. John - Not much I can add to these astute comments. I definitely agree.

    Sam - Yes, everyone involved here seems to pull there weight, which is always nice to see. This can be a draining film to watch, which could have been made even more draining if it didn't end as it does.