Clash by Night (1952)

Directed by Fritz Lang
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca

This movie was shot while Barbara Stanwyck was in the process of divorcing Robert Taylor.

In a film featuring three of cinema’s greatest actors, this is the director’s movie.

Author: Alice Liddel ( from dublin, ireland
14 February 2001
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

‘Clash by night’ opens with images of nature, of birds, seals, the roaring breaks of the sea. These are followed by images of civilisation, of men in boats, business, work, capitalism, taming nature, destroying it – the fish – for hungry civilisation. Lang shows us the process, from fish in the sea, to nets, boats, harbours, the processing factory. Here, then, is the first clash, albeit by daylight, between nature and civilisation.

It is a clash – the harmonious groups of birds and animals disperse in panic at the oncoming boats. But there are points in common – the boats in their symmetrical grouping are like the birds we’ve just seen; the downward passage of the fish down the assembly line echoes the waves as they stepped onto the beach. Lang dwells on this sequence which seems irrelevant to his narrative because it expresses that narrative with simple, theorem-like clarity. This is a story about the clash between nature and civilisation, desire and duty, past and present, woman and man, individual and community.


Robert Ryan

Throughout the film, Lang punctuates the histrionics with further images of nature, the clouds engulfing a blazing moon, nature outside expressing what characters feel within, as they find their good intentions bewilderingly submerged by darker, more transgressive impulses. It is a nocturnal clash after all. Another related image, alluded to by Barbara Stanwyk, is that of the bottle, on one level an ’empty’ woman needing to be filled with masculine liquid; on another the image of every human as vessel defined by what’s inside them.

If the film’s story and dialogue are faithful to Clifford Odets, then ‘Clash’ is the kind of creaky, hokey, ‘serious’ play Americans thought was important around the middle of the century, with its ‘realistic’ dialogue punctuated with portentous epigrams; its deliciously downbeat image of ‘life; its obvious symbolism and structure, its glorifying of sexual neurosis as a national malaise. I’m not complaining – it’s nice to see in the bright, consumerist 50s a work that shows the violence and repression inherent in the smiling nuclear family so vaunted in the period, as well as its artifice and compromise; it’s a relief to see sturdy masculinity embodied by drunks, sneaks, dupes and brutes.

There is a heavy strain of self-pity about this last, though, that shows Odets and his times’ real fears, a hangover from film noir – the disruptive power of an independent, sexual woman, capable of destroying ‘good’ men, and the attempts to imprison her in a respectable family unit. Stanwyk and Robert Ryan are defined as loners, even idlers; while Paul Douglas’ work is deeply embedded in a communal context, the only industry in the place.

The film begins and ends with Stanwyk coming home, humiliated, defeated, giving away more and more of her freedom. Lang and Stanwyk make her character more sympathetic than the material allows, Lang in particular deepening it with characteristic allusions to Greek mythology, Shakespeare, Goethe etc., but Odets seems to agree with Douglas, who calls her an animal. Her desire is linked to the moon (clash by NIGHT, remember), a familiar, misogynistic trope, and hence the sea, whose tide the moon controls. If civilisation is to survive, it has to tame nature, the sea – and woman.

This isn’t very interesting material, the rare sight in a Hollywood movie of such a fishing community, and the dark desperate performances being rare plus points on the level of story. But ‘Clash’ can be enjoyed as an essay in technique from genius filmmaker Lang, as we watch the way he builds the rhythm of each scene, the way he turns the domestic, the home, the safe haven, into a labyrinth, with its maze-like open doorways, through which characters go in and out in self-defeating circles; the way his compositions ironise the material, show what Odets concealed or didn’t think about; the way he captures the violent disintegrating of a ‘good’ man ignorant of the world, in a couple of explosive cuts and close-ups.



Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan

Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home town, the fishing village of Monterey, California after ten years “back East.” Her fisherman brother Joe (Keith Andes) is not particularly pleased to see her, but accepts her back into the family home. His girlfriend Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) is more welcoming. When Joe asks Mae about the rich man she was seeing, she explains he was a married politician. He died and left her some money, but his wife and relatives took her to court and won.

Mae begins to date Jerry (Paul Douglas), a good-natured, unsophisticated fisherman with his own boat. Mae instantly despises Jerry’s friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a bitter, dissatisfied film projectionist. Mae’s politician lover had made her feel more confident in herself; in stark contrast, Earl has a low opinion of women in general and makes no attempt to hide it. His wife is a vaudeville performer who is away frequently on tour.

Earl, sensing a kindred restless spirit, is attracted to Mae right away. Jerry is oblivious to the tension between the two and soon asks Mae to marry him, despite her warning that she is not good for him. Mae decides to accept, even though she does not love or even respect her future husband, for the security and in the hope that she can change.

After having a baby girl with Jerry, Mae becomes bored and restless after a year. Earl, now divorced, makes a move on Mae. She resists at first, but then begins an affair with him. Jerry’s uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish), who bears a grudge against Mae, tells his disbelieving nephew. When Jerry confronts the couple, Mae admits that she wants to leave Jerry to be with Earl.

After a few drinks and prodded on by Vince, Jerry finds and starts strangling Earl, until Mae arrives and breaks up the fight. Jerry leaves, horrified at what almost happened. When Mae goes home to take her baby away, she finds the crib empty. Earl tries to coax Mae to leave with him anyway, without the baby, but this does not sit well with Mae. After trading bitter recriminations, she breaks up with him. Mae repents and convinces Jerry to take her back.


Animal eroticism

Author: Michael Bo ( from Copenhagen, Denmark
3 October 2004

Far from vintage Fritz Lang, but still enjoyable in its high-strung melodramatic antics, accentuated in a needlessly symbolic way by the raging of the sea and the clouding over of the sky.

Tough girl Barbara Stanwyck returns to her hometown after ten years of being the mistress of a married man. “Home is where you come, when you run out of places”, she says, characteristically”. She meets and marries simple, goodhearted fisherman Paul Douglas, but is bored by ordinary married life: “Every day you get a little older, lonelier, stupider”, and soon succumbs to her attraction to cynical, boozy movie projectionist Robert Ryan.

The power of ‘Clash by Night’ lies not in its trite plot or in its overblown imagery, but in the no-nonsense acting of Stanwyck and Ryan, tough as nails but raw at the core. They have an animal eroticism together between them that sparkles like fireworks, but they are also, alas, quite self-pitying.

Many of the bit parts are surprisingly unsavory, but then we also get the young Marilyn Monroe as the naive young girl who hopes to marry Stanwyck’s hunky brother, played by Keith Andes, more often than not strutting his naked torso.



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