A drama with film noir elements set in the fishing village of Monterey, California, Clash By Night (1952) is one of Austrian-German director Fritz Lang’s later films; Lang mainly being known for his earlier films such as Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). Clash By Night tells the story of Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck), who has returned to the sleepy fishing village, her childhood home, after a sordid love affair in New York. She soon meets gruff fisherman Jerry (Paul Douglas), and the two begin to fall in love. However, will brutish film projectionist Earl (Robert Ryan) throw a spanner in the works of their developing relationship? Meanwhile, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) is dating Mae’s brother Joe (Keith Andes), and believes herself to be a strong woman in the face of his overt masculinity.
The one and only Barbara Stanwyck leads this cast in true Stanwyck fashion – her breathy voice and commanding screen presence being a complete highlight of the film. Stanwyck truly commands your attention at all times when on screen. Her authenticity of emotion stands out as a highlight, and her delivery of iconic lines such as “Home is where you come when you run out of places”, is a treat to watch. It is also worth noting that Clash By Night features an early performance by Marilyn Monroe, and that this was one of the films that contributed to a sudden escalation in her fame and interest in Monroe as a Hollywood actress. Monroe’s character is feisty with very feminist views, and it is interesting to see Monroe’s interpretation of this role, coupled with her masterful handling of subtlety and vulnerability in acting style. I also very much enjoyed the performance of Paul Douglas as Jerry, whose charm throughout the film is heartwarming, but whose eventual meltdown is a complete scene-stealer.
Director Fritz Lang, as aforementioned, is best known for his earlier films, which includes a hearty dose of German Expressionism; one of my favourite film styles. It goes without saying that Lang’s direction is quite excellent in most of his films, and I am glad to say that Clash By Night is another excellent example of his work. Lang seems to know just how to direct and work with dialogue in such a way that it feels like the viewer is right in the middle of a discussion or argument, which can be intense given the passionate arguments on display in Clash By Night. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, in conjunction with Lang’s direction, borrows quite a bit from German Expressionism in his manner of arranging a shot. There also appears to be a healthy film noir element on display; not only does the film showcase a somewhat dangerous dame keeping a secret, but this is also visually represented in shadows and light that reflect the dichotomy of relationships at play in the film.
With a script that can border on the melodramatic, at times the film appears quite ‘stagey’, as if the script would feel more at home when performed as a play rather than a film. But the script, as aforementioned, also contains some zingers of dialogue delivered by the one and only Barbara Stanwyck that feel like they’ve come out of some kind of hard-boiled film noir crime film. It’s an interesting balance. Most of the sets look completely like set pieces, as if they’re constructed out of cardboard and plywood and have been painted on the day. But luckily, the performances are good enough and compelling enough that you don’t notice the surrounds most of the time.
Clash By Night is one of those films with a deceptively simple story. What is most engaging about this film, to me, is its treatment of male-female romantic relationships, and the gender dynamics of the time. Some moments feel quite dated (including a couple of outrageously, blatantly racist moments), and the film is very much a product of its time. Clash By Night is probably not my favourite film directed by Fritz Lang. It’s certainly not his edgiest piece of cinema. But when considering the talent on display in the form of Barbara Stanwyck and her commanding screen presence, and the fact that the film contains a strong emotional core which is well-acted by all members of the cast, it is well worth watching.
Watch the trailer here.