Clash by Night


“People have funny things swimming around inside of them. Don’t you ever wonder what they are?”

It’s odd the way casual, essentially throwaway pieces of dialogue have a habit of penetrating right to the core of the issue. Good dramatic writing will always seek to discover how and why  people react to certain circumstances, certain stimuli.  In melodrama, those reactions are by necessity heightened and may appear nonsensical or even contradictory when viewed with a cool, detached eye. Yet these contradictions and intensities are actually what validates the melodrama, the heightened feelings serving to draw all the illogicality of life itself into sharper relief. Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) is an example of a successful blend of film noir and melodrama in this adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play.

Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) is back home, back in Monterey after a decade in New York and points east, dressed up in disenchantment and drinking whisky for breakfast. She had been a dreamer once, setting out eagerly in search of her personal pot of gold labeled fulfillment. Time and disappointment have taken their toll though, leaving Mae long on regret and short on options. In fact, the only door remaining open to her, and it’s no more than ajar at best, is the one of the home she grew up in and then ran away from. Her younger brother (Keith Andes) offers a grudging welcome but there’s interest stirring in other quarters. Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) is a fisherman, and her brother’s employer, all muscle and heart, and quickly smitten by Mae. However, there is bound to be a fly in the ointment and this one turns up in the shape of Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan). Where Jerry is clumsy in his simplicity, Earl is brash and overbearing. Crucially though, his is a restless spirit, one which is drawn irresistibly to Mae, but she professes to be unimpressed by his shallow braggadocio and instead accepts Jerry’s heartfelt proposal. Nevertheless, just as those massive seas mercilessly pounding the coastline in the opening credits have foreshadowed, great emotional tumult lies ahead.

Film noir trades heavily on disillusionment, detachment and the ever-present threat of despair. Clash by Night taps into all of these, most especially a kind of gut wrenching disappointment and the awful sliding sense that all the positive things life might have to offer will forever remain just beyond reach. It’s like a head-on collision of post-war ennui and middle-aged malaise. Even as the protagonists sweat and struggle in the balmy atmosphere, on a personal level the first chills of autumn are already making themselves felt. I’ve no doubt the disenchantment and uncertainty over what direction to take in life would have struck a chord with a contemporary audience less than a decade after the end of a major global conflict, but the movie has a relevance beyond those immediate concerns. The idea that one can be tempted and seduced by superficiality isn’t confined to any particular era after all. At first, the material might seem atypical for Fritz Lang, but the idea of individuals trapped or restricted by (poor) choices and circumstances is entirely in keeping with his other work. Nobody is really free in this movie – even those who would have us believe they are free spirits are just as hemmed as everyone else – and practically everybody is straining against their respective bonds. Visually, Lang and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca impress on the audience the claustrophobia felt by the characters first in Mae’s family home and then later in Jerry’s house, both of which are slightly elevated and therefore have a sense of remoteness about them. Consistent with the overall tone of the piece, however, there is at least a suggestion of an out, of an escape from the stifling ties that bind in the occasional shots of a moonlit sky or indeed of the vast ocean.

The casting works well, a trio of forty-something actors in the principal roles have that combination of a vaguely shopworn air, a burgeoning realization that time is not on their side, and enough of a spark and appetite for living to make their desperate snatching at the half chances flitting by appear credible. Robert Ryan always seemed to be the epitome of edgy, his characters existing on the periphery of society and civilization, like an interloper in his own home. Earl Pfeiffer is boastful, abusive and bullying; it is impossible to like a man who builds himself up by bawling out put upon waiters or forcing himself on women, but Ryan’s skill lay in his ability to add layers and dimensions to such boors, and his frustration at and awareness of his own flaws fleshes out the character and dismisses the caricature. Stanwyck is every bit as versatile in her own way, moving from pride to defiance, bitterness to fear, and all the time grounded by a frank admission of her character’s own weakness. Her role is both defined by her interactions with Ryan and Douglas and simultaneously creates a meaning and motivation for those two co-stars.

“Don’t say anything. Don’t make no promises. I’d have to trust you, that’s what the terrible thing is. You’ve got to trust somebody, there ain’t no other way.”

When Paul Douglas utters those lines right at the end of the movie there’s no doubting the essential truth of the words, for Jerry D’Amato and for the audience at large. This, coupled with the notion that a form of redemption could be attained by confronting and acknowledging the less savory aspects a person carries within, hints that the fatalism commonly regarded as being irrevocably wed to film noir may not be entirely insurmountable. Paul Douglas’ portrayal of non-judgmental decency, unbowed before loneliness and betrayal, is key to making this work. His scenes with Stanwyck range from the supercharged and fiery to the downright mundane, and the climactic one strikes a satisfyingly hopeful if not quite happy note. For all that, the one which lingers longest in my memory is an earlier interlude aboard his boat. He’s proposing, all awkward and shambling earnestness, and she’s resisting. There is some terrific screen acting on display from those two in that moonlit sequence, a pair of fine performers affording a glimpse of people teetering on the brink of temptation and trepidation. A magical moment of cinema.

While the three heavyweights in the leading roles naturally dominate proceedings, there is depth further down the cast list too. Marilyn Monroe was a rising star, just a year away from breaking through to the very top tier, and was billed fourth, just above the title. Even though she’s not the focus of attention she does get a few moderately memorable scenes, mostly sparring with a surly Keith Andes. This young couple are prey to some of that restiveness that plagues their elders; the shifting dynamics of post-war relationships, that realignment of social mores and roles, suggest that there is likely to be a good deal of friction, or even worse, ahead. J Carrol Naish was one of the most accomplished character actors of the classic Hollywood era, an instantly recognizable presence. As the wastrel Uncle Vince he occupies a small yet pivotal role, a Iago-like hobgoblin sowing unrest out of spite and whispering poison in his nephew’s ear at every opportunity.

Clash by Night was released on DVD long ago by Warner Brothers but I think it may have drifted out of print. It’s a pretty good transfer of the movie, and has a Peter Bogdanovich commentary track as a supplement, but any future upgrade to Blu-ray would be welcome. Fans of Lang’s work, and that of the leading players too, should find this an absorbing movie. It certainly earns a recommendation from this viewer.

39 thoughts on “Clash by Night

  1. Thanks Colin, a great write-up. It us fascinating to see just how sour and disenchanted Lang’s world view is in his postwar American films. I have the original WB DVD and much watch this again but I find his later films mostly to be such downers that I do need to be in a resilient mood 😁

    Liked by 1 person

      • Lang’s movies, even the darkest, always offer hope. He was raised a Catholic and he believed that redemption is always possible, although sometimes unpalatable. His characters don’t always achieve redemption, but it’s there if they have the courage to take it. They can choose redemption or damnation.

        Remember this is the director who thought that You Only Live Once had a happy ending!

        A Bogdanovich commentary track is a real bonus for a Lang film. Bogdanovich understood Lang. Most critics don’t.

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        • Generally speaking, I’m always happy to see a Bogdanovich contribution on any supplementary materials. I know there are some who aren’t all that taken with him, but he’s very knowledgeable and clearly has both a love and appreciation of cinema.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I agree. Bogdanovich always does great commentary tracks. He’s charming and witty, always has amusing anecdotes but always has very perceptive insights.

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    • I find it both refreshing and attractive how Lang doesn’t point any accusatory or judgmental fingers at his characters but just shows them blundering through life and making some of those poor decisions.

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      • It’s interesting to compare Lang to Billy Wilder. Wilder gave the impression that he regarded the human race with utter contempt and he seemed to like making movies about worthless people. Lang had a more compassionate view. We’re all capable of doing terrible things but that doesn’t mean we’re irretrievably damned. It just means we’re human and therefore very imperfect.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think Lang does seem more compassionate overall, but I don’t feel Wilder is as remorselessly cynical as he’s sometimes painted, or perhaps as he wanted people to believe. He certainly wasn’t afraid to slay any sacred cows and took few prisoners when it came to commenting on hypocrisy. However, there is genuine compassion and empathy on show in films like The Apartment and Avanti!.

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          • Wilder was an againster, against all the things, cultural and political, that embraced him. A socio-political sour puss, but often entertaining.

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            • I find that I like Wilder’s misanthropy in his really dark movies such as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. They’re both brilliant movies which I love. I don’t respond too well to his comedies however. His comedies make me uncomfortable. That was probably his intention, but it doesn’t work for me. At least that was my response to them years ago.

              It’s many years since I watched a Billy Wilder comedy. Maybe I’d react differently to them now. I suppose I should give his comedies another try. As long as I can find one without Jack Lemmon in it.

              Actually that might be the problem for name with Wilder’s comedies. I just cannot watch Jack Lemmon in anything.

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              • The best Wilder comedy, for me at least, is The Major and The Minor with Ray Milland, Ginger Rogers, and a startlingly smart Diana Lynn. The other comedies I like are A Foreign Affair, but mostly for John Lund. I am an admirer, and One, Two Three, Cagney’s final starring film, it has all the negative elements of Wilder at his most strident anti-social, but hysterically funny

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                • Generally, I like all of them, some more than others I guess. I remember feeling that Irma la Douce was disappointing though. That said, my one and only viewing of it was over 30 years ago and my memory of the movie as a whole is accordingly, let’s say, dim. I will try it again at some point to see how I respond as I’m always prepared to reassess my reactions to material, especially after a long period of time.

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  2. Great and insightful review of a complex drama, Colin. I have the film somewhere deep in my collection and am minded now to find it and re-watch. These lead actors are enough reason for me to watch a film any time. I suspect Robert Ryan was himself a reasonably relaxed and likeable man with a stable home life, all of which is at odds with the type of tortured or edgy characters he was so terrfic at playing.

    Coincidentally, only a few days ago I had been thinking about “CLASH BY NIGHT” and the fact I had not seen it in years; similarly another Ryan film “HOUSE OF BAMBOO”. Maybe a good double bill is in the offing for me!

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    • This would make for an interesting double bill alongside Fuller’s movie. Two quite different films in so many ways yet each one absorbing and held together by the common thread of Ryan’s performances.

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    • House of Bamboo is a strange one. But it’s a Sam Fuller movie and all of his movies are strange. Usually they’re strange in a good way. I liked House of Bamboo.

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  3. “… dressed up in disenchantment and drinking whisky for breakfast.”

    A wonderful piece of writing, Colin! “Clash by Night” is a very fine film. But as much as I admire it, I have to say that I find it painful to watch. Infidelity is soul-wrenching in both art and in real life. Throw in Robert Ryan as the antagonist and the anguish increases exponentially. A master of malevolence, no one can say that Ryan is typecast as he fleshes out his various poisonous characters. As you point out, “Ryan’s skill lay in his ability to add layers and dimensions to such boors…” Barbara Stanwyck adds another strong performance to her incredible CV. For me, this is Paul Douglas’ finest work. I like how you compare J Carrol Naish to Iago. “Clash by Night” is an accomplished film robustly and imaginatively directed by Fritz Lang.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Infidelity makes for fine drama but I agree it can be a painful watch too; anything which strikes at such a fundamental part of our humanity as trust is bound to affect us more. I like how the movie acknowledges that and, in the satisfying climactic scene, emphasizes how even a wounded trust is capable of enduring and sustaining those who embrace it.

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  4. Colin, good write-up of what I think is a very powerful and interesting combination of personalities in the telling of a provocative adult movie story for the early 1950’s. I first viewed CLASH BY NIGHT(filmed 1951-52, released 1952) in 1995 on public television’s Arkansas Educational Television Network(AETN) Channel 6 THE GOODTIMES PICTURE SHOW, which was produced and hosted by Ray Nielsen. Nielsen interviewed by telephone Keith Andes, who portrayed Joe Doyle brother of round heeled and world weary Mae Doyle(Barbara Stanwyck) and possessive boyfriend of the feisty fish cannery worker Peggy(Marilyn Monroe). Andes said that after kissing Monroe he forgot what his next line was. Nielsen actually asked Andes if that Monroe and he had an affair. Andes replied that they didn’t.

    CLASH BY NIGHT was filmed and released while the Motion Picture Production Code was still in force, but the code was starting to weaken owing to the combined impact of television and the influence from foreign movies. In this movie the boundaries of the code were being pushed and one, in particular, was thrown aside. I don’t want to give away too much, for those who haven’t viewed this movie yet.

    I think CLASH BY NIGHT is a good movie, which is well worth viewing. The movie has a lot going for it. The actors were in top form here, despite all that was going on behind the scenes and and the media storm centered around Marilyn Monroe.

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  5. Colin’s choice of CLASH BY NIGHT had me rooting around for my copy. I gave it a watch last night for the first time in a decade and a half. Amazing how an extra 15 years of life can change a person’s take on a film, or for that matter, everything. CLASH BY NIGHT did not set any bells off the first time I watched it. This time it kept drawing me into the story and the interplay of the three main actors. Colin’s review hit some points that I had totally missed the first time. Again, full marks to Colin on his sharp observations.

    Gord

    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s a movie that does play better the more years you have under your belt. The focus is less on the younger characters portrayed by Andes and Monroe and much more on the middle-aged trio at the top of the bill and their time of life, the circumstances which have developed around them and their consequent reactions.

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  6. Weekend films
    First will be the 1961 service comedy THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY with Jack Lemmon and Ricky Nelson. Then the 1955 Errol Flynn film THE WARRIORS with Joanne Dru, Peter Finch, Michael Horden, and directed by Henry Levin.

    Then if I have time, some episodes of GUNSMOKE.

    Have a good weekend people.

    Gord

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  7. Weekend watching
    THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY from 1961. MISTER ROBERTS it is not. Still there are a few smiles in this service comedy set in the Pacific during WW2. Jack Lemmon plays an officer sent out on a spy mission in an old beat up sailing schooner. His job is to deliver an Aussie coast-watcher (Chips Rafferty) to an island in Japanese territory. Enough going on to bring on a few smiles but was expecting more.

    THE WARRIORS 1955 A rather shopworn Errol Flynn plays The Black Prince in this actioner set during the 100 years War. I am a Flynn fan but he seems somewhat lost here. He looks like he can hardly lift his sword for the action scenes. He is out acted by pretty well everyone involved. Peter Finch, Rupert Davies, Robert Urquhart and Joanne Dru are all in top form. Having a 2 years younger Michael Horden play Flynn’s father, Edward III, does not come off well. One nice bit is the look of the film which is quite good.
    It is in nice Technicolor and was shot in Cinemascope. An ok film for a rainy afternoon’s watching.

    Gord
    .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gordon, The Wackiest Ship in the Army has nothing on Operation Petticoat, which is one of my all-time favorite comedies. Petticoat gets the not easy genre of the war comedy right.

      Agree about The Warriors. A sad sight for Flynn fans. By that time more roles like in The Sun Also Rises would have benefited him better.

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  8. Margot
    Spot on with your call on Operation Petticoat, It ranks with Mister Roberts for my favorite service comedy. I know you are a noir fan. Ask Colin for my e-mail and I can share some great noir stuff with you.

    Gord

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  9. I saw that a film called “Open Secret” (1948) is on the program at the next “Noir City” film festival that’s being held in Oakland from 1/20/22 – 1/23/22. I decided to check it out, and though the print was poor, I really liked it. It’s a very low-budget B film about anti-Semitism in an unnamed American city after WWII. It features John Ireland, Jane Randolph, and Sheldon Leonard. But the real treat for me was watching Arthur O’Connell play a bad guy. It’s like an old-time Saturday matinee but with a message to deliver. There’s some nice action and good acting by the minor characters. I’ve ordered the DVD for “Open Secret” from the library and I’m hoping it’s a restored print.

    Speaking of noir film festivals, our friend Gordon Gates has a treasure trove of noir memorabilia. He has kindly sent me some of his collection on several occasions and I have been fascinated perusing the material. Not only was I delighted by what he sent me but I found a number of new titles to watch. One item that he sent me that I found especially pleasing was a 5″ x 7″ poster of Robert Bresson’s great film “A Man Escaped” (1956). I guess many wouldn’t call this “noir” but Gordon knows that I greatly admire Robert Bresson. Gordon really loves noir (and all kinds of movies!) and is eager to share his goods with others, so contact him if you are interested in getting some noir memorabilia.

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    • Yes, Gordon has very generously sent me some great memorabilia of the ‘noir’ genre that makes great reading and at the same time points up some interesting rarities. I recommend contacting him.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have just received a great pack of noir reading from RTHC regular Gordon Gates.

    The pack includes a copy of the program from the 13th annual film noir festival in San Francisco in 2015. This attractive booklet has terrific photos from the 25 movies featured in the festival, along with an informed discussion of each movie.

    Gord also sent some attractive post cards of classic noirs, these cards being good enough to frame.

    The program for the 2019 Arthur Lyons’ Film Noir Festival at Palm Springs is also a most attractive keepsake, with stills and synopses from the dozen movies shown over the four days of the festival.

    I understand Gord has been sending out similar packages to other RTHC followers. This is a most generous gift, Gord – thank you! “

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  11. Thanks guys for the kind words. Been collecting noir film festival guides, noir postcards etc for a great many.years.. Dug out a box of the stuff during the summer and. I figured that I should share it with like minded folks. If I keeled over tomorrow, the kids would just toss it all in the trash. “Watching black and white means you are going senile!” .Is their take on my film choices. I picked out a few items to keep and am offering the rest to anyone here. Just let me know and I can put together a care package for you.

    No charge, I’ll cover the postage.

    Gord

    Liked by 1 person

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