HAPPY SUMMER! Hope your summer is going excellently even though it’s hard to sit at home and watch movies with the glare on the television. I really am trying to get in the habit of blogging with more frequency, I have some fun not-strictly-film related content that I’m hoping to get to, if only I could start spending less time on dames and horses. You know how it is. But hey, let’s talk Clash By Night, and take a look at this none-to-subtle poster.
First off, you should know that Barbara Stanwyck is probably my favorite actress of all time. I’d watch Barbara Stanwyck eat cereal. In her best films, she’s an absolute titan onscreen – completely fearless as an actor. She’s a perfect comedienne, she’s a dramatic force of nature. She’s even sexy in that horrific Double Indemnity wig. From her 30’s kept woman movies to her working girl movies to her Capra movies, to – of course, her noir movies, I’m all Stanwyck, all the way.
So, we’re really cooking with gas when Barbara Stanwyck is paired with the smouldering powderkeg that is Robert Ryan at his prime shoulder-to-waist ratio in Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT.
Depending on how loose your definition of noir is, Clash By Night may or may not qualify. But it isn’t just Fritz Lang’s inherently noir-y style – we’re also dealing with some serious post-war gender weirdness and repression, not to mention an atmosphere of exceptional doom.
Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to her hometown to live with her brother Joe (Keith Andes), a dingy Californian fishing village so well-rendered that we can almost smell the pungent aroma of fish and small town failure. Joe’s not super thrilled to see her, but she gets on fine with his plucky girlfriend Peggy (an early-ish Marilyn Monroe.)
Mae’s disillusioned from her involvement with a married man – ( ain’t that always the way?) while Peggy’s fascinated by worldly Mae and has a kindred independent spirit. In fact, Peggy’s likely a proto-Mae, in ten years with the accompanying bad decisions, who knows, they’d probably be hitting the bottle together before their sexless, ineffectual husbands return home at 5, wanting dinner. BUT ANYWAY….
Mae agrees to go on a date with Jerry (Paul Douglas), a local fisherman and genuinely nice guy with whom she has a palatable lack of chemistry with. Utterly unaffected and guileless, he introduces Mae to his best friend, film projectionist Earl Pfeiffer (Ryan).
Which turns out to be a terrible idea, because Earl’s as rough and magnetic as Jerry is gentle and harmless. That he is drawn to Mae is undeniable, but Mae’s a little cold and quiet, even when Earl’s firing all of his charm cylinders with this little exchange:
Earl: Like the show?
Mae: She’s beautiful.
Earl: Who? That celluloid angel you just saw? They oughta cut her up a little bit – she’d look more interesting.
Jerry: Cut her up?
Earl: Didn’t you ever wanna cut up a beautiful dame?
Earl: Jeremiah, you’re a simple man.
So that happened. Turns on Earl has a pretty low opinion of women, and after an inebriated flirtation between Earl and Mae, Mae decides to marry Jerry, despite her best judgement and presumably in attempt to do the right thing, thereby avoiding (really just putting off) the queasy hate-fuck that’s certainly unavoidable between her and Earl. It’s an attraction, surely, but Mae’s more complicated than that, telling Peggy that she’s tired of looking after men, and that she wants to be looked after –
“Confidence! I want a man to give me confidence, somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods, somebody to beat off the world when it tries to swallow you up. Huh, me and my ideas. “
Mae and Jerry end of in a family way and soon enough. One evening, Earl shows up, fall down drunk, and Jerry lets him stay the night. In the morning, in a blistering kitchen sink confrontation, the inevitable happens. You can only keep two lions away from each other for so long.
In the end, Clifford Odets’ brooding rumination on gender relations brings Jerry down to Earl’s level, leaves Earl with his irreparable personality flaws, and magnifies the sobering truth that Mae will probably never get what she craves.
It’s an oversimplification to conclude that Mae is aroused by Earl’s misogyny and brutality. She is equally repulsed and attracted to Earl, attracted to his strength that sometimes resembles confidence, repulsed by his hatred of women and insecurity that manifests as barbarity. Earl recognizes Mae’s intelligence, her disillusionment, and thinks it matches his own. In the landscape of Clash by Night, Mae’s ideal of a man who isn’t emasculated by strong women or other men is an impossible archetype. She encourages Peggy to marry Joe because Joe “knows himself”, but Peggy’s frustrations with her options as a woman in a one-horse town are palpable.
It almost goes without saying that when you’re watching Fritz Lang, you’re in the presence of a master. Of course Clash is beautifully photographed and thoughtfully plotted, the evening when drunk Earl comes to call happens to be one of the hottest of the year. Under cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s lens, shadows fall over Mae and Jerry’s family home while the sheen of sweat glows off Barbara Stanwyck’s skin, it’s all scintillating-ly tawdry. But Clash By Night is really an actor’s picture – Stanwyck is at her world-weary best, and in the fictional celebrity death-match of brutal damaged guys, Ryan could probably take down Brando. (That was a pretty far-reaching metaphor, but you get my drift). Naturally, Monroe was typically difficult on set, but onscreen she’s a real treat – if you’re not someone who can feel the Monroe magic in her bombshell comedies, Clash By Night is one of the films that will change your mind.
Clash By Night is overwrought and theatrical, occasionally putting too fine a point on its thesis, but it captures the mood of early 50s repression like no other – Mae likens men to either “little, nervous sparrows” or “big, sick bears”. Earl on women: “Throw ’em up in the air. The one who sticks to the ceiling, I like.”
You’d think Clash by Night would eventually collapse in on itself – a heady mix of lust, vulnerability, threats, and feeble human ugliness and desperation, but indeed, it has a cautiously optimistic if rather ambiguous ending… the cracks in Jerry’s good nature may just endear him to Mae, and together they might just be able to forge some kind of healthy partnership, or perhaps, after several miles of bad road, they’ll live with their collective acceptance of their unfulfilled needs and lack of trust. Aside from being a hell of a good movie, Clash by Night is timeless, yet also a sobering early-50’s time capsule. And hey, that’s why your parents and grandparents are so screwed up.
‘Til next time, stay out of the projection booth.