Clash By Night comes from a stage play by Clifford Odetts and, in one sense, it’s extremely evident. However, being blessed by a still capable director in Fritz Lang and bolstered by quality talent does wonders for this squallish RKO drama. The portentous symbolism of Lang is on full display from crashing waves to billowing clouds in the skies up above.
We spy circling seagulls and seals perking up, creatures obviously hungry for something — in this case the fish being harvested on the trawler right nearby. Here we have our environment, a cannery that sustains an entire community with work. One of the seamen is Jerry (Paul Douglas) a teddy bear of a man who works on a fishing boat as his father did before him. He now supports his senile father along with his idle good-for-nothing uncle.
When Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) comes back to her family home after being away well nigh a decade, the summation of her activities is terse, “Big dreams, small results.” She’s very dismissive and aloof in every interaction; she’s not about to give herself to anyone or fall in love. But when the good-natured Jerry comes to call on her she actually accepts. Maybe she can learn to like a nice guy and have a home and a family. They try on all accounts and get married. Every attempt is made to convince herself that this is what a normal woman is supposed to aspire to.
However, Jerry’s buddy, the local projectionist at the movie theater, the outgoing, slightly patronizing stiff Earl (Robert Ryan) offers an inkling of something else. He has raw even carnal energy and a cynic’s outlook on love. Mae despises his personality type probably because it’s too close to home — too akin to how she sees the world. But his raffishness can easily get contorted into something volcanic, flaming with an attraction that draws in a wife desiring something more.
What’s staged thenceforward is a showing that hits the throttle on several occasions to heated extremes. It’s the utter epitome of ’50s hothouse drama that can feel overwrought and stagy; the emotions at times become heightened to an unbelievable degree. Sweat and manic attacks of rage that lead to blows ensue. Not to mention countless mentions of the rise in temperature.
Even the early dialogue at times feels too cute, manufactured to be read off and yet to their credit the stars come with fury at times heartless and tender and full of self-loathing. Stanwyck is a mess of tortured dissonance subjecting herself to emotional whiplash, never truly contented. However, feeling completely sorry for her proves difficult.
Though Marilyn Monroe received her first prominent billing, she comes off as more of a side note than an integral part of the picture at least in front of the camera. There’s little doubt she was causing her usual media frenzy behind the camera and headaches for her director due to her often temperamental ways. Those would hardly change but superstardom would only continue to descend upon her.
Always the consummate professional, Stanwyck was in the middle of divorce proceedings with Robert Taylor and as art often mirrors life you get the impression that just possibly she might be channeling some of that emotion into her performance. If she is, it’s nearly impossible to tell as she carries herself with the same self-assured composure in every scene, touching every note, regardless, with her accustomary ease.
Even for a black and white piece filmed by Nicolas Musuraca, Clash By Night is not necessarily a typical Lang exhibition in expressionistic, noirish tones but the expression comes boiling up from within his actors. That is enough. The picture could have done well to smolder until the end. Instead, it chooses a more forgiving road. Jerry relents saying, “You gotta trust somebody. There ain’t no other way.” He’s taking a beating and yet his heart is still large. There’s no word on whether it will be torn out again.