Clash By Night (1952)

Clash By Night (1952) is a romantic-unromantic dockside drama destructive love drifter-comes-home film noir by Fritz Lang, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Douglas and Robert Ryan.

For a film noir there are few of the elements we normally might expect to see from the form, and yet with the addition of a fairly noirish cast, and some dark and unpleasant behaviour and characterisation from Robert Ryan, Clash By Night (1952) squeezes into the fold because of anguished performances, again largely delivered by the alienated woman hater played by Robert Ryan.

Barbara Stanwyck plays Mae Doyle, a woman who returns to her hometown, the fishing town of Monterey, California, after 10 years on the East Coast. 

Joe, her fisherman brother, is not pleased to see her, but accepts her back into the family home —  whereas his girlfriend Peggy (played by Marilyn Monroe) is more welcoming. 

Barbara Stanwyck in Clash By Night (1952)

Mae begins to date Jerry D'Amato (played by Paul Douglas), who is a good-natured, rather dull and unsophisticated fisherman with his own boat. Mae despises Jerry's friend, Earl Pfeiffer, a bitter, dissatisfied film projectionist. It's Earl's bitterness that really gets the noir mood into full swing however, and is that wasn't enough, there is a lot of violence against women down in the working class enclaves of Monterey.

Keith Andes and Marilyn Monroe in Clash By Night (1952)

Earl has a low opinion of women and makes no attempt to hide it — and from these domestic premises, there evolves a film noir. 

The two themes that stand out the most from Clash By Night (1952) are the characters' attempts to make house and set up home — and violence against and domination of women.

Beneath the surface of Clash By Night (1952) there seems to be a cauldron of strife as the bourgeois home-making values of the era clash with blue-collar sensibilities in some cases — and with wandering, alcoholic genes on the other. Then there is the violence against women. 

This is not psychopathic violence against women, or even the dark-side-of-the-screen murders and other offences that make up a slice of 40s and 50s noir, but it's a more normative type of violence, a much more workaday sort — normative and regulating 

Patriarchy is another social system being examined in film noir. Malu Barroso, author at High On Films writes:

"As the patriarchal social order tried to reinstate itself when the war was over. Within the stylistic norms of the noir genre, the rough lighting and the gloomy visual clues of danger reflects the unsettling, broken domestic order, highlighting to the audience the tension in the home and the women’s role in triggering the narrative."

Female characters in film noir do often represent a disturbance to male order, and in Clash By Night (1952) they just seemed to be punished for it, in this unpleasant and somewhat realistic blue-collar enclave. There seems to be no way in fact for the women to gain any power.

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan in Clash By Night (1952)

Postwar film noir of the 1940s is believed to be a direct reflection of the dark reality of a postwar culture and the reality of the re-oppressed woman. Financial independence and freedom through the workforce was being taken back by the patriarchal system.

Paul Douglas, the main character, lives with his father and his uncle, both of whom he accepts and pays for — but both of whom are a drag on his household. He pays for their beer, and their upkeep, and yet his uncle remains bitchy and critical, demolishing the idea of the stable family home — an idea Paul Douglas' character seems to wish to nurture — symbolised in his most simple desire — to keep the icebox door open.

Keith Andes and Marilyn Monroe in Clash By Night (1952)

The atmosphere as with every aspect of Clash By Night (1952) is oppressive — and becomes worse when Jerry becomes married, as his uncle in his alcoholic inability to master even the most infantile of emotions, becomes even more bitchy and unreasonable, attempting to guilt trip Jerry into providing more money — although as he often states the money is never enough.

This dysfunctional and rather brutal family atmosphere is tempered by the arrival of Barbara Stanwyck as Mae, who does a decent job of reviving this set up and creating something much more like a home — achieved ultimately by the addition of a baby.

The violence against women is an undeniably strong central column holding up this picture. Although meted out generally by the character of Earl, there is an interesting scene at the start between Marilyn Monroe's character Peggy, and her boyfriend Joe. In this scene Peggy says that she would not tolerate any violence at all from any man — presenting a most progressive and positive outlook, which is in keeping with her character — which is both young, happy and forward looking.

When Joe questions Peggy about the viability of this strategy, Peggy demonstrates how she will fight back, instantly getting into a fast moving fight with him.

Later in the picture too, when even small acts of daily and casual violence are committed against her — even in so-called 'fun' — Peggy does strike back — something that is rarely seen in film noir, or films of the 1940s and 1950s in general.

Alcoholic Monterey — Clash By Night (1952) directed by Fritz Lang

Earl is king of violence against women, and although muted somehow by the dramatic complexity of Clash By Night (1952) he is probably one of the worst offenders in all of the style.

This seems to go unobserved probably because of the realism of Clash By Night (1952). Characters are multi dimensional and unlike most films noir, there is not a murder at the centre of this picture. This small detail does add enormous realism to Clash By Night (1952) as it pulls it sharply away from the fantasy element — many films noir can be said to favour fantasy over reality for the plain fact that murders, while dramatic, are not the common outcome of most realistic situations — despite being hugely common in the medium.

Earl is bad for it however. In his projection booth when they first meet, Earl tells Mae he wants to mutilate the faces of beautiful women — and he does not appear to be entirely joking. This seething psychopathy which spills into his heavy drinking, and probably peaks in its discomfort when Earl does a racist impression of an East Asian person — another hugely uncomfortable moment.

Masculinity is at a constant low bar throughout Clash By Night (1952). The boring and safe male Jerry does at least have the virtue of not being violent, although he is often driven into a rage by his family. His uncle for example refuses to take down his dirty pictures in his room, which causes anxiety to Jerry as well as to Mae.

Bad projectionist — Clash By Night (1952)

Earl's projection room is the last place where anyone will find movie magic then, or any kind of magic, and this is a pretty uncompromising joke from Fritz Lang. It is typical of Lang to give us this peek at modern media and its technology, but the man behind the media here is a sheer villain, ugly to the last, and a resounding woman hater.

Rushing home with the alcohol in Clash By Night (1952)

Alcohol is a morbidly constant presence in Clash By Night (1952) most commonly seen in the masses of beers which are drunk by all the characters down at the local bar, although immediately found in the hands of Barbara Stanwyck as she arrives home — the first thing she does in fact is have two swift drinks.

Alcohol has already ruined the lives of Jerry and his father and uncle — not through Jerry's own drinking, but through the selfish behaviour of his uncle, who is fundamentally an irremediable alcoholic who will always be a strain on those around him — as well as a pest.

The uncle's drinking is chronic and seems to contribute to the general feeling of lassitude, laziness and entitlement that permeates the house, feeds into the diner and culminates at the bar.

Robert Ryan in Clash By Night (1952)

Robert Ryan's character Earl is a different kind of drunk — a violent and unpleasant kind. In fact he is violent and unpleasant enough sober. Earl's drinking still manages to wreck Mae's family home, and it makes him even more mean and cynical, even nastier. 

Earl — who is amusingly introduced as working in the film industry — when in fact he is a movie projectionist — is bitterly trapped in the working class environment of this fishing town. However, this would seem to be a poor excuse for his behaviour, as many of the other characters — such as that played by Marilyn Monroe — don't seem to mind it at all.

Earl however is a furious and ill-tempered soul, and even manages to garner some audience sympathy. Mae does give into him despite the violence of his approaches to her — rape and strangulation are among Earl's courting techniques — and as mentioned, these do work to a degree.

Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe in Clash By Night (1952)

For a dockside noir that is not imbued with the shadowy forms of the 1940s, there are still film noir tropes in spades in Clash By Night (1952).

First there is the character of the drifter — Mae left for New York around 1942 it seems, in order to marry for money —  a project that failed. There is a destructive romance at the heart of the action — Mae is pressured endlessly by Earl but does give in — despite his violence, which she seems to find attractive —  and ultimately she cheats on Jerry with Earl even though her marriage was probably not the best advised move to begin with. Earlier we see her in a  hanging-out-the-washing domestic scene with Marilyn Monroe, and something of a contrast is there offered — although Mae seems to yearn for the stable American home life — but it just ain't for this drifter gal, perhaps.

Violent times — Keith Andes and Marilyn Monroe in Clash By Night (1952)

The violence and threat is omnipresent. probably the most shocking example of this is when Joe mockingly chokes Peggy with a towel when she says something he doesn’t like, and seems to be offering too much attention to Earl.  Maybe this is worse because it is icon Marilyn Monroe here being choked, even though this is not shown as being abnormal behaviour — yet again, the normative voice of the day.

Jerry might be bland, but he is the walking embodiment of a kind of American dream — male version —  a relatively nice guy who really does love his wife and baby. 

Mae on the other hand is probably looking for a strong man that can take care of her, and is tired of being the one to take care of them. This is why her choice to marry Jerry is not the wisest.

Paul Douglas in Clash By Night (1952)

The title of the film comes from Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach (1851). This is describing a place "where ignorant armies clash by night". What this phrase alludes to are fights that don't seem to be understood or grasped by any of the participants — the poor miserable setting and the dockside losers, trapped in a fraught fishbowl, is certainly the strong impression left by this movie.

Paul Douglas in Clash By Night (1952)

None of it would be full fat noir without the the chemistry percolating within a relationship that should never be — and Jerry remains totally oblivious to the attraction between Mae and his best friend and he continues to have Earl in his life not knowing how dangerous the situation is. 

Mae realises immediately that this is a mistake — but it's Robert Ryan, physical and confident. Mae has a baby with Jerry, but this does not save the relationship at all, and all she can feel is the sense of imprisonment brought on by the anti-noir domains of domestic life.

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan in Clash By Night (1952)

Finally violent passion bursts out between Mae and Earl, and it is almost brutal the way they kiss, both consumed by it all. Earl asks Mae to run off with him, vowing that he will become whatever she wants in order to please her. However, this is all packaged with the same sinister undertones of power and control that are his modus operandi, and with such a violent and selfish human, these can only be false promises. 

In an enjoyable manner, there are staircases everywhere in Clash By Night (1952) — a favourite set aspect of not just noir, but of Fritz Lang, too. Many of the Monterey homes have outdoor staircases but there are also interior stairs — in the strangely constructed house where much of the action unfolds — just as there are  fish ladders, and porch stairs in the restaurant. 

Staircases represent the complexity of the world in film noir, part of the structural and psychological passage that characters make. 

Monterey in fact has its own architecture, with quite unique homes, streets, and docks. This sort of distinct flavour is unusual in a country as homogeneous as the USA. The area was always much loved by  writers such as John Steinbeck and Clifford Odets, whose play is being filmed here. 

Barbara Stanwyck in Clash By Night (1952)

Strangest of all, the street in front of Barbara Stanwyck's home is not parallel to the front of the building, but is at a angle, thus forming a shape with two parallel buy uneven sides. 

Clash By Night is not only film noir by association — this great cast and the themes of violence and the struggling suburban and working class family unit — a dramatic pot-boiler that is a kind of deep-dish theatre piece — based on a play by Clifford Odets. It is also noir by design — a tragic and unhappy end point for people trapped in the cages of their own making, gloomy, sad and unforgiving.

Clash By Night (1952) on Wikipedia

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