CLASH BY NIGHT is a moderately entertaining drama of life in a seafaring village. The film has a strong first hour depicting evolving relationships and community ties against an interesting background, but it's ultimately done in by the tiresome, self-destructive behavior of two of the lead characters.
Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home after ten years and moves in with her fisherman brother Joe (Keith Andes). Mae has had an unhappy life and though she has no great desire to be back home in the fishing village, she is longing for some stability and security.
Mae ultimately decides to marry kindhearted fisherman Jerry (Paul Douglas), and initially she seems content, especially when she and Jerry have a lovely baby girl. However, Mae feels restless and bored and begins an affair with Jerry's drunken, recently divorced friend Earl (Robert Ryan).
There are some very nice moments in this film, which was directed by Fritz Lang, and there are interesting performances by Douglas, Andes, and Marilyn Monroe as Joe's flighty young girlfriend. However, after watching Mae slowly build a new life in the film's first hour, I had no interest in watching her tear it all back down in the next 45 minutes. Earl is a total loser, but Mae carries on with him heedless of those she's hurting.
I'm a huge Robert Ryan fan but I honestly think this character may have been less sympathetic than some of his villains. Earl didn't care about his life and didn't care about others. I didn't care about him.
I'd read about Ryan and Stanwyck having amazing chemistry, but I didn't see it; I just saw her inexplicably interested in a drunken, depressed lout. I had little patience for it, and as I watched I was mentally yelling at her to grow up already. If she didn't care what she was doing to her husband, who had been nothing but accepting and kind, then she should at least consider what her behavior's consequences would do to her helpless infant daughter.
The movie also suffers from mixing the authentic and the artificial. The film has an excellent opening depicting the daily work of fishermen and the women who process the day's catch; there's some very atmospheric location shooting. I loved shots of Paul Douglas drinking coffee as he brings in his boat and of Marilyn Monroe rolling out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to get to work at the cannery. Footage of the fish being unloaded and processed provides insight into the life's work of the various characters. Process shots used later in the film were a bit disappointing, though not unusual for the era.
More disappointing was that the characters themselves waver between realism and fakery; at times they're down to earth, yet some of the dialogue feels very phony, as though it were written for characters to say in a play. (The CLASH BY NIGHT screenplay by Alfred Hayes, in fact, originated as a play by Clifford Odets.) It's hard to believe characters as drunk or depressed as they are in some scenes could string such unnatural sentences together!
I'd class the film as worth a look due to its talented cast, beautifully shot by Nicholas Musuraca, but watching people go on benders while moaning incessantly about how rotten life is and how unhappy they are isn't going to leave anyone feeling too cheery by movie's end. The film has a tentatively optimistic conclusion, so there's that, at least.
CLASH BY NIGHT was released on DVD in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. II.
The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.
It was released on VHS by TCM in 1996.