Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Clash By Night (1952)

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.

It was released on VHS by TCM in 1996.

May 2017 Update: CLASH BY NIGHT has been reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive.


Blogger barrylane said...

I could not agree with you more. Self-conscious and arty in the way of Clifford Odets. Pounding points home that often have nothing going for them but the pounding. Barbara Stanwyck is too old for her part. She looks like Ryan's mother. Not a bad thing in itself but that isn't the story. The other players are jut fine. Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe are most compelling.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Waves of Gray said...

I saw this a few years ago, and I remember being engaged throughout the movie. I was watching a lot of film noir at the time, so perhaps my fondness for darker storylines caused me to overlook some obvious shortcomings. I'll have to give it another look and see if I feel the same way.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'd be curious to know what you think on a revisit, Waves of Gray. I'm a big noir fan so of course very often the characters are, shall we say, imperfect, but I guess it all depends on context, script, etc., as to whether I'm willing to buy into the story. This one just didn't win me over -- I wonder if it might hit me differently at a different time.

As Barrylane says, Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe do a fine job.

Best wishes,

10:50 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"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 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."

That's frustrating, isn't it? A story and setting seems engaging, but the characters do not move us. We can't fathom their actions or reasoning. I forget who said it, but there's that old rule of thumb in crafting a story that it's okay to thrill the audience, to move them, even to anger and shock them--but it's never okay to bore them.

Of course, in real life, there are people who senselessly run their own lives into the ground. But we like our movies to make some point of it all.

5:02 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Jacqueline, those are great points. Everything was set up for a movie I would probably like, in terms of the cast and an interesting story of community and one might even say redemption, as Mae builds relationships and makes long-term commitments.

Watching her and Ryan's childish behavior in the second half of the film really was, just as you suggest, boring. Oh well...

Best wishes,

11:35 AM  
Blogger Waves of Gray said...

I finally got around to watching this movie again, and although I still think it's more good than bad, I wasn't sucked into it quite as much this time around. There's nothing much to like about either Mae or Earl. However, I can understand (but don't support) Mae's self-destructive behavior as, unfortunately, it's all too common in the real world. I have to agree that Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe were ultimately the actors who elevated this film from a forgettable one to a decent one.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts when you revisited the film, Waves of Gray, I was very interested to read how it struck you on this viewing. Always enjoy hearing other takes on movies I've watched. :)

Best wishes,

11:04 PM  
Blogger Jean H said...

I enjoyed the show...but wondered the entire time about baby Gloria who seemed to be stashed away in her crib for hours on end while her mother was off to the beach with Earl.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's a good point, Jean! :)

Best wishes,

6:55 PM  

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