Thursday, February 23, 2012

Film Noir Series: Clash by Night (1952)

My latest Film Noir Spotlight entry for Next Projection. The ninth film on my list is Clash by Night (1952).

It would be easy to dismiss Clash by Night as a simple melodrama – one that shouldn’t be categorized as a film noir. And while the film – based on the 1941 play by Clifford Odets – is a domestic drama, it carries over familiar noir themes.

After a 10-year absence, 30-something Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her hometown of Monterey, a tiny fishing village in California. Tired of her life as the mistress to a married man, Mae decides to reconnect with her brother, Joe (Keith Andes), to help take her mind off her cynical outlook on relationships and love. When Joe’s girlfriend, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), asks Mae why she decided to return, Mae responds, “Home is where you come when you run out of places.” After Mae meets nice-guy fisherman Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), she agrees to marry him after a short courtship, much to the surprise of the townsfolk. Enter Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), Jerry’s younger, hotheaded work colleague that Mae immediately finds herself drawn to. Shortly after giving birth to Jerry’s daughter, Mae embarks on a torrid love affair with Earl which isn’t kept secret for long.

In a departure from his usual dystopian fare (like classics Metropolis and M), Austrian director Fritz Lang opens his film with multiple shots of crashing waves, a foreshadowing of the domestic strife about to emerge. With his use of images from nature – screeching seagulls and clouds drifting swiftly over the moon – Lang reflects the ever-changing emotions of his central characters.

Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck
As Mae, Stanwyck shines. She easily draws men – and viewers – into her tangled web, moving effortlessly back and forth between being likeable and being despised. Even in this unconventional noir she remains the very essence of a femme fatale.

Monroe plays against type, sporting bulky pants and a rough and tumble attitude about relationships and gender equality as the adorably plucky Peggy. Constantly picking fights with Joe – both verbal and physical – Peggy admires Mae’s take on life, much to Joe’s concern. In 1952, Monroe was on the cusp of the stardom that would result in her icon status. Her portrayal of Peggy hints at the greatness to come.

Douglas gives a sensitive, if somewhat stagy and overacted, performance as the cuckolded Jerry. He depicts him as too soft to properly defend himself against Mae and Earl, but his intentions are always in the right place.

As the irascible Earl, Ryan gives a startlingly brutal performance. His character is hard to like and, instead of trying to make him more vulnerable, Ryan runs with it – the chemistry between he and Stanwyck is raw animal magnetism. It’s hard to believe there is any real love there, only a mutual understanding that they share commonalities of character.

More than anything, Clash by Night acts as postwar gender commentary, a familiar trope in noir. Mae tirelessly rants about the changing masculinity, resentfully referring to men as “little and nervous, like sparrows.” While talking to Peggy, Mae expresses her desire to wind up with a man who has confidence – confidence to allow her to have her own strength of character and independence but without feeling emasculated by it.

Unfortunately, the film closes with a moralistic return to “order.” The conclusion does little to truly resolve the issues at hand, instead leaving the audience to believe that Mae could suddenly embrace a reformed nature. Although not the finest example of the genre, the film’s central themes hit all the right notes.

Like many noirs before it, Clash by Night features a fundamentally decent man in Jerry, showing how a wayward femme fatale could lead him astray. The themes of betrayal and loss of power result in an uncomfortable tension simmering just beneath the surface so that, even without the criminal element, the film is justifiably classified as film noir.