Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This low-key but above-average drama has probably been included in Warners' film noir series
due to the presence of Marilyn Monroe. Clash by Night is a bona fide noir even
if it lacks most of the earmarks of the style. The attitude is there, built into Clifford Odets'
disenchanted characters, but the usual violence and visual excesses are missing. It's a quality
production, with excellent direction from Fritz Lang and a fine mix of studio filming and
May Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to the house of her brother Joe (Keith Andes)
after being on her own in the city for ten years. She's courted by Jerry D'Amato (Paul
Douglas), a sincere but unexciting fisherman, but resists marrying him out of fear that she'll
not be faithful. They eventually marry and have a child. Then Mae finds herself drawn to Jerry's
best friend, the cynical Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan).
Fritz Lang tries out some honest cinematic ideas in Clash by Night starting with an
unusual documentary opening before any of the characters are introduced. But we're soon in the
territory of playright Clifford Odets and his stylized dialogue and stagebound love triangle.
Stanwyck, Douglas and Ryan are fine at keeping the sharp talk sounding as naturalistic
as possible, but we're soon aware that trouble is brewing. Nice guy Jerry just doesn't realize that
his patronizing pal Earl is friendly only because he's lonely and likes to play the smart
guy. Mae sees through Earl but realizes that she's drawn to powerful men who know what they want.
The movie is noir because it sees no solution for the triangle. Mae talks an independent
line but also wants a man of her own. Jerry is not going to suddenly become 100% self-aware and
take charge of the situation. And Earl's selfishness is only going to become more
evident under pressure.
Warners' packaging text grossly misrepresents the movie, claiming that Mae was a 'good-time girl'
back in the city when all we know is that she had an unsuccessful affair with a married politician.
The film hints that she has experience, which puts her ahead of both the virginal Jerry and the
romantic loser Earl, who gripes about his failed marriage to a stripper we never see. The original
play was written during the Depression and probably situated all three characters lower on the moral
scale. As it is, Mae talks tough but is a softie, Earl is a born misogynist, and Jerry is the kind of
guy who laughs at the same stale jokes again and again. This is the core of the picture and the
only part that really works, if one is attuned to the stylized dialogue. "You know what I'd like?
I'd like to get unborn ..." Otherwise, Clash by Night seems rather overwrought.
Lang balances the drama well and occupies himself with solving technical problems, like a beachside
club shot that uses two rear-projections. Keith Andes and Marilyn Monroe run across the screen as part of
a projection plate on a beach, and then appear on the right half of the screen 'live' in front
of a second rear-projection plate.
But the movie's action lacks a strong sense of momentum or fatality. Much of the running time is
taken up by Jerry's sweet father (Silvio Minciotti) and
larcenous uncle (J. Carrol Naish), and a subplot with Joe Doyle and his girlfriend Peggy that
draws more attention than it should because Peggy is played by Marilyn Monroe. ("Always take the
man who'll break the door down ...").
The worst thing Clash by Night can think of is infidelity; Mae hasn't
overcome her need to stray and makes a good case for the banal misery of broken homes, or potential
broken homes. The faultless Jerry is never tasked to stretch or open up - he just is. He can't
even become emotional on his own and the plot requires his troublemaking uncle to provoke him to
attack Earl. Jerry is sincere, but he's also a little on the infantile side, a credible character
difficult to fully respect. Mae marries him out of a yearning to 'be taken care of,' something
that in real life happens every day but in the movies never seems 'courageous' enough.
The solution is for Mae to crawl back for forgiveness. It's the right thing to do,
but it's not a satisfactory conclusion. Earl is sent packing, Mae learns her lesson at least for
the present, and Jerry decides to be as he always was, trusting and basically clueless.
Clash by Night also shows us a bit of something rarely seen in the movies, a projection
booth in a movie theater. Things certainly changed from 1952 to 1972, when Savant was briefly
the worst projectionist in film history). Because nitrate prints were still in use, Unions used
safety rules to mandate
full staffing, often with two projectionists in the booth. Earl Pfeiffer's booth is as clean as
a surgery and he attends to his craft like a Zen master. No wonder the old studio prints we saw at
UCLA were often in flawless condition.
Warners' DVD of Clash by Night is in fine condition in a transfer that gives Nicholas
Musuraca's excellent B&W photography an impressive showcase. Noir fans may be disappointed
by the film's lack of hardboiled detectives and escapist thrills, but they might like Peter
Bogdanovich's commentary, which is salted with
audio bites from his own 1965 interview with Lang. They go over the same topics Lang discussed with
Lotte Eisner for her film bio - working with Monroe, the rear-projection, the docu opening - but
they're all good stories.
An original trailer is also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Clash by Night rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 30, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson