Waves crash violently, splitting against rocks, bringing turbulence onto the shore. There is a palpable unease as the credits role. It is this; a foreshadowing that opens Fritz Lang’s, Clash by Night (1952), which stars Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, and Marilyn Monroe.
“Home is where you come when you run out of places.”
Having lived and loved with nothing to show for it, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her childhood home an embittered and cynical woman. She’s back to the small fishing village in California to move in with her brother, Joe (Keith Andes). Except for those waves, this is a seemingly slow and lazy place, not the kind of place a woman of the world would find enthralling – or interesting, for that matter. From the first shot of Mae Doyle we know she’s not happy to be there, we gather she has no other recourse and a rather mundane existence lies ahead. But then, this is Barbara Stanwyck and there is nothing mundane about Stanwyck.
Local fisherman, Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) is taken with Mae Doyle as soon as he sees her. These two are in different leagues – simple stillness vs. complex torment – clear from the very first time they speak. Clear to us, that is. Jerry doesn’t see Mae, not in the same way we do. She warns him he knows nothing about her but Jerry ventures forth, trying to make soft a hardened woman. As for Mae, what has she to lose? There may be some possibilities here – she could do worse than be with a man who can take care of her. She concedes and eventually marries Jerry, the good-natured, big-hearted loaf she doesn’t love, but who is devoted to her – the salt of the earth – who happens to be the wrong seasoning for her. Mae needs spice and in spice trouble looms.
Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan) is a movie projectionist and Jerry D’Amato’s best friend. A mismatched friendship if ever there was one. For as kind and warm-hearted as Jerry is, Earl is crude and temperamental. A man, who, like Mae, has lived, loved and lost. Earl does little to disguise his own bitterness, which is laced self-loathing. Physically imposing, ruggedly handsome and incredibly misogynistic, there is little in Earl a woman should be drawn to, but Mae is, against her better judgment.
It’s not as if Mae doesn’t give marriage and motherhood an honest effort. She does. For a time – for half the movie, to be exact – there is stillness in the waters. Clash by Night is a film with two distinct halves. The first, a rather slow melodrama during which we see Mae try to conform to domestic life, which entails duty and responsibility. No passion. No danger. The waves come in spurts and only at a glance as she fights Earl Pfeiffer’s efforts to conquer her.
Then one day she looks out the window, restless, contemplating what lies ahead and sees nothing but more of the same, the oppressive doldrums of her daily existence. Being cared for is just not enough. Security is stifling. The waves begin to crash against the shore again, both literally and figuratively and the film regenerates with sizzling power as a forceful, albeit standard love triangle shifts into high gear.
Mae Doyle falls deep – and hard – for the troubled Earl Pfeiffer.
“Don’t kid me, baby. I know a bottle by the label.”
The moment when Mae succumbs to Earl is spectacular – a desperate scene born of need and loneliness. The desire and power in Earl bringing forth what she’s tried to suppress for a long time. Shot in what is perhaps the ultimate symbol of domesticity, the kitchen; the scene unfolds violently as two forces collide. An inevitability as Earl’s advances take hold of her – a rage that boiled up in him so quickly at that moment – and she has no choice but to match it.
The two kiss passionately, Mae’s hand pushing itself under his t-shirt and clawing as if her life depends on it. She’s gone – without control – to where she belonged all along. Danger. While watching this, I am both drawn to the sexual charge between them and compelled to look away. So I did what any normal woman would do. I rewound it and watched it again.
The kitchen scene starts a torrid affair between Mae and Earl. She’s chosen the type of man she was trying to get away from. And they clash by night – ending in near tragedy.
The screenplay for Clash by Night was written by Alfred Hayes based on a Clifford Odets play, which was originally performed on Broadway in 1941 with Tallulah Bankhead in the Stanwyck role and Lee J. Cobb playing Jerry D’Amato. The production was directed by Lee Strasberg and ran for a total of forty-nine performances. Robert Ryan played the role of the young, Joe Doyle with the role of Earl played by Joseph Schildkraut. Ryan was performing in a play opposite Louise Rainer, Clifford Odets’ ex-wife, when the playwright saw him and offered him the Doyle part in “Clash by Night.”
By the time Fritz Lang was ready to shoot the film version, ten years after the Broadway production, Robert Ryan was obviously too old to play Joe Doyle. Also, Ryan had, by now, made a name for himself as a heavy, or “hard-boiled” type (in noir terms), in films like Edward Dmytryk’s, Crossfire (1947) for which he received his only Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor, Jacques Tourneur’s, Berlin Express (1948) and Nicholas Ray’s, Born to be Bad (1950), all of which are highly recommended. There was no question that Earl Pfeiffer was the perfect role for Ryan.
Robert Ryan was perfect for noir and noir was perfect for Ryan. He seemed to understand the genre instinctively saying once he preferred to play men who’d been knocked down by life, because that’s what life does, it knocks you down. Robert Ryan played the hard-shelled, embittered working type as good as anybody. And that’s what one gets in Clash by Night where the ruggedly handsome, sexually charged Ryan is perfectly pitted against the equally impressive energies of Barbara Stanwyck, another noir natural. In fact, they are what make it worth watching more than once. Ryan plays Earl with an ingrained anger and a disdain that is self-directed, cast at women and life in general with equal vigor and brought forth by Odets’ biting dialogue. “You don’t like women, do you?” Mae asks him the night they meet. He replies, “Take any six of them – my wife included – throw them up in the air, the one who sticks to the ceiling, I like.” It’s a charged performance that leaves one sweaty.
It’s worth noting that Clash by Night was one of four films Robert Ryan made released in 1952, which is impressive. The other three were film noirs, Beware, My Lovely (directed by Harry Horner) and On Dangerous Ground (directed by Nicholas Ray) and a Western, the other genre Ryan was best known for, Budd Boetticher’s, Horizons West.
Aside from characterization and key plot points, there’s not a lot of easily recognizable noir in Clash by Night – in visual terms. Fritz Lang, who was a master of deep lights and shadows, makes no attempt to make those definitive noir shots stand out in this film, although he leave his stamp, particularly in the opening sequence mentioned above. The turbulence and inner turmoil of the characters symbolically portrayed by those clashing waves are recognizable themes in his films.
Lang changed the locale of Clash by Night from Clifford Odets’ Staten Island to a fishing village in California, but serves the intended oppressive seacoast atmosphere perfectly. It must be noted that Lang’s cinematographer in Clash by Night is the great Nicholas Musuraca whose work in Jacques Tourneur’s, Cat People (1943) and Out of the Past (1947) alone make him among the best ever. For Clash by Night Lang and Musuraca captured documentary footage of the fishing and canning industry, which Lang arranged into an elaborate narrative to start the film, a narrative which perfectly sets the mood in the lazy fishing village before the trouble begins.
There’s a piece of interesting trivia related to Clash by Night that’s worth sharing, although it is not related to Robert Ryan, but rather to Marilyn Monroe who plays Peggy, Joe Doyle’s girlfriend. Clash is the first film in which Monroe is credited before a film’s title, which came about due to some notoriety. It turns out Monroe had made headlines for a nude photo published in a calendar before the film was released. RKO wanting to take taking advantage of the attention she was getting, gave her top billing alongside three established stars, proving perhaps, that bad press is better than no press.
Clash by Night is an intense film about adultery and betrayal – the kind that gets under your skin. It’s rather surprising given the cast and director that the film doesn’t get more attention other than for being Monroe’s first major role.
In the end, after a rather abrupt resolution, the turbulence in Clash by Night is quelled. A boat filled with the promise of peace for the future sits on still waters just off the coast of a fishing village in California. But still waters run deep, which leaves one to wonder what the future holds… The sea, after all, does not like to be restrained.
I’m posting this today in honor of Robert Ryan who passed away forty years ago today – July 11, 1973.
This write-up was my contribution to the June edition of The Dark Pages, the planet’s only hard copy newsletter devoted to the shadowy world of film noir. That edition is a special double-issue dedicated to both Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden, two unforgettable noir gents, and it is a fantastic read! A special note of thanks to Karen of Shadows and Satin, editor of “The Dark Pages” for asking me to contribute a write-up alongside outstanding writers.