Sunday 20 March 2022

Movie Review: Clash By Night (1952)

A romantic drama with an edge, Clash By Night uses a love triangle to contrast domesticity with animal magnetism.

Ten years after departing, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her humble California hometown fishing community, having failed to find neither a husband nor a fortune on her travels. Her brother Joe (Keith Andes) treats her return with suspicion, but his girlfriend Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), who works at the cannery, makes quick friends with Mae.

Steady and respectful Jerry (Paul Douglas) runs a successful fishing boat and starts dating Mae. She finds him reliable but unexciting. Jerry introduces Mae to his friend, cinema projector operator Earl (Robert Ryan). Mae and Earl are of the same caustic and cynical breed, and are naturally attracted to each other. But Mae chooses security over danger, marries Jerry, and they have a child. When Earl re-enters Mae's life, trouble follows.

An adaptation of the 1941 play by Clifford Odets, Clash By Night hugs its stage origins. Director Fritz Lang inserts contextual fishing town shots of waves crashing against the shoreline, clouds traveling across the sky, and scenes of fishing activity as Jerry's boat brings in the daily catch. But that's the extent of the film's outdoor ambition. The bulk of the scenes are staged indoor dialogue exchanges, with theatrical performances to match.

The adult - sometimes torrid - subject matter is moderately engaging. The script by Alfred Hayes boldly tackles lust and adultery, and allows space for Mae to explore her options without immediate condemnation. More generally, Clash By Night underlines a theme of women wriggling free of men's expectations and speaking out about their individual wants and needs. Jerry, Joe and Earl are different men but their offerings are predictable. In their search for happiness, Mae and Peggy articulate - or demand - evolved treatments.

As the returnee who stirs the sleepy town's pot, Mae recognizes the comfortably boring benefits of Jerry, but has an inner dark side yearning for a shiftless man like Earl. Barbara Stanwyck thrives in the role's duality, but could have benefited from elaboration on Mae's wilder instincts. The rest of the performances are robust, rising up to the challenge of frequent shouting.

A sub-plot, probably intended as comic relief but hardly delivering any, involves Jerry looking after his rickety and frequently inebriated father with the dubious help of scrappy uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish). These secondary characters meander in and out of scenes to cool down the overheated romantic agitations.

Demonstrating progressive sparks, Clash By Night doesn't break down the walls but is a worthwhile catch.

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