A searing drama that offers Barbara Stanwyck one of her best roles, Clash by Night examines the broken dreams, fiery desires, and debilitating disillusionment of a group of people in a sleepy, working-class fishing village. Director Fritz Lang's atmospheric adaptation of a Clifford Odets play also contains top-notch performances from Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas, and a young, luminous Marilyn Monroe. Warner Archive's stunning transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and excellent audio add significant luster to this absorbing, underrated film. Highly Recommended.
When we think of director Fritz Lang, we think of tough, gritty film noirs like Scarlet Street, The Big Heat, and Ministry of Fear or such milestone German Expressionist movies as Metropolis and M. What we don't think of are stage adaptations. They seem too confined, too static, too rigid for such an artistic, free-wheeling craftsman. Yet it's just that claustrophobia, that percolating tension, and the volatility that erupts when the characters can't bear suppressing their emotions and desires for another second that make Clifford Odets' Clash by Night a perfect vehicle for Lang's unique talents. This blistering, bruising interpersonal drama may not stand as one of Lang's best-known films, but it deserves far more attention than it gets.
Though the play only ran 49 performances on Broadway, Clash by Night makes a compelling movie, thanks largely to the naturalistic style of Lang, who deftly incorporates the Monterey setting into the tale of three damaged people who struggle to find scraps of happiness. The film opens with a fascinating semi-documentary sequence that takes us from the fishing boat to the factory as we witness how sardines are caught, cleaned, and canned. Those who toil on the boats or work the assembly lines are simple people who live in simple abodes. Some are content with their lot; others harbor big dreams, but feel trapped by their environs.
Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) was one of the few who got out, and after a decade in New York City and a failed romance with a married man who left her with nothing, she's come home. "Big ideas, small results" is how the weary, jaded Mae sums up her life, and she's not at all excited over the prospect of shacking up with her bitter, macho younger brother Joe (Keith Andes), who's not at all glad to see her, in the dilapidated house of their youth. "Home is where you come when you run out of places," she says.
Things look bleak for Mae, but she catches the eye of salt-of-the-earth fisherman Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas), a big, congenial lug who offers her the security, shelter, and protection she thinks she wants. She doesn't love him, but she marries him, so she can relax and breathe, yet after a year and a child, her restless, selfish nature and carnal desires begin to consume her once more. Feeling like a caged animal and stifled by ennui, Mae turns to Jerry's best friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a strapping, sullen, uncouth, often drunk, yet strangely alluring man, for the passion and excitement she craves.
Dimensional characters, dialogue that's both snappy and poetic, and raw emotion draw us into Clash by Night and keep us transfixed throughout. At times, the confrontations between Mae and Jerry and Mae and Earl become a bit overwrought, but that's how fiery personalities sometimes react in the heat of the moment. Their tempestuous triangle propels the narrative, but it's nicely complemented by the equally stormy relationship between Mae's brawny brother Joe and his voluptuous, firecracker girlfriend Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), who gives as good as she gets. The two tussle, bicker, frolic, and don't even try to suppress their physical hunger for each other. Their animalistic and idealistic young love provides a stark contrast to the cynicism and rueful despair that consume their older - but not wiser - counterparts.
Lang uses shadowy noir techniques to heighten the characters' emotional instability and raise the narrative's stakes. His elegant style also goes a long way toward softening the material's staginess and lending it a palpable cinematic feel. The script by two-time Oscar nominee Alfred Hayes (who would also write the screenplay for Lang's Human Desire a couple of years later) opens the story up just enough and seems to retain a fair portion of Odets' original dialogue. The playwright, whose most famous work is the boxing drama Golden Boy (Stanwyck starred in the 1939 film version), built his career exploring the trials and tribulations of blue-collar workers with lofty, unattainable dreams, and amid all the dirt and grime in Clash by Night, a dreamy air hangs over the film.
Joan Crawford was the first choice to play Mae, but thank goodness she turned the role down. Stanwyck, as she consistently does, inhabits the part, which came her way at a pivotal point in her life. Freshly divorced from actor Robert Taylor, who left her for a younger woman, Stanwyck could identify with Mae's heartache, bitterness, and fatigue and she wrings every ounce of emotion from every line. Mae isn't a likable character, but Stanwyck makes her sympathetic without tempering her coarseness. Douglas and Ryan couldn't be too more different actors, yet Stanwyck creates potent chemistry with each of them and makes it easy to see how Mae could be drawn to both men.
She also works wonderfully well with the young, inexperienced Monroe in her first substantial role. (Clash by Night was also the first film in which Monroe received above-the-title billing.) Peggy is a small part, but Monroe maximizes her every screen moment, even drawing attention away from the magnetic Stanwyck. She positively glows throughout and whenever she flashes her dazzling, megawatt smile she juices the movie with a jolt of electricity. Peggy is sexy, but not a sexpot; she's a blonde, but not a dumb blonde, and Monroe plays her with a refreshingly natural, easygoing grace. She's sassy and spunky, tender and vulnerable, and flaunts just the right amount of doe-eyed naïveté. In this early role, Monroe, who never gets enough credit for her acting ability, makes very few false moves and telegraphs her impending superstar status.
Not to be outdone, the men of Clash by Night also make strong impressions. Douglas supplies a dose of warmth and sincerity that's as hefty as his frame. As the trusting, supportive Jerry, he's blindsided by Mae and Earl's brutal betrayal and our hearts bleed for him. Ryan, on the other hand, wallows in self-pity as Earl and almost browbeats Mae into submission. His lack of regard for Jerry and willingness to hurt his friend to gain what he wants is chilling, and Ryan doesn't shrink from showcasing the character's myriad unsavory qualities. Ryan was one of the screen's finest actors, but he never achieved the same level of stardom as some of his contemporaries, probably because he shirked typical leading-man roles in favor of quirkier, more disturbed characters into whom he completely disappeared. He and Stanwyck make a dynamite pair and it's a shame they only worked together on one other film, the vastly inferior Escape to Burma.
Clash by Night also contains solid performances by the beefy Andes, who spends much of the movie brandishing his chiseled chest, but when his shirt is on he shows off his considerable acting chops while generating plenty of heat with Monroe, and J. Carroll Naish as Jerry's obnoxious and manipulative Uncle Vince, who gleefully opens his nephew's eyes to Mae and Earl's treachery.
Though not regarded as one of Lang's best films, Clash by Night delivers on a number of levels and holds up well because of its timeless themes and authentic portrayals. Its melodrama occasionally goes overboard, but Lang keeps the movie grounded. His artistry enhances the story's lyricism and his naturalistic approach helps us relate to the characters and their respective predicaments. Clash by Night may not be film noir, but like its title implies, it's dark and dramatic, and those who appreciate Lang's work will enjoy discovering it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Clash by Night arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Forgive the repetition, but Warner Archive's brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative yields another in what every classic movie fan hopes is a never-ending string of utterly dazzling 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers. Superb clarity and contrast, inky blacks, bright whites that resist blooming (the white foam of the ocean surf is especially well rendered), and beautifully graded grays combine to create a stunning, film-like picture that faithfully honors Nicholas Musuraca's stark yet elegant cinematography. Faint grain, which fluctuates in intensity just a tad throughout the film, supplies essential texture that heightens the impact of the rundown interiors, background details are easy to discern, and excellent shadow delineation keeps the image crisp during nocturnal scenes.
Razor-sharp close-ups showcase Douglas' bushy eyebrows, Ryan's sunken cheeks and rugged complexion, Stanwyck's creamy skin, and the young Monroe's burgeoning luminescence. The extensive rear projection work is noticeable, but surprisingly well integrated into the frame and nary a nick, mark, or errant scratch dot the pristine print. While I don't own the 2005 DVD, I can say with certainty that Clash by Night has never looked better and fans of Lang and the cast will be thrilled with this impeccable presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that deftly balances music, dialogue, and effects and immerses us in the seaside atmosphere. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Roy Webb's dramatic score without any distortion, sonic accents like crashing waves, the rattle of movie projectors, train bells, and a ringing alarm clock are distinct, and subtleties like cooing seagulls, the gentle motors of fishing boats, and the ticking of a clock nicely shade the action. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle muck up the mix.
All the supplements from the 2005 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Audio Commentary - The late filmmaker and historian Peter Bogdanovich provides an interesting but not particularly enlightening commentary that features excerpts from a 1965 interview he did with director Fritz Lang. Bogdanovich debunks Clash by Night's noir classification, dissects Lang's style and his use of silent movie techniques, analyzes the narrative's theme of reality versus illusion, mentions the brouhaha over Monroe's nude calendar that erupted during shooting, defines Clifford Odets' dialogue as "city poetry," and praises the work of Stanwyck, Ryan, and Monroe. Lang also lauds Stanwyck, noting her patience with Monroe and saying "she behaved like an angel, she was really wonderful." In addition, the director talks about the interference of Monroe's acting coach, explains how he mixed rear projection with live action, and relates one of his experiences during the blacklist era. Though Lang's remarks are not extensive, it's always a treat to hear Golden Age directors comment on their work.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview highlights many of the movie's most melodramatic moments.
Clash by Night delivers on a variety of levels and deserves more acclaim than it's gotten over the years. Fritz Lang's superior direction, the riveting performances of Stanwyck, Ryan, Douglas, and Monroe, and a lyrical script produce an involving, adult film that insightfully examines such potent topics as passion, trust, and disillusionment. An absolutely gorgeous 4K scan of the original camera negative, robust audio, and solid commentary track distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation of this underrated classic. Highly Recommended.