Release Date(s)1952 (May 2, 2023)
Studio(s)Wald/Krasna Productions/RKO Radio Pictures (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
Clash by Night, based on a play by Clifford Odets, combines the talents of two actresses—an established star and a newcomer who would soon be a household name. Set in the fishing village of Monterey, California, the film centers on a world-weary woman who returns to her girlhood home, seeking security and stability.
Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) comes back into town unannounced, her first stop a bar and grill where she orders a shot of whiskey. A former neighbor, Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), recognizes her from years past. Mae makes a quick exit and heads to her former home, now occupied by brother Joe (Keith Andes). Because she has no place else to stay and no real plan, Joe says Mae can stay with him until she decides what to do next. Joe’s girlfriend, Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), takes an immediate liking to Mae.
Jerry asks Mae out on a date and the two seem to hit it off. But Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), brash and handsome, immediately sets his eyes on Mae. Recognizing he’s the kind of womanizer she knows all too well, she resists his charm. Jerry is crazy about Mae and wants to marry her but she vacillates. He offers her the security and home life she wants, but it’s the wild, impulsive Earl she can’t get out of her mind.
Jerry and Earl are very different types. Jerry is cheerful, friendly, hard-working, and down to earth. Earl is bitter and contemptuous, and trades on his good looks to live a hedonistic lifestyle that still holds temptations for Mae. Earl doesn’t do much to conceal his attraction to Mae but Jerry is so trusting that he can’t believe Mae would betray his love. The romantic triangle plays out as Mae comes ultimately to realize what’s most important to her.
Directed by Fritz Lang, Clash by Night is well cast and all performances are strong. Stanwyck was born to play Mae Doyle, who returns from a decade in the big city with her view of life tarnished by bad luck, bad men, and bad times. Jerry represents everything she’s missed and yearns for, but Earl’s allure is powerful. Stanwyck’s walk, shrug of shoulders, and cynical glance speak volumes and she delivers the Clifford Odets dialogue like a woman who’s experienced lots of disappointments. Yet even as a resentful failure at the end of a long line of regrets, Stanwyck exudes star glamour.
Douglas, not especially handsome and powerfully built, is entirely believable as a fisherman. Simple in his wants, thoughtful, and honest, his Jerry knows his own strength and is afraid to let himself lose control. Mae tests him, to be sure, and his reactions show the gentle giant he is. Ryan’s Earl, on the other hand, is a hard-drinking smooth talker whose ladies’ man demeanor has served him well. He sees in Mae a kindred spirit and is convinced she can be his.
Marilyn Monroe, in her first big screen role, does an excellent job in a fairly small role. She became known later in her career for having difficulty remembering lines, but here she seems confident and at ease as Peggy. She’s on screen in a number of lengthy takes, and she keeps up with the camera and the other actors to provide a first-rate performance. And, of course, she’s beautiful, even as a fish cannery worker in baggy jeans and a shabby blouse.
Clash by Night was shot by director of photography Nichols Musuraca on black-and-white 35 mm film and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The new Warner Archive transfer is sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. There’s outstanding use of shadows to create mood in a noir-ish way. Lang uses intricate camera movements to make the scenes come alive. He isn’t content just to photograph a stage play. Blacks are velvety and grain quality is nicely reproduced. Detail is excellent, with footage of the fishing boats and cannery, Monroe’s blonde hair, clothing patterns, and furnishings in Jerry’s house well delineated.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue is well recorded and distinct. J. Carrol Naish, as Jerry’s Uncle Vince, speaks with an accent to suggest Italian lineage. Ambient background sounds in the bar never overwhelm conversations. Roy Webb’s original score adds appropriate atmosphere without becoming soap opera-y. There are no audible imperfections.
Bonus material includes the following:
- Audio Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich
- Theatrical Trailer (2:25)
Periodically, Fritz Lang is heard commenting on aspects of the film from an interview Peter Bogdanovich conducted with him some years earlier. Bogdanovich notes that Clash by Night is the first film in which Marilyn Monroe received over-the-title billing. Author Clifford Odets is best known for the plays Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy. Filmed in Monterey, California, the opening of the film establishes in documentary style the milieu of the fishing village, as tons of sardines are unloaded from fishing boats, cleaned and moved along lengthy assembly lines to be canned. The machinery of the fishing industry is shown without dialogue and reflects director Fritz Lang’s facility with visual story telling. Many of his best films were shot during the silent era. Barbara Stanwyck had a long career in movies and later on TV. She was especially good in film noir. Though not a film noir, Clash by Night is shot like one. Bogdanovich notes, regarding her nearly continuous smoking in the picture, that “nobody quite smokes cigarettes like Barbara Stanwyck.” Odets wrote dialogue like “city poetry” and it possesses heightened realism. He analyzes several scenes, including a “day for night”—an outdoor night scene shot underexposed in daylight. Lang planned a series of complex shots that Marilyn Monroe navigated with ease. Her drama coach stayed on set and signaled Monroe when she thought a take was good. Realizing this was going on, Lang banned the coach from the set. Monroe is underrated as an actress. Even in this small role, she “holds the screen.” Hitchcock, in his early work, was influenced by Fritz Lang. The romantic triangle goes back to pagan times and has been a staple of movies since the silent days.
Clash by Night is captivating and Stanwyck’s performance is the glue that holds the picture together. Alternately cool, vulnerable, and cynical, she keeps the plot from slipping into sentimentality. It’s unfortunate that, in typical Hollywood fashion of the time, the ending seems more a dictate from the Production Code than a natural resolution of conflict.
- Dennis Seuling