Friday, April 10, 2009

Clash by Night (1952)

Editor's note: This week's article is from storyteller and film-noir scholar Megan Abbott. Abbott won a 2008 Edgar Award for her fantastic crime thriller Queenpin.Her new novel Bury Me Deep- featuring a cover that all film-noir fans will appreciate - will be released in July.

Written by Megan Abbott

On his DVD commentary track, Peter Bogdanovich notes, in passing, that some call Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) a film noir, which he refers to as a genre. He dismisses such claims on the ground that it is not “a thriller or a suspense piece.” He concedes, however, that it’s “shot a bit like a film noir.” There’s a lot in his comments to irritate noir aficionados, most especially their reductiveness. But what Bogdanovich misses most is the fever that pulses through the movie is the same one that burns through most classic film noir: that constant, brooding fear of sexual betrayal and loss of power. In fact, few movies better capture the post-war mood of gender anxiety and rage.

With its showy Clifford Odets screenplay (adapted from his 1941 play), Clash by Night features a quintessential noir plot: Mae (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman who’s been knocked around by life, returns to her hometown and settles down with Jerry (Paul Douglas), a nice, stable working man even as she finds herself sinking into a violent affair with Jerry’s best friend, Earl (Robert Ryan), a self-hating, hard-drinking misanthrope who harbors fantasies of sticking his burlesque performer wife “full of pins just to see if blood runs out.”

The first time the pair meets, Lang focuses in on Mae’s appraising gaze as she watches Earl, a movie house projectionist, load the film reels, clearly admiring his form. It’s a traditionally male gaze, a male position. Likewise, it is Earl who preens, poses, who talks too much, who performs. Mae is so quiet that first night (listening to Earl spew venom about his wife, whom he says, in vintage Odets-speak, “eats money”) that Earl even comments on it. Her quiet is a kind of power and it unsettles him. She has his number. “You don’t like women, do you?” she finally says. 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.”

From the start, then, the movie is a pitched battle between two lions. “What are you,” Jerry demands of them both when he learns of their affair. “In a zoo, the keep them in a cage. They keep them apart. They keep them from hurting people.”

But the battle between Mae and Earl is endlessly complicated. “You’re just like me,” he tells her at one point. “You’re born and you’d like to get unborn.” They both see in each other what they hate in themselves and it both horrifies and arouses them. Desire and violence aren’t so much joined by the plot as revealed as always simultaneous. And always conflicted too. The yearning to practically consume each other, to tear each other to pieces, transmutes four or five times in the same scene to a longing for connection, a neediness—especially on Earl’s part. And that need is both repulsive to Mae and infinitely appealing.

In various commentaries on the film, critics have claimed that Mae likes Earl’s brutality, that she is turned on by it. But Clash by Night is so much twistier than that about gender relations. For Mae, relationships are about a complicated negotiation of power and control. When asked by Peggy (an awkward and delicious young Marilyn Monroe) what she wants in a man, Mae replies, “Confidence. I want a man to give me confidence. Somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods. Somebody to try to beat off the world when it tries to swallow you up.” She doesn’t just want to be cared for; she wants someone who will make her feel strong and yet not feel emasculated by it. The arch subcommentary in this scene is that Mae offers her insight while wearing an apron and hanging laundry. In a later scene, Earl will say to her, “I can’t see you doing it. Hanging up the family wash.” Indeed, there is something pained about the pristine white blouses and immaculately flared skirts she dons, as if a costume. Earl implicitly understands it as a kind of defeat. It is a feeling he shares. “You know they used to call me the Kingfish of Buckman County,” he tells Mae. “I had zip, flash, pep a future. But that was faraway and long ago.”

But Mae marries Jerry not because she has surrendered to repressive domesticity. She feels he is a “comfortable” man—a man who “isn’t mean and doesn’t hate women.” Later, when Jerry first shows his jealousy, she bemoans to Earl, “Aren’t there any more comfortable men in this world? Now they’re all little and nervous like sparrows or big and worried like sick bears. Men.” All the fears and tension of post-war masculinity are contained in that short speech. But Earl, whom one might think would be enraged by her words, is too busy being aroused by the hate in it. Listening to her excitedly, he spits out his matching epithet, “Women.”

Mae is not crying out for an uncomplicated brute here, however. She’s asking for a man who doesn’t feel threatened, by other men or by herself. Weakness is not about a lack of virility but a lack of a sense of self (she tells Peggy to marry her lunkish boyfriend because he “knows himself”). As for Earl, she dismisses him as a “sparrow in a tree top.”

In the end, though, it’s Earl’s desperation that Mae is drawn to, especially when twinned, perpetually, with a clawing desire. “Somebody has to need me, love me,” he begs her.

“Help me. Mae. Help me.” It’s always reciprocal, if not commensurate. Both lovers want to be needed but not sucked dry. But everyone of Odets’s sentences coils back on itself, showing the way desire is always cruel, sadistic. Wanting is always about taking, needing is always a vulnerability exposed. And if the language doesn’t offer that turn of the screw, the performers do. “Tell me what you want me to be and I’ll be it,” Earl says. “Mae, I’m dying of loneliness.” Only Ryan could make such vulnerable, open-hearted words also seem like a threat. You watch him as he utters these anguished lines and you can’t help but feel them as sheer menace. We understand them as both a plea for love and a power grab.

When Mae finally succumbs to Earl’s violent advances, we see it as a fair fight and one in which the terms are absolutely understood. In the very center of ’50s domesticity, the kitchen—in fact, right against the kitchen sink—Earl seizes her and, as Lang positions the camera behind Earl’s back, Mae’s hand jams itself under his undershirt, clawing beneath it. It is both achingly sexy and horrifying. We, like Earl and Mae, don’t know if we want to lean forward or shield our eyes.


  1. A penetrating review of the sexual dynamics and the richness of the dialog, but Megan you need to explore the ending as you have told only half the story.

    Let me paraphrase my own review.

    On one level, the picture is pure melodrama: sexual frustration, infidelity, deception, selfishness, and betrayal. On a deeper level it is about the possibility of redemption and the power of forgiveness. A female protagonist confronts the disastrous consequences of the false choices she has made. A tour-de-force performance from Barbara Stanwyck, who in her role as Mae, delivers a profound critique:

    Earl Pfieffer (Robert Ryan)
    Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck)

    Earl: You feel guilty? That’s the way they want you to feel.

    Mae: They?

    Earl: The world! All the people who haven’t got guts enough to do what they want to do…

    Mae: All my life I’ve walked away from things.

    Earl: And what’s stopping you now? Responsibility? … I told you somebody’s throat has to be cut!

    Mae: But it’s never our’s, is it Earl? It’s always someone else’s - why?

    Earl: Because they’re soft.

    Mae: And we’re tough, we’re hard? And if someone suffers because of us, that’s just too bad? That’s the way life is? Huh. How many times have I told myself that. Nothing counted but me. My disappointments, my unhappiness… I thought I was being honest. I thought I wasn’t lying, but I was. I said to the world, this is what I am, take me or leave me, so that it was always on my terms that they had to accept me. But it was a trick. Can’t you see Earl? It was a trick to avoid the responsibility of belonging to someone else.

    Earl: What are you giving me? An hour ago you were in love.

    Mae: I don’t know what the word means anymore. Not the way we use it.

    Earl: You knew yesterday…

    Mae: Love because we’re lonely, love because were frightened, love because we’re bored.

  2. Tony: Thanks for your comments. Very insightful.

  3. That, may I say, is one helluva review. Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck made only two movies together, this and Escape to Burma (1955), a film unworthy of their talents. It's a shame, they were absolute dynamite in combination.

  4. I enjoyed this film because even though it was emotional melodrama there wasn't any sighing at the camera with sincere eyes. Ever since Mae and Eerl first meet there's tension and a possibility of violence. You wait for Mae or Earl to explode meanwhile the peaceful Jerry just swallows everything. In the end it's Jerry who pops.

    The whole movie is set in a small town by the sea. The beautiful shots of dark clouds in the sky and raging sea support the emotional tone of the film.

  5. saw this movie this morning. Marily Monroe was wonderful with her fiesty style and willingness to share her needs. Robert Ryan, he is one of the most underrated actors of our times. Stanwick was powerful, flawed, sad and angry, power hungry. But the ending went soft. I thought reuniting would be impossible. When she clutches him and sticks her hand under Ryan's t shirt, I thought we were going to see somebody get stabbbed to death .

  6. Dear Megan,
    Your analysis of Clash By Night was terrific. Clear and concise, yet brimming with insights and information, it made me want to toss my "to do" list, turn off the phones, the lights and my conscience, and hunker down to watch this flick. Note To Myself: Get my hands on a copy of Queenpin.


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