In Clash by Night, Paul Douglas stars as Jerry, a lonely fisherman who lives with his elderly, alcoholic father. Things start to look up when Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) comes home. She’s beautiful, sophisticated, worldly—everything Jerry’s not. One date leads to two, and soon enough they’re even seeing wedding bells on the horizon. So Jerry introduces her to his best friend, local movie projectionist Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan).
Bad move, Jerry.
To quote James Ellroy, it’s that age-old noir story of “a man meets a woman and flushes his life down the toilet.” Less patient movies would skip right away to murder, lust, and betrayal, but not Clash by Night. Instead, it spends the first half of the movie building up hope in the characters with such sincerity that the audience thinks that maybe, just this once, things might work out. Any such hope is dashed in film’s second half, when all the characters screw up everything good they had going for themselves. The more promising Jerry and Mae’s relationship seems, the more twisting Lang’s direction becomes: the once-cozy home is fractured by camera movement, shadows are more pronounced, and latticed windows cut up bodies while summer sweat flows like blood. Modern noir author and scholar Megan Abbott perfectly captured that sense of slaughter that pervades Clash by Night in an essay she wrote for Noir of the Week: “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.”
Another atypical feature of Clash by Night is how little physical action there is (despite the occasional domestic violence between co-star Marilyn Monroe and her jealous boyfriend). With most of Clash by Night taking place indoors, with characters seated at tables or at bars, the theatrical origins of the film are plain to see (it’s based on a play by Clifford Odets, adapted to the screen by Alfred Hayes). It’s a very talky movie, but who’s gonna complain with such great dialogue? Surely one of Barbara Stanwyck’s zingiest lines is Mae’s four-word autobiography: “What do you want, Joe, my life history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.” Is there anything more twisted than Robert Ryan saying, “Didn't you ever want to cut up a beautiful dame? Jeremiah, you're a simple man.” And how could that same man say, only minutes later, “My ex, I wish she was run down. All the way down. Divorce is like the other person died. I keep saying she’s dead. She’s dead. Jeremiah, guard your castle. Your beautiful wife. Your wonderful baby. I’m tired.” As hardboiled as it is poetic, Clash by Night is one of the best scripts Lang ever worked with.
Despite the claustrophobia of the sets, or the inescapability of the town (heck, even the ever-independent Stanny couldn’t escape it forever—and if she couldn’t, no one could), Clash by Night is a lonely movie. It’s about characters compelled to make human connections they know they can’t sustain. There’s nothing romantic about Jerry, Mae’s got hot feet, and Earl’s a self-loathing, semi-psychotic movie projectionist who hates women but is emotionally dependent on them. These are some of the sorriest characters you’ll ever come across in a Fritz Lang movie. They’re also some of the most realistic, and recognizably human.