This week in the Best of Film Noir, we’re taking a look at a classic movie, Clash By Night, starring the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck. Some might think that Clash By Night is not film noir, but it has everything that noir is in it: a noir hero, a femme fatale, love, betrayal, violence, power, control and more. Even if you disagree with me and say Clash By Night is not noir, it’s still a powerful movie…
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
I normally start by talking about the noir hero, but in Clash By Night, it’s the femme fatale who is the show. Barbara Stanwyck plays Mae Doyle, a woman who’s taken a beating from life. Mae returns to her hometown and shacks up with Jerry (played by Paul Douglas). You’d think this would be enough, but a femme fatale doesn’t make the best choices, and Mae is no exception. Even though she is with nice, stable Jerry, Mae embarks on an affair with a hard-drinking, woman-hating man, Earl (played by Robert Ryan). Stanwyck is stunning in this role, capturing the sexual frustration, desperation, and selfishness of Mae.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
Robert Ryan is our noir hero, a misogynistic, violent man. Ryan is wonderful in the role of Earl. He’s brutish and cruel, but there’s also an anguish in him. He’s troubled and cynical, and underneath it all, he knows it. He cracks at one point, crying to Mae: help me, Mae, I’m dying of loneliness. Earl hates women, and yet he cannot stop his dependence on them. And it’s his downfall.
The Best of Film Noir – The Ending
Clash By Night has an interesting ending, one that has prompted a lot of discussion. Is the clash between Mae and Earl just about power and control? Or is there more to it, a possibility of redemption or forgiveness (as critic Tony D’Ambra says)? Do we see Mae finally examine her the poor choices she’s made, and the consequences of those choices? Some think the ending is soft, that violence between Mae and Earl would’ve been more in character. I’ll leave that to you to decide.
The Best of Film Noir – Great Direction and Writing
Clash By Night was directed by the great Fritz Lang, adapted from a screenplay by Clifford Odets (Tallulah Bankhead starred in the stage play). Lang did a phenomenal job of creating a documentary-like quality to the film. Mae’s hometown is a small fishing village, and Lang captures all the details of day-to-day life of the fishermen and cannery workers. Lang, through camera angles, shows us the complicated relationships at play in the film. The ending itself, where we find ourselves wanting to look, and also turn away, is staged to leave us wondering, and mulling over what it all meant.
Clash By Night is full of lonely, sad people…and yet they are very realistic. Modern noir author and scholar Megan Abbott perfectly captures 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.
The Best of Film Noir – Trivia And Goofs
This is one of Marilyn Monroe’s first starring roles, where she got billing before the title credits.
When Mae and Jerry are in the movies, Mae tells him this is where we came in and they walk out. It was common in the 1950s for viewers to walk in during a picture, watch it till the end and then wait for the picture to play again and leave when it gets to the part they came into the theater.
Thanks to IMDb for those!
Film noir or not, do not miss Clash By Night. It’s one-of-a-kind, and you’ll be glad you watched it. So grab your popcorn and settle in for a treat :).
Want more film noir with a dose of humor? Try reading the Reed Ferguson mystery series. The first in the series is This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies.
From Kirkus Reviews:
The promising kickoff to Pawlish’s comic mystery series, starring far-from-perfect PI Reed Ferguson. Pawlish earns high marks for plot construction, with twists and turns naturally unfolding as Ferguson, inexperienced but not incapable, feels his way through the case. A good-humored mystery series worth following.
From Readers’ Favorites:
This is one witty, hilarious detective story that will keep the reader glued to the pages till the very end.