CLASH BY NIGHT (Fritz Lang, 1952)

Perhaps the most solitudinous love poem in the English language, where the poet’s lover, whom the poet addresses, may as easily be absent as present, someone to whom he speaks as though she were with him, Matthew Arnold’s phenomenal 1867 “Dover Beach” endorses fidelity, at least the illusion of love and peace, in a loveless, tumultuous world “where ignorant armies clash by night.” The sea that begins in calm in this meditative poem thus resolves itself in crashing waves which both divide the lovers and spur at least the poet’s defiant desire that they come—that they be—together. No poem better situates the love of a couple, if there is a couple, in the larger world. One thing only is certain: uncertainty.

Clifford Odets borrowed the title of his 1941 play from the fabulous final metaphor of Arnold’s poem. The U.S. was on the brink of engaging in the Second World War. When Fritz Lang, also a Leftist, made his film based on the play about ten years later, the war was over but the U.S. was embroiled in a civil war, a footnote to the Cold War that the U.S. initiated in part by the way it had ended the world war, where some American citizens, fired-up by a monster named McCarthy, retroactively assaulted the patriotism of other American citizens. In Lang’s remarkable film, Uncle Vince (played by J. Carrol Naish, who had worked for William A. Wellman, Jean Renoir and John Ford) announces, “The trouble with this country is too much education, too much free speech.” I have no idea whether this character exists in the play (his instigative role in exciting marital jealousy in one of the main characters, suggesting Iago a bit, is largely indigestible), but this utterance of his suggests Senator Joseph McCarthy’s influence perfectly.

In short, Lang’s film resonates—and it opens brilliantly, with a documentary prologue that follows a catch of commercial fishermen from ocean to unloading dock to cannery assembly line in Monterey, California. (Odets’s play is set in Staten Island.) Everyone here is engaged in productive, responsible work; but it is monotonous, draining work that has long since replaced human beings with zombies or automatons. (Lang, of course, earlier directed Metropolis, 1926.) Jerry D’Amato—in the play, Wilenski—later makes an interesting remark. Asked whether he enjoys his work as a fisherman, he defensively answers, “It’s what I do!” It is as though he were responding to the question with his own question: “What kind of question is that?” The implication is that work is a necessity, not a choice, and there is scarcely any choice involved as to what kind of work one ends up doing. Uncle Vince doesn’t work. Jerry’s father, on the other hand, simply wants to be working. “I like to work!” he announces, as though the fact indicates his character. A widower who apparently hasn’t a clue as to the nature of his son, his delusion about his own character may be all that he has to hold on to.

In this film, people don’t much know the people in their midst, even the ones to whom they are most closely connected. Mae, who has returned to Monterey after a decade-long absence during which her dreams of success and happiness have collapsed (“Home is where you come to when you run out of places”), tries dissuading Jerry after he proposes marriage: “People have funny things swimming inside them.” She is talking about herself, of course; it doesn’t occur to Mae that the same is true about Jerry, her view of whom is as limited and simplistic as his father’s. Ignoring her own remark, she marries Jerry, hoping that the financial security he offers will give her “confidence” and “a place to rest.” It is doubtful that this is possible. Jerry: “I suppose that’s what everyone’s afraid of. Ending up getting old and lonely.”

Lang isn’t one to contest too strenuously Odets’s male chauvinism, which perhaps takes the form in Odets’s play of a coded defense of his unfaithfulness in his marriage to Luise Rainer. If so, it isn’t cricket that Odets made the wife the unfaithful one. Still, in Lang’s film Mae’s gravitation towards Jerry’s best friend, Earl, whom she despises and then suddenly “loves” and with whom she is prepared to run off, fascinates. It is willed, like what the speaker proposes in “Dover Beach,” but in Mae’s case because she wants to be irresponsible again, this time by exiting her marriage and, possibly, Gloria, her and Jerry’s infant. The film, I understand, ends more tidily than the play—though not too tidily. No irreparable violence occurs, and Mae and Jerry tentatively reconcile.

Lang is greatly assisted by Nicholas Musuraca’s black-and-white cinematography; but his chief asset, beyond his own visual gifts, is his cast. Only Robert Ryan, as Earl (he had played Mae’s brother on Broadway), is largely out-of-focus through too much familiarity with awfully similar misogynistic roles. Barbara Stanwyck is best as Mae, whose decision that she has been selfish and should change convinces precisely because it is willed, a product, that is, of Mae’s sensitive intelligence. In a role that Tallulah Bankhead and Kim Stanley played before and after her, Stanwyck is flawlessly modulated and bone-deep. Moreover, her appearance in the role additionally resonates because Stanwyck had played Lorna Moon in Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) based on Odets’s 1937 play, and Mae is soul-sister to Lorna—in effect, Lorna having traveled a different life-path. (Jerry’s showing his daughter the moon for the first time is surely an “in”-reference linking her mother to Moon.) Paul Douglas is strong as Jerry, who doesn’t know himself and doesn’t want to, and Marilyn Monroe is excellent as Peggy, who capitulates to Joe, Mae’s brother, who demands that she shed all of his sister’s unconventional influence. Monroe, in an early straight dramatic role, is not only believable but always interesting—although the irony of her quarrel with Joe frightens: life in this instance would duplicate art when Monroe married her own highly similar Joe a couple of years later.

Irritatingly unreal: the nearly invisible, silent baby.

I’ve written enough here; I’m not getting into the debate as to whether Lang’s Clash by Night is or isn’t a genuine noir—there is no murder, after all—except to say that anyone who doesn’t recognize it as such is a fool. Who has no business watching movies.

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