Barbara Stanwyck Spotlight: Clash By Night

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It’s week three of my spotlight on Barbara Stanwyck. This week I want to focus on one of the many great noir films she made. Most people think of Double Indemnity when they think of Stanwyck and film noir, and for good reason. It’s one of the greatest in the genre. But I want to shine a light on one of her lesser known noir films: Clash By Night.

Clash By Night boasts a great cast that includes Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, and Marilyn Monroe. Adding to the film’s pedigree is that it was directed by Fritz Lang, one of the great noir directors. The story is a classic noir tale of love and betrayal. Here’s a plot summary to get you started:

The bitter and cynical Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) returns to the fishing village where she was raised after deceptive loves and life in New York. She meets her brother, the fisherman Joe Doyle (Keith Andes), and he lodges her in his home. Mae is courted by Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), a good and naive man who owns the boat where Joe works, and he introduces his brutal friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), who works as a theater’s protectionist and is cheated by his wife. She does not like Earl and his jokes, but Jerry considers him his friend and they frequently see each other. Mae decides to accept the proposal of Jerry and they get married and one year later they have a baby girl. When the wife of Earl leaves him, he becomes depressed and Mae, who is bored with her loveless marriage, has an affair with him.–IMDB

From that plot description it sounds like a formulaic soap opera. But it’s not by any stretch of the imagination. That’s a credit to screenwriter Alfred Hayes (working from a play by Clifford Odets), the talented cast, and Lang’s skilled direction. When Stanwyck’s affair comes to light, it’s dealt with in a very adult way. The character’s don’t just scream at each other and overact, even though the temptation is there with this type of material. You really feel like their reactions and emotions are genuine. It feels like a real-life situation. Another strength of Clash By Night is that it deals so well with disillusionment, a hallmark of film noir. Stanwyck’s character is left disillusioned from her big city life. But when she gets a change of scenery, she doesn’t just mope around as you’d expect. With Stanwyck you real believe everything is happening to her. The marriage to Jerry just never seems like it’s going to work out. Stanwyck’s relationship with Douglas feels like it comes from convenience more than love. He’s a stable guy and she’s trying to straighten her life out, so there they are. It’s not exactly shocking that she ends up gravitating towards bad boy Robert Ryan. Both characters are damaged by failed marriages and their solace manifests itself in their affair. Again, the characters act in a way that is very believable. We can see this sort of thing happening in the real world.

Stanwyck here shows her penchant for playing femme fatales. That’s one reason she was perfect for the noir genre. Some of her other noir credits include The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry,Wrong Number, Double Indemnity, and The File on Thelma Jordan. She has the right amount of dramatic chops and can exude female heat. You could make the case that she was the First Lady of film noir. And the rest of the cast is solid as well, especially Robert Ryan. He’s underrated as an actor too, but that’s another blog entry for somewhere further down the road.

Fritz Lang, like Stanwyck, excelled at noir. His credits in the genre are some of the best ever made: M, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, and The Big Heat. Lang of course also made the landmark science fiction film Metropolis. He was a master filmmaker. Lang and his cast together create a very effective noir tale. While the plot is conventional on the surface, the plot twists and characters are not. Clash bu nigh is a solid entertainment. It’s worth checking out for fans of Barbara Stanwyck, Fritz Lang, film noir, or just about anyone who appreciates a good classic movie.

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