Clash by Night Reviews
Maybe Marilyn Monroe would have had a better career if she'd been allowed to play the kind of bad girls Barbara Stanwyck made her name playing. Okay, and if she'd had someone really seriously working on her self esteem instead of taking advantage of it, but I've always felt Marilyn's psychological issues were complicated, possibly too complicated for the mental health treatment options of the time. I think serious concentration on her self esteem issues, however, would have enabled her to make fewer mistakes, and I think one of the great mistakes of her career was that she was pigeonholed as just another dizzy blonde. I'm not saying putting her in that slot was wrong, but I think she did her best work when she wasn't playing the Marilyn Monroe Character. She worked best when she played characters who were touched with, well, similar pasts to her own, ones that weren't all light and joy.
Mae Doyle (Stanwyck) is returning home again after many years away. She doesn't want to, but she doesn't have much of a choice. She had been the mistress of a wealthy man, but he died, and though he left her money, his wife successfully challenged the will. The only home she has left is with her brother, Joe (Keith Andes, who looks a bit like Hugo Weaving). This means returning to the small fishing village (Monterey, in the movie, but somewhere on Staten Island in the play). When there, Mae becomes the focus of interest of several men. She finds herself strangely drawn to Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), but he's married. She lets herself agree to marry Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas), who is older and kinder. She doesn't think she will be the right wife for him, but at the same time, she thinks it's better than any other chance at life she has. Besides, her brother wants to marry his girlfriend, Peggy (Monroe), and he's worried that perhaps Peggy is listening a little too much to Mae.
What he really ought to be worried about is that she'll listen to Mae when Mae talks about how attracted she is to Earl and why he's no good for her. Earl and Joe have an awful lot in common, and it isn't good. There's a scene where Peggy is looking at some of the other attractive men in the area, and Joe ropes a towel around her neck and basically play-strangles her until she gives all her attention to him. And it doesn't seem that playful. Earl, when talking about the kind of woman he'd stay with, suggests throwing all women at the ceiling and living with whichever one sticks to it. That's odd and troubling phrasing. Mae clearly loves Earl quite a lot, but he still doesn't treat her very well. He disparages her feelings. He has no respect for her intelligence, not that the film gives us a lot to go on about how much she has. He loves that she looks like Barbara Stanwyck and has Barbara Stanwyck's gift for banter and toughness, but how long would that last?
Mae's biggest problem is that there is no real way out for her. No matter how intelligent she may or may not be, she definitely isn't educated. She's a girl from a fishing town, where someone can unironically say that someone else is "in the movie business" because he runs the projector at the theatre. She's tired of marriage after a year, no matter how much she loves her daughter, but when she came back home, she knew she wouldn't have much else to do with the rest of her life. She isn't trained to have a job. She isn't educated--if she has more than a high school diploma, that would be surprising for a woman from her time and background. She can spend the rest of her life gutting fish, but that doesn't hold much appeal, either. She gets married, because she doesn't know what else there is for a woman like her to do. Even though she knows she's going to hurt Jerry, she feels she has no option left. At least Jerry is kind to her, which is rare for the men in her life.
This is one of those movies that made me glad I don't actually live in the era in which they were made. We see Mae's wedding reception, and they're handing out cigars. The smoke is so thick that I initially thought we were watching a flashback. The edges of the picture are fuzzy and indistinct, because there's so much smoke. While I don't think anyone would quite approve of Earl--or Jerry--beating Mae, it is clear that everyone seems to think that what Mae wants isn't as important as what the men in her life want. Joe is her younger brother, but he's in charge of the household. She probably sees that the way he's treating Peggy is worrying, but she wouldn't say anything, because she's lived her whole life believing that it's just how men treat women. True, we don't know anything about her relationship with the married politician, but we know that it was an unequal relationship, and she ended it no better off than she'd started. She doesn't love her old hometown, but she doesn't really know anything else.
Directed by Fritz Lang, "Clash by Night" is a compelling slice of life movie, performed well by its eclectic cast, that is set in an insular community that has to work hard for everything that it gets. Jerry is his own boss and is considered a success. With that comes added responsibilities like taking care of his older relatives. At the same time, he looks up to Earl who has the slightest of connections to show business and through that to the outside world. That's where Mae just returned from, jaded from her experiences.
It's really the excellent, film noir-ish cinematography and above all, Stanwyck's portrayal that make this film above run of the mill. Other than that it's "notable" for being the first film where Marilyn Monroe's name is above the title, although alterations to her character eventually ended her up with playing yet another bit part, but at least she got to do some acting here, and from here on her career truly took off.
Worth mentioning as well I think is Paul Douglas; who is certainly not the most glamorous or handsome star (good heavens, no, he isn't!). When he's playing the good old doofus part of his character, he feels a bit hammy to me, but when he later on loses his shit, Douglas channels all the overflowing emotions so intensely that he's positively scary.
Barbara Stanwyck was a master at playing flawed characters and her Mae Doyle is about as flawed as they come. Bad girl, good film, great actress.