During Hollywood’s Hays Code era, it was a tricky business conveying sexual passion on screen. Of course, nothing explicit was permitted. So there were some go-to euphemisms used by filmmakers to indicate passion. One is the image of crashing waves on a beach, set to intense soundtrack music.
The 1952 film adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play Clash by Night goes all out with the crashing waves image. Director Fritz Lang uses it copiously, aided by the fact that the story is set in a fishing town.
Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her hometown after ten years away. Her dreams of a better life in a big city are crushed after her married lover dies, so she reluctantly settles down with her fisherman brother Joe (Keith Andes) in the house they grew up in. She soon befriends Joe’s girlfriend Peggy (Marilyn Monroe), who works in the local cannery.
Joe works for Jerry (Paul Douglas), who falls for Mae. She finds Jerry pleasant and good company but can’t hide her hard-boiled personality from his friend Earl (Robert Ryan). Earl is married but estranged from his wife. Sparks fly between Earl and Mae, but Mae is not interested in another affair with a married man. Instead, against her better judgement, she agrees to marry Jerry.
They seem to be happy and have a baby after a year of marriage. Earl returns, now divorced. In spite of his poor relationship with his ex-wife, Earl is lonely and comes on to Mae. Bored and feeling out of place in her life with Jerry, she is soon embroiled in an affair with Earl.
What elevates Clash by Night above a run-of-the-mill melodrama is three-fold: the stupendous cast, the noirish direction by Lang, and the snappy, snarly Odets dialogue:
Mae: What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.
Jerry: I like you – you know that.
Mae: You don’t know anything about me. What kind of an animal am I? Do I have fangs? Do I purr? What jungle am I from? You don’t know a thing about me.
Mae: You don’t like women, do you?
Earl: Take any six of ’em – my wife included. Throw ’em up in the air. The one who sticks to the ceiling, I like.
There’s also a disturbing violent undercurrent to the sexual banter. Which is not that unusual (especially in noir-influenced film) but Mae and Peggy aren’t wimps who cower to men’s threats. Joe half-jokingly promises he’d beat Peggy regularly if they were married. She stands up to him and says she’d like to see him try. Earl comments that one day he’s going to stick pins in his ex-wife to see if blood runs out.
Like my pick for a previous edition of this blogathon, A Place in the Sun, the success of the film hinges mainly on the chemistry between the two leads. Stanwyck and Ryan have it in spades. Ryan doesn’t even try to make Earl remotely likable. He’s a rotter who has no problem wrecking the life of his loyal friend Jerry. He hates women but can’t live without one in his life. Stanwyck is full-on broad here, furious that her life hasn’t lived up to her expectations and tired of men who don’t make her feel confident. Unlike in A Place in the Sun, the sexual chemistry between them is raw rather than tragically romantic.
The ending is a tad pat, though not surprising. It was, after all, the 1950s. But the movie still manages to convey a great deal of turbulent sensuality, in spite of the constraints of the time.