© 2013 William Ahearn
On the DVD commentary to this film, Peter Bogdanovich says, “Barbara Stanwyck was particularly great in the genre called ‘film noir.’ Some people think of [‘Clash by Night’] as a film noir, I don’t think it really is because it’s not really a thriller or a suspense piece, it’s really a triangle story, kind of a love story.” Bogdanovich also states that it’s “shot like a film noir” and that “I think the reason that they call it ‘film noir’ is because a lot of it [was shot] at night.”
Bogdanovich’s description is disputed by Edgar Award-winning author and academic, Megan Abbott, who asserts in her review of the film: “On his DVD commentary track, Peter Bogdanovich notes, in passing, that some call Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) a film noir, which he refers to as a genre. He dismisses such claims on the ground that it is not ‘a thriller or a suspense piece.’ He concedes, however, that it’s ‘shot a bit like a film noir.’ There’s a lot in his comments to irritate noir aficionados, most especially their reductiveness. But what Bogdanovich misses most is 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.”
These two references to “film noir” represent the extremes of an already poorly defined film term and represent, on one hand, Bogdanovich’s uninformed and “reductive” version, and on the other hand, Abbott’s extracting a single element of what may be present in Hollywood postwar films and using that single element to define the sensibility – in lieu of a genre – of film noir. Abbott’s version also insists that films noir existed solely in postwar Hollywood and that assertion is belied by film history.
Since film noir has become the favorite film theory to make-it-up-as-you-go-along – and academics have turned it into a parlor game for the last fifty or so years – there is little point in arguing Abbott’s definition. Her assertion that a “fever pulses through the movie” is a horse of a different shadow and the lack of “a fever pulse” is what prevents this film from being among Lang’s better Hollywood films.
Critics and biographers appear to stretch credibility in their attempts to salvage a lesser work and Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang pushes the limits when she writes, “The open-air atmosphere, the density of natural exteriors established here contributes to the film’s escape from the theatricality of the stage original; and in this respect too the change of plot by Alfred Hayes (and Lang, naturally) is effective. It is not the imposition of a happy ending by the producer that has resulted in the happy ending, but Lang’s desire for verisimilitude, as well as his natural abhorrence of violence.”
Eisner – as Jean-Luc Godard did earlier – seems to believe that the “happy ending” tacked on to the gutted Odets’ drama is merely coincidental to studio policy and that Lang was partly responsible for the changes. Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast states that the finished script was “presented” to Lang. In the end, whether Lang was involved or not, the idea that the “happy ending” is anything but studio policy is completely unconvincing. As for Lang’s “natural abhorrence of violence” one only has to look at his films or read the interview with Alexander Walker for the BBC in 1967 where Lang states, “Physical pain comes from violence and I think today that is the only fact that people fear and it has become a definite part of life and naturally also of scripts.” “Clash by Night” is the only Hollywood film made by Lang – besides “You And Me” – where no one dies, although in Odets’ play there is a murder at the end.
In Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in His American Films, Reynold Humphries writes, “A recent viewing of ‘Clash by Night’ revealed it to be a grotesque and unintentionally funny melodrama with nothing to recommend it.” Then again – as with many interpreters of Lang’s films – Humphries has a given set of watermarks to judge the films of Fritz Lang and any deviation from the assumed “real” films of Lang leads to a dismissal of the perceived dross.
Tom Gunning in The Films of Fritz Lang states that “The Return of Frank James,” “Western Union” and “Moonfleet” are Lang’s “conformist” films and yet “Clash By Night” is almost the definition of a conformist film. Produced during the Red Scare and under the watchful eye of the Hays Office, as well as a studio that wanted a happy ending, Clifford Odets’ play didn’t stand a prayer in hell of making it to the screen in any recognizable form. Lang liked the film and in an interview in The Celluloid Muse said, “I’m very happy with the way . . . “Clash by Night,” turned out. I was very fond of the project, and of the late Clifford Odets, author of the original stage play.”
Lang was also proud – and rightfully so – of the montage that opens the film that was shot by Nicholas Musuraca on an outing they took to Monterey and with music by Roy Webb it sets the scene of the returning fishing boats. There’s some interesting cinematography and some solid performances – Barbara Stanwyck and a yummy Marilyn Monroe in her first film with her name above the title – although Paul Douglas milks it a tad too much and that may have been the producer pushing Lang to make scenes “full of emotion” and to “hit the audience in the pit of the stomach.” Robert Ryan seems overdirected by Lang and he's the kind of actor who can reduce three pages of script down to a glance.
The problem with the film – besides lacking any real “fever pulse” – is that it’s utterly dishonest and comprised. It may “capture the post-war mood of gender anxiety and rage” – although the play was written before the US entered the war – the film’s response to that “anxiety” – since the real rage was cut from the play – is repressive and parochial. Women may be as anxious as May Doyle, but the real cure is commitment and marriage and they may be as feisty as Peggy, and that cure will fix her as well.