Saturday, February 07, 2015


I've seen Fritz Lang's Clash By Night (1952) a few times now, both projected in 35mm and televised on Turner Classic Movies, on the large and small screen, yet I never tire of watching it, which is somewhat of an odd reaction to a film thematically focused on exhaustion. For me, it's a thoroughly satisfying film, curiously energizing, with Barbara Stanwyck in fine form as the world-weary Mae Doyle. According to Dan Callahan's biography (Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, 2012: 19), Stanwyck prepared for her scenes like "a prizefighter waiting to enter the ring."

As Eddie Muller synopsized for the 2015 Noir City souvenir program: "Mae Doyle returns to her hometown of Monterey a hard and embittered woman. Facing a dim future, she marries a simple decent fisherman (Paul Douglas) but soon has an affair with local bad boy, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan). Less a noir than a gritty 'kitchen sink' drama, it's a stunning example of a proto-feminist film."

Joe McElhaney, Professor of Film Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, as well as in the Theater Program at CUNY's Graduate Center, has edited the recently-published A Companion to Fritz Lang (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), as part of Wiley-Blackwell's continuing Companions to Film Directors Series (previous volumes have provided companions to Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Renoir and Pedro Almódovar). The volume possesses both critical heft and physical weight and ranks formidable on the book shelf. When my copy arrived the other day, the first essay I explored was McElhaney's "Looking for a Path: Fritz Lang and Clash By Night" (2015:514-535), having just re-familiarized myself with Lang's film at Noir City 13.

McElhaney employs gerunded chapter headings—bending, abstracting, allegorizing, exhausting, returning—to provide variant readings of Clash By Night, which in and of itself proves fascinating for reminding that films can be approached and entered via variant perspectives and strategies. He also situates Clash By Night within Lang's ouevre by comparing thematic concerns expressed and developed over the range of Lang's films. All in all, it's a thoughtful, quite brilliant, analysis of the film, which I'll apply to my own spectatorial response, building upon Eddie Muller's introduction to the film. Although in his introduction Muller intimated that Clash By Night was a "minor" Clifford Odets play bought up early by the studios for adaptation, McElhaney makes it clear that he has no interest in consigning the film to the category of minor Lang ("if indeed such a category exists"). (514)

McElhaney culls out what is, arguably, the most quoted line from the film: Barbara Stanwyck's croaked resignation, "Home is where you come when you run out of places." The key word being "home" in that line reading, reflective of Lang's status as "a German director of the pre-Nazi period that is also tied to Hollywood and to exile", a status of some importance to New German Cinema proponents (Wim Wenders, Rainer Werner Fassbinder) searching for a postwar German identity mediated through cinema. (514-515)

McElhaney observes: "Clash By Night is significant in relation to all of this as it is, in its story situation, a film about home, about returning to one's origins. But as Stanwyck's dialogue indicates, home in this film is not so much a refuge, a source of comfort, as it is a site of despair, a place where you 'come when you run out of places.' Such an ambivalence about the definition and experience of home is central to many German and Eastern European refugees during the postwar period, where the option of returning to Europe, the space of catastrophe that was once home, rarely involved a simple putting-into-action. For many refugee filmmakers, the question now facing them is whether Hollywood and America are where they belong, in particular a postwar Hollywood facing significantly increased economic downsizing and an American political climate in which 'witch hunts' made many of them especially vulnerable on account of their leftist and politically progressive histories." (514-515)

During this postwar period, McElhaney asserts, narratives of "exile and return" that exhibited a tension "between home and travel, settling down (and along with this, home ownership) and wandering" were common and central. "Wartime recovery and rebuilding often made for an urgent pretext for these kinds of narratives." Further, McElhaney distinguishes: "Throughout much of the film, the words 'house' and 'home' are frequently used, house having clear connotations in terms of architectural space and home in terms of a space of the imaginary", applying by extension "to America and American culture", but also "to Hollywood, and to the cinema as a whole." (518)

Just as Muller noted that screenwriter Arthur Hayes threw out most of the Odets play except for its narrative triangle, McElhaney expands: "Odets's play was not only 'opened up' in the conventional manner of most films adapted from theatrical source material, it was also revised. The setting was changed (at [Jerry] Wald's request) from Staten Island in the play to a fishing village in northern California. The carpenter Jerry Wilenski (played by [Lee J.] Cobb on stage) becomes the sardine fisherman Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas) in the film. The sense of wide-spread unemployment dominating the play is replaced by a more general focus on a working-class community tied to the fishing industry, and with day-to-day anxieties over money absent. The anxieties of the characters in the film are mainly existential in nature, whereas in Odets they clearly have an economic origin. Wald's requested change from a borough of New York City, passively surrounded by water, to a community that not only looks out to the Pacific Ocean but in which this ocean defines the community itself, will have a significant influence on the form the film will eventually assume." (517) "Water, then," McElhaney proposes, "may be seen as yet another trope through which Lang's relentless search for the 'ultimate metaphor' of the cinema is enacted. (523)

McElhaney points out other important dissimilarties between Odets's stage play and Hayes's screen play, including the film's expanded narrative time frame and the resketching of characters. The film's shift of setting from Staten Island to the northern California coast likewise places the film "within a certain American literary tradition, in particular through the evocation of the work of John Steinbeck", specifically Steinbeck's Cannery Row (1945). (518)

Along with this "transposition of literary language into cinematic form", there is so much more of interest in McElhaney's analysis: the triangular choreography of the characters, Lang's balanced use of sets and locations, deceptive proximities and distances, and his subtle destabilization of seemingly realistic mise en scène and Lang's own desired "investment in verisimilitude and documentary impulses" (522).

McElhaney adds some pertinent biographical information on Hayes: "It is not clear whose decision it was to change Jerry's character from Polish American to Sicilian. But Hayes's intervention on the project is one possibility. Hayes belonged to the US Army Special Services during World War II during which he developed a special tie to Italy. He was a central figure in initiating the project that later became Roberto Rossellini's Paisà (1946) and he also made an uncredited contribution to Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948). Hayes's novel The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949), later adapted by him into a play, uses the war-time occupation of Italy as its setting for a love story between an American GI and an Italian prostitute. (A 1953 film version, Act of Love, was directed by Anatole Litvak.) And his first important American writing credit is providing the story for Fred Zinnermann's Teresa (1951), again using a war-ravaged Italy for part of its setting for a love story between an American GI and an Italian woman, but with the story now taking place immediately after the war." (531-532)

One of the visuals I have most appreciated in Clash By Night's melodramatic impulse are the frequent scenes of waves crashing against the shoreline, which I've taken as shorthand for the natural passion in the narrative's erotic triangulation, but which McElhaney links to the auteurial directorial mastery of "controlling chaos and shaping it into aesthetic form." He points out Lang's name in the opening credits as referencing his "demiurge-like presence over the film" (522-523).

Returning to the earlier mention of water as—what film scholar Carlos Losilla terms—a "rhetorical device", or what Losilla sees as "Lang's constant return to this device is a resistance to the 'fluidity of classical cinema' in favor of something far more 'turbulent.' By applying Losilla's reading to Clash By Night, the images under and immediately following the credits may be seen as a metaphor for Lang's own relationship to this project, as the images move from turbulence to fluidity, albeit a fluidity that is more apparent than real." (523)

Then again, McElhaney posits: "Water becomes part of the larger system at work in the film of fatalistic forces, something beyond shaping, beyond control, a chaos that is a question of time as much as space." (531) This aligns more with my reading of the unpredictability—and, perhaps, even the churning destructiveness—of illicit passion.

As stated before, world weariness is a key note in Lang's Clash By Night, inflected by both the performances of Stanwyck and Ryan as Mae and Jerry, and specified by the quote cited earlier—"Home is where you come when you run out of places" (emphasized by Mae dropping her cigarette into a cup of coffee)—suggesting a "state of weariness brought on by perpetual travel", but also by aging. (528)

In his biography, Dan Callahan (2012: 104) describes Stanwyck as "just going through the motions, especially in some of her early scenes (Manny Farber in his review said that she was given to 'impersonating a mentholated icicle')."

Mae and Jerry lean into their passion for each other as a last chance for the hope that romance promises, a relief from boredom and indifference, and significantly "a place to rest." One might even think of their's as a middle-aged (and desperate) hot house version of vanished youth.

In several of his films, Clash By Night included, Robert Ryan has a way of forcibly embracing women conflicted with desire. And dressed in a wifebeater, how can Stanwyck resist? Dan Callahan describes the scene in question: "When Ryan grabs Stanwyck from behind and begs her for love, suddenly both actors seem to leap out of the frame, as if you were watching them in a stage performance right in front of you instead of on a screen. This is the closest we'll come to seeing what Stanwyck might have been like in live theater, and she was never more stimulated by an acting partner. So many actresses crumpled up and slunk away when confronted by Ryan at full throttle on screen. Only Stanwyck has the talent and the sheer nerve to stand up to him and meet him more than halfway. He almost eats her over the sink with a DeNiro-like kiss. She struggles a bit, but then she looks right at him and unleashes her own passion, shoving a hand into the back of his undershirt and rifling around hungrily, as raw a slice of sexual desperation as has ever been shown in movies." (2012:107)

According to Eddie Muller's notes in Noir City's souvenir program, "Robert Ryan was in the original Broadway production of Clash By Night and was the only cast member to appear in the film version. Onstage he played the role of Mae's brother, Joe. In the film, however, he has the juicier role of Earl, Mae's passionate and deeply cynical lover." Earl's pronounced cynicism is the appropriate counterpoint to Mae's world weariness. His cocksure and arrogant attitude at the beginning of the film is undone by his own "protestations of loneliness" (Callahan, 2012:106). It's Stanwyck who undoes him, by promising him something that neither of them are destined to have.

Mae and Jerry's desperate attempt at passion to offset the resigned disappointments of middle age is intriguingly contrasted against the honest, youthful passion between Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) and Mae's brother Joe (Keith Andes, "introduced" in his breakout role), both physically beautiful and at their prime. Per Eddie Muller: "Marilyn Monroe, on loan by 20th Century-Fox for the film, played her most fully developed role to date. According to everyone involved, Monroe was a ceaseless source of on-set difficulty. But no one, not even Fritz Lang, complained as long as Barbara Stanwyck—Hollywood's ultimate professional—maintained her composure. In the end, Monroe received uniformly excellent notices from the critics, significantly bolstering her career."

Dan Callahan (2012:105) quotes Stanwyck as saying "She couldn't get out of her own way. She wasn't disciplined ... but she didn't do it viciously, and there was a sort of magic about her which we all recognized at once." Callahan likewise writes that, on the set, Stanwyck was heard to say, "With a figure like that, you don't have to know how to act."

The violence that Mae and Jerry do to each other, more emotional than physical—though violent physicality is suggested by Earl: "Didn't you ever want to cut up a beautiful dame?"—is echoed playfully by Lang in Joe's choking game with Peggy. I appreciate how McElhaney contrasts the two couples, particularly Mae and Peggy. He describes Peggy as a young woman "who believes that her future holds numerous possibilities, an optimism almost entirely bound up with her youth and her looks." He culls out connective tissue and scriptural linkage between Mae and Peggy illustrating how—in Odets's original play—"Peggy, desperate to marry Joe, tells him that she is both happy and miserable. 'Do you want my history in four words,' she asks him. 'Great expectations, great disappointments.' In the film, Hayes and Lang give a variation on this dialogue to Mae, spoken again to Joe, and from their first extended sequence together, in the family home that has become Joe's house: 'What do you want, Joe, my life's history? Here it is in four words: Big ideas, small results.' Are the two women opposites or deeply linked with one another?" (530)

It's this deep linkage between the two couples that expresses the range between youth and age, hopefulness and a lack of hope, and the appropriateness (and inappropriateness) of passion. One can't help but wonder what will happen to Joe and Peggy should they marry, after seeing the collapse of Jerry and Mae's affair (like waves subsiding after crashing on the rocks). McElhaney observes as well: "The last word spoken in the film is home, the last image of the film is one of calm waters, order restored. One could read this as an apparently happy ending, marking the beginning of a new way of understanding of existence for Mae. However, it could also be read as a defeat for her, a final withdrawal into a world of lowered expectations." (533)

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