“Clash by Night” (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, & Marilyn Monroe

The title derives from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach (1867):

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mae: What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.

Directed by Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets’ play, Clash by Night, had a short Broadway run from late 1941 to early 1942. The cast included Robert Ryan as Joe Doyle (the character who is Marilyn Monroe’s boyfriend in the film), Joseph Schildkraut as Earl Pfeiffer, Lee J. Cobb as Jerry Wilenski, and Tallulah Bankhead as Mae Doyle. Wow, how cool would it have been to see Cobb (one of Hollywood’s best character actors) perform live!? The production revolved around a Polish family on Staten Island, NY, before the US gets into WWII. In the original play, Jerry (the cuckolded husband) kills Earl (his wife’s lover) in their climactic fight; Hollywood (of course) had a different idea.

Earl: Jerry’s the salt of the earth, but he’s not the right seasoning for you.

Mae: What kind of seasoning do I need?

Earl: You’re like me. A dash of Tabasco or the meat tastes flat.

This was one of Monroe’s early roles, she was under an acting coach (who worked for 20th Century Fox where Monroe, then only 25, was on contract) and wanted her on the set. The coach would stand behind director Fritz Lang and tell her when a scene was good enough. When Lang (known for his difficult personality) realized this, he demanded the coach leave the set. After Monroe complained and wouldn’t act w/o her, Lang allowed the coach to return, on the condition that she not direct Monroe. The actress was loaned out to RKO Pictures for this film; she shows a lot of potential here (brightening up the mood of the story).

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.

The film noir drama is set Monterey, CA, a town where almost everyone is connected to the commercial fishing industry. After 10 yrs, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home, feeling tired, bitter, and depressed. Her macho/judgmental younger brother, Joe (Keith Andes), wonders what she’s been doing w/ her life. Mae fell for a married politician who died; she has nowhere left to go. Joe’s spunky/beautiful 20 y.o. girlfriend, Peggy (Monroe in an early supporting role), takes a liking to Mae. After a short time dating, Mae decides to marry a fisherman, Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), a naive/optimistic bear-like man who feels “safe.” Of course, she isn’t in love w/ Jerry (and he knows that). After a year of domestic life and having a baby girl, Mae feels stifled. She has an affair w/ Jerry’s friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a film projectionist who is recently divorced. Jerry finds out about their betrayal- he could explode w/ jealousy and anger!

Earl: Mae – what do you really think of me?

Mae: [coolly] You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a new love affair – but he doesn’t know which.

Earl: [stung] You can’t make me any smaller. I happen to be pre-shrunk.

There is some great scenery- the ocean waves breaking on the beach, seagulls flocking, seals playing on rocks. We see the rough-and-tumble lives of blue-collar people; Peggy works in a fish cannery while Joe works on Jerry’s boat. People in this community fight loudly and drink heavily (drowning the disappointments of their unfulfilled lives). Jerry’s Sicilian immigrant father drinks b/c he can’t get any work at his advanced age. His bachelor uncle, Vince, also drinks and avoids responsibility.

[1] The power of “Clash by Night” lies… in the no-nonsense acting of Stanwyck and Ryan, tough as nails, but raw at the core. They have an animal eroticism together between them that sparkles like fireworks, but they are also, alas, quite self-pitying.

[2] Stanwyck has never better than she is here, and she dominates the film, vanquishing such heavyweight co-stars… …she is magnificent in this movie, which seems almost to flow from her. As her simple, trusting husband Paul Douglas is almost as good; and Robert Ryan nearly steals the show as a sadistic loser who is somehow magnetic, pathetic and yet highly observant, all at the same time. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I heard about this movie from a film noir group on Facebook; you can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon. It has some fine/memorable dialogue, which is why many people watch classics. Stanwyck (who was going through a divorce from actor Robert Taylor) inhabits her conflicted character; she is rarely at ease (note her body language, esp. in the early scenes). This is the type of role usually given to an anti-hero man in Hollywood. Instead, Mae is a conflicted woman who must choose between Jerry- the nice guy (security/respectability)- and Earl- the bad boy (danger/uncertainty). Though these are middle-aged people, they are not quite settled in their minds. Mae and Earl expected much more from life; they are drawn to each other like magnets. Jerry is content to be the breadwinner, husband, and father. The younger couple project a different energy in their scenes, but soon we realize that Joe would be a controlling husband (and perhaps) diminish Peggy’s spirited personality.

Odets was born/raised in Philly and came from Jewish heritage (Russian and Romanian). He dropped out of HS to work as an actor. He was understudy on Broadway in 1929 to the young Spencer Tracy in Conflict by Warren F. Lawrence. Odets became one of the founding members of The Group Theatre, which became one of the most influential companies in the history of the American stage. They based their acting technique (new to the US) created by Russian actor/director Constantin Stanislavski. It was further developed by Group Theatre director Lee Strasberg and became known as The Method (or Method Acting). From working in the theater, Odets developed a great love of language, and was inspired to write his own plays. His socially relevant dramas, popular during the time of the Great Depression, inspired the several generations of playwrights: Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, and David Mamet.


One thought on ““Clash by Night” (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, & Marilyn Monroe

  1. Unique write up about this movie! Your touch on each character seems to be very realistic though I can’t recall watching the movie. However, I happy to know that Clifford Odets was a self educated and an iconic figure as a playwright. Keep writing for the audience reflecting on your take from watching more classic movies.


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