Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Thirty-Three


#33 — Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952)
By the time Fritz Lang sat in the director’s chair for Clash by Night, he’d been a filmmaker for some thirty-five years. In his early sixties, he was also going through something of a career decline, owing in part to a mismatch–in terms of temperament, outlook, style, basically everything–with the Hollywood studio system. Unlike other directors who locked into a studio and stuck there, Lang bounced around, never truly finding a home. His visions were ultimately too iconoclastic, his approaches to the genre fare he was handed unorthodox enough to leave his backers and audiences equally perplexed. He fought to make himself understood, in just about every way imaginable. The creative tumult led to features that may have been flawed, but they were also deeply fascinating. And when the elements came together, sometimes almost in spite of everything, he still had the capability to turn in something darkly ravishing. For me, that’s the story of Clash by Night.

Based on a play by Clifford Odets (the screenplay adaptation is credited to Alfred Hayes), the film focused on the hardscrabble lives of people in a dismal dock town. The play was set in Staten Island, but the film shifts the locale to Monterey, California, benefiting from the schism of dark ugliness in a sunnier locale. Clash by Night has the blackening soul of a film noir, dealing with the emotional crimes people perpetrate on one another rather than the criminal assaults on the rule of law. Barbara Stanwyck plays Mae, a woman returning to her hometown, defeated by her excursion into the land past her tiny foundations. She quickly finds herself in a love triangle, eventually opting for security over passion, a choice that eventually had troubling repercussions, because passion doesn’t necessarily excuse itself from the room when asked to do so.

On first glance, Lang seems to take a surprisingly stiff approach to the material, often opted to simply plunk the camera down and let scenes play out with only the most delicate shifting of the frame, as if he’s filming a stage production. While this admirably gives the actors room and time to shape their performances themselves (and when Stanwyck’s on the cast list, it’s advisable to let her rip, and both Marilyn Monroe and Paul Douglas deliver sharp work in key supporting roles), it also creates an almost hypnotic effect as it can feel less like drama and more like voyeuristic documentary, quietly catching people at their self-destructive worst. The approach may have been the result of a lean budget. Whatever the impetus, Lang uses it to his advantage. The relative withdrawn simplicity of many scenes means the impact is strengthened in the sequences in which he engages in more dynamic editing. It’s striking when he employs the simplest narrative and visual techniques, like a sharp edit or a rushed zoom. Similarly, when the timeline leaps ahead a year, the contrast with the flattened patience of the scenes that preceded it offers a reminder that Lang’s years of experience meant he knew how top best leverage ever tool he had. He may have had some troubling finding his footing in the systems set up by the American entertainment industry, but that didn’t mean film itself betrayed him. He knew the language of cinema well, which meant, like a crafty poet, he knew how to bend and reshape it to surprising, revelatory ends.

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