6 December 2003 | gleywong
Fritz Lang in Malibu
Why did Fritz Lang want to make this movie? Did he select the cast? "Clash by Night" was part of the recent TCM tribute to Lang, and following after the early European masterpieces, "Metropolis," and "M," one wonders how much Lang modified and compromised his early filmmaking ideals and style in resettling in Hollywood and jockey for financial support. I've not seen or read the original Odets play on which the film is based, but whatever Lang's reason for choosing it, one has to ask how the finished movie fits into Lang's output, especially the stark, powerful, stylized early pieces. A couple of features stand out: Lang always had a message-- nothing was mere observation -- that shaped the plot and characters' motivations. If Good and Evil stand out too sharply in black and white terms, Lang is still intent on sharp analysis of the turns and twists on the road to Good or Evil. Forces beyond individual characters' control are harnessed and made part of the characters motivations. Then Lang sets them on their inevitable course, and we watch, sometimes in shock or agony.
In "Clash," the imagery-- contrasting shots of sea, clouds, birds,etc, register his endorsement of the natural order of things as Good. In Metropolis, the natural order of humanity toward others was stamped out by the drive for materialism and industrial supremacy, Evil (historically predicating Nazism), symbolized always by the grinding and spouting machinery. All of the characters are tuned to a high pitch and respond with intensity. Lang's style of directing brought out the extremes -- the fortissimos-- in his actors, no matter whom he cast. Lang must have been an extraordinarily demanding director to elicit such razor-edge performances from his actors.
The fact that all the actors in "Clash" are familiar to us from other films meant Lang had to pit them against each other to an even keener degree. They are all desperate for something, whether they reveal it on the surface or not. For an actress like Stanwyck, this was an easily achieved emotional state, and she had to accept the concept of "aging" in her role. If anything, Lang forced her to keep her hard edges up a bit too much, allowing some softening only in the rather quick ending. This bit of character transformation happens only after she sees the true desperation that she's driven Paul Douglas to in the final scene in the film room.
Ah, yes, the film room. If that isn't an obvious set piece, I don't know what is. Ryan, as the third wheel, runs the projectors. Much of his dialogue is double-edged. And Ryan's character is the most desperate, the least yielding, even to Stanwyck, making his profession as a film projectionist ironic and something artificial, compared to the "natural" metier of Douglas and his father's as fishermen. They draw on the bounty of nature and so symbolize -- purposely and obviously -- pure goodness in human nature. Douglas gives a generous, sweet-tough-guy performance that is Ryan's match. Douglas never guesses what temptation he presents to his wife Stanwyck when he casually invites his best friend to stay with them. This generosity extends in particular to his overlooking faults, whether of his leeching uncle or his friend's sarcstic selfishness.
The role of the father, as a link to the Old Country and its solid gold ways is well-placed. His speech at the wedding puts his character in a nutshell: God made love, God made wine, God made friends, let everyone enjoy them, or some such pithy message. For a filmmaker like Lang, and other transplanted Europeans, the sacrifice of deep roots of their heritage and language could only be compensated for by an equally deep absorption of the customs and values of the New Country. Emigré geniuses like Lang, Wilder, or von Stroheim, never left anything behind, they reabsorbed and refashioned their material through their sharp perception of human nature in this new context. I think that is why we feel this movie to be beyond mere melodrama. I couldn't stop watching it -- the characters caught me in their predicament: they reach a universal dimension in the very simplicity and obviousness of their situations and temptations. Lang's role was to push them to that level recognition in themselves.
Even the seemingly secondary characters like Stanwyck's brother and his girlfriend, the latter played surprisingly and delightfully by a young Marilyn Monroe, give strong performances. Marilyn already shows her subtlety and emotional vulnerability. Her spontaneous response to Stanwyck's return to her brother's apartment at the beginning revealed a genuine charm, and she provided a needed sparkle in this otherwise grim film.
So why see "Clash"? Even a secondary work by a master bears his mark, and to see the mark and its features in the context of film history is still a worthwhile effort.
Of Four ****, three ***.