By Vivaan Shah
The crash of waves over a stormy title sequence refurbishes the RKO logo into an emblem of torment. The background music clangs and thrashes in metallic gusts as we gently subside into a languid montage. We observe seagulls lined up on grimy shores over arching structures and schooners, seals paddling about in hope of catching sight of a trawler. When it finally does come in view all we hear is the hurl of its engine as it chugs along to its awaiting audience. The seagulls and seals all flock to the vessel where the daily catch is being unloaded with the help of an automated gust which dries them and sends them directly on a conveyer belt straight to the assembly line at cannery row, where a recently awoken Marilyn Monroe grumpily stands dispatching her duties. The sobriety of Lang’s opening is striking in its almost verite tranquility; not what one necessarily associates with the master of menace. There is a tremendous sense of calm over the opening sequence, which can be seen as all the more misleading when one anticipates the traumas that await us. Having transported the action of Clifford Odets’ play from Long Island to a fishing town in Monterey, Lang ends up expounding most eloquently on Odets’ themes – the blue collar boredom, the yearning for something MORE in italics. If it’s one theme that was central to Odets’ body of work it was ‘desire’ in its most touching and naked form. Think of the ambitious son in Awake and Sing, the troubled sister in Waiting for Lefty, and many other such characters sprinkled throughout Odets’ oeuvre that broil with longing and with wanting to get out of their squalid surroundings to something MORE.
Clifford Odets was perhaps immortalized for most in the pop culture canon by the Coen Brothers’ supposedly ruinous representation of him as their eponymous hero – Barton Fink. Many people have interpreted this character as a pompous prick but I have never seen him as such. In fact, I have always felt a strange kind of empathy towards Barton. In one of the reviews of the play Barton has written, the brilliantly titled “Bare Ruined Choirs”, it says that he manages “to find nobility in the most squalid corners and poetry in the most callous speech.” The same could be said for Odets at his most sparkling. He was definitely one of the most astonishing of writers, his works reverberated with a piercing energy and can be quite cathartic when read or even watched (although I have never had the pleasure of the latter, I have read most of his plays including later works like The Flowering Peach). His quips and almost abstract dialogue, his appropriation of vernacular slang for poetic effect, and his Group theatre polemics were all essential to understanding the Odets aesthetic. Apart from being my favorite playwright of all time, he was also one of the most potent of screenwriters, coming up with lines of dialogue that bore holes in the screen. “You’re a cookie laced with arsenic, I’d hate to take a bite out of ya!” was his most famous.
It’s no surprise to me that the producer of Clash by Night, Jerry Wald must have gravitated towards this text. He himself was a spectacularly singular screenwriter and like most of the Warners’ contract writers of the 30s and 40s, came up with some of the most outrageous and startling lines of dialogue. He was said to have a mind like a hornet’s nest and spearheaded some of the more mature and complex pictures of the time. He was also said to have been the basis for the Sammy Glick character in Budd Schulberg’s scabrous What Makes Sammy Run – a devastating satire on Hollywood, but this is one gentleman I would like to know more about. Very little information or even literature is available about him online, all that is left to speak for him is his staggering body of work both as producer and as writer.
Lang on the other hand was a monumental artist. He had to flee Nazi Germany where he was in command of magnum opuses of Toklienien proportions to Hollywood in the pre and post war period where he had to settle for more down-to-earth productions – from the Nietzschian uberman to the American common man. One of the key themes of Lang’s work is the image of the honest hard working man driven to dishonesty and crime by circumstance, institutions or worst of all by the tyranny of fate – both personal and professional. No one understood the true torment of noir like Lang, he was the one that made me realize that noir is not just an aesthetic of light and shadows and seedy men in trench coats lurking in dark alleys, but a psychological landscape where the universe conspires against you. Lang’s noirs terrified me from a very early age. I will never forget the harrowing sensation of seeing one my childhood heroes and idols Edward G Robinson being called ‘old and ugly’ by Joan Bennett’s femme fatale. It’s a blow that I have never quite recovered from. And to see him wandering the streets at the end of Scarlet Street like a hobo is to surrender to one of the bleakest endings ever put on film. Lang understood romantic devastation like no other.
Although Clash by Night cannot traditionally be categorized as noir (it belongs more to the tradition of domestic melodrama. Films like John Huston’s In This Our Life and Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad could be seen as companion pieces) owing to the absence of a crime plot or any kind, the noir flourishes are unmistakable. There is a climactic fight scene in a projection booth with sound-bytes of cookie cutter romantic movies playing over it. The two men in the love triangle battle each other with a fury that verges almost on the Biblical. Lang saw violence as ‘having a dramaturgical necessity’. The only legitimate form of retribution on this earth was ‘physical pain’ since “people don’t believe in punishment after they are dead”. His fight scenes usually featuring one-on-one, man-to-man combat were brutal and unusually violent for the time. The sense of physical pain was immense, and it wasn’t sanitized morally. Think the heroic Gary Cooper fighting dirty with Marc Lawrence in Cloak and Dagger and stamping his feet into insensibility as a gentle Italian folk ballad plays outside, or a psychotically sustained close up of Marc Lawrence clawing Cooper’s face. In Clash by Night, there are similar instances of emotional and physical trauma. There is the Iagoesque uncle who instills the wrath and fear of God into his impressionable nephew, saying “God wants you to take revenge”, the laboring average Joe who tries to do right, the heavy with a heart of glass and the inevitable heartbreak. The proletarian aspect of examining the lives of fishermen has a dramaturgical thrust in the story. It isn’t just there for window dressing. It is very much a blue collar film, and even someone like Monroe seems surprisingly down to earth.
Mae, played by Barbara Stanwyck, has just returned home to her coastal fishing town, from the proverbial sojourn in the big city and has come back broken and bruised. “Home is where you go when you run out of places,” she sighs while taking a slug of whisky in the morning much to Paul Douglas’s astonishment. The oafish Jerry (played by Douglas) has an immediate attraction to Mae and manages to muster up the nerve to ask her out. But somehow she seems to be beyond his simpleton comprehension. “People have funny things swimming around inside of them,” she warns him. “Don’t you get blue?” she asks him. “I get mad sometimes,” he says. “Not the same thing! Maybe it’s because you’re so big. I knew a big man once, he didn’t suffer from moods,” she replies. When Mae senses his designs she immediately tells him that “she’d be bad for him, that somehow she’d hurt him”. “Find yourself someone who likes walking the baby carriage or changing the curtains on the bathroom windows,” she roars. Jerry is still convinced that she would make a good wife, and she impulsively decides to marry him, because as she says before what she needs most of all is ‘a place to rest’, and “someone to beat off the storms and the floods”. It’s a deeply emotional sequence and one of Lang’s most moving passages.
On their date however at the movie theatre, they encounter Earl Pfeiffer, the projectionist, due to Jerry’s insistence on introducing them. Earl is a different kind of man, attractive and tantalizing to Mae but not to put it mildly, a nice guy. Earl Pfeiffer as played by Robert Ryan is a deeply complex character, probably more interesting and troubled than Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. The erotic explosion that takes place between Mae and Earl in a kitchen on a tormented hung over morning is one of the most astonishing moments of the 50s. It’s way ahead of its time and more mind-blowing to me than Brando’s emotional explosion in Streetcar. Ryan plays the part with a reptilian sensuality. He’s nothing short of explosive – one of the most interesting tough guys ever to grace the screen. His body language borders on the expressionistic; he can go from languid to fierce with the flick of a match. Think of the way Mae snaps at Earl bemoaning ‘Men!’ and the way he spits back ‘Women!’ If the battle of the sexes ever had a cricket match coin toss this was it. Stanwyck’s as stern and as searing a performance as Ryan’s. It’s like the meeting of two tamed tigers bursting through their shackles. She was one of the grand dames of the cinema like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and her line deliveries are blistering with pent-up rage. Ryan too seems full of an inflammatory vitriol that makes his expressions contort ungracefully never calculatedly like the method motions of Dean and Brando whose facial manipulations still retain their essential attractiveness. Ryan wasn’t afraid of getting ugly, both spiritually and physically. He is and has always been one of the bravest of actors and despite my love for Brando, Dean and Clift – to me a guy like him is far more interesting. His work carries the stench of real life crudity and hardness. They don’t make guys like him anymore. Stanwyck too vibrates with physical sensitivity; this is one of her most complex performances. Which finally leads me to my dearest performance in this implosive trifecta – Paul Douglas’s Jerry, who is basically a nice guy who simply means well and isn’t attractive or mean-spirited like Earl. But pushed to the edge he reveals his animal insides. This performance could join the pantheon of other disaffected large males from Lang’s canon. It’s an antithesis to Broderick Crawford’s boorish beast in Lang’s later Human Desire (based on Emile Zola’s The Human Beast). Lang investigates the beast within, and watches it emerge and explode in a variety of forms throughout his career. When Jerry finally finds out that his wife has been cheating on him with his best friend, the scene is almost unbearable to watch because of the emotional violence of it. This film scalds you; it actually bruises and hurts you. And this for me was the quintessence of Lang – emotional violence which finally manifests itself in the physical. ‘Animals!’ he screams at them. “Animals. They keep them in a cage they keep them from hurting others. Animals!” A ticking alarm clock expertly punctuates the tension in this scene. The domestic kitchen sink nightmare is vivid and frightening in the visual directness with which it is handled.
Lang’s imagery became more flat in America, less concave but equally as geometric as anything in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse or other Weimar works. The Germanic tendency is still very strong in him but he camouflages it with seemingly static shots. There is visual violence to his imagery, which is scarier by implication and the black and white compositions pierce through the frame even with seemingly plain shots. Think Edward G Robinson wearing an apron and retreating from and advancing towards his wife with a pointed blade in Scarlet Street. It’s an image ripe with all kind of thematic possibilities. To study Lang’s visuals is to see the history of the visual medium through the ages. When he finally came back to India towards the end of his career to make The Tiger of Eschnapur the visual became absurd. The bizarreness of the baroque and ornate returned to his work. But he was always a deeply complex filmmaker and one of the foremost voices and architects of noir, tormented and torn between tendencies befitting his autocratic ascent and the down-to-earth dimensions of his work. Clash by Night is his jewel in the rough. It’s a fairly obscure film, not very highly regarded, often ridiculed for its melodramatic excesses, but brutal and blistering all the same. A work representing the tragic, almost Shakespearean possibilities implicit in the genre, and excavating the inherent human torment of noir that has kept the genre boiling since the 1930s!
Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently, he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.
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