Clash By Night, 1952. 9/10

A love triangle energizes the plot in this drama. Barbara Stanwyck is Mae Doyle D’Amato, back in her hometown after a long fling with a married man back East. She gets acquainted with both Earl Pfieffer (Robert Ryan), a local bad-boy, and nice guy Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas).

Meanwhile, Mae’s brother Joe Doyle (Keith Andes) makes time with Peggy (Marilyn Monroe). Jerry’s dad is Papa D’Amato (Silvio Miniciotti), and there’s his Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish).

We start with a picturesque Monterey Bay panorama; seals, gulls, a fishing fleet. And, Peggy waking up. Geez, she works in a cannery. Meanwhile, Mae gets off the train by the pier. Sauntering into a bar, she perches on a stool.

Jerry comes in to sort of rescue his dad, who’s miserable. “Hey, ain’t you Mae Doyle?” Asks Jerry, as Pops bumps into Mae. She’s sort of ‘yeah, whatever’ when Jerry tries to reacquaint himself with her, even though he mentions that her brother works for him. Anyway, Peggy gets off work, meeting up with Joe.

“When I want you to kiss me, I’ll let you know!” Peg tells the aggressive Joe. Oh, well. Mae greets them at the old homestead. It’s been ten years. What, no entourage for Mae? “There isn’t any car, there isn’t any husband.” In other words, her game folded up. Joe grudgingly welcomes sis home.

Peggy tells Mae that Joe wants to marry her, but she’s not so sure she wants to. Segue back to the docks. Joe and Jerry talk about Mae; Joe encourages him to ask her out. Next thing we know, Jerry is all dressed up for a date with her. He, Vince, and Pops verbally joust.

So, Jerry comes calling on her. He talks about how “everything was easier in the old days.” He mentions Earl, the movie projectionist. After the movie, they visit with Earl. He’s got an odd comment on the movie, that it would be better if the actress were “cut-up a little bit, [because] she’d look more interesting.”

Earl tells Mae that his wife is in burlesque, in St. Louis. Hmm. Then he muses “a man without a woman has nothing.” About his wife, he says “some day I’m going to stick her full of pins!” A voodoo doll? Mae doesn’t like him. Back home, Peg and Mae are hanging a clothesline. They talk about guys, Mae says “I’m tired of looking after men. I want to be looked after!”

I’d say that she and Earl are equally bitter, but in different ways. Jerry wants to go to the Pavilion at Earl’s invitation. She tells Jerry, a bit disdainfully, “you don’t know a thing about me.” She figures that he’s in love with her; but she’d be “bad” for him. But he says that he’d do “anything” for her. Hmm.

Joe and Peg are clowning at the beach; they cruise into a nice place. Earl, who seems to know everyone, starts complaining about the service. Peg tells Joe that Earl looks “kind of exciting, and attractive.” Joe doesn’t like that, and, not so playfully chokes her with a towel. Earl’s not the only jerk, then.

When Joe goes on an errand, Earl comes on to Peg; then Mae and Jerry slip in. Joe and Peg go out for a walk, so Earl shifts his attention to Mae. When they dance, Earl basically tells her that Jerry’s a great guy, but, y’know, he’s Jerry. “You’re like me,” he tells Mae. Jerry’s gone missing.

Now Earl’s wife is in Pittsburgh. Time for a song, and a smoke. Jerry reappears (another Pops crisis). She more or less tells Jerry to buzz off for being overly solicitous. More bitter talk with Earl. She: “Last time I looked you had a wife.” He: “Next time you look, maybe I won’t.” He moves in to kiss her, but she demures. He retorts “I know a bottle by the label.” Slap.

Back inside, Joe whisks Peg away from Earl. Then Earl gets stiffed by Mae all over again. She unexpectedly says that she will marry boring old Jerry. So, there’s an Italian-style wedding (Jerry being about the least Italian-looking guy possible). Naturally, Peg makes a spectacle of herself, and Pops gives a genuinely salutary speech.

Of course, Earl insists on kissing the bride. Anyway, things start off swimmingly for the newlyweds; Mae’s had a baby already, Gloria. Strangely, Vince needles Jerry about Mae; the jist is that she’s too controlling. Anyway, some more domestic bliss for the little family. Meanwhile, it seems that Earl has finally got his divorce.

Funny thing is, Jerry feels sorry for Earl. Well, look who’s calling, drunk as a skunk? Earl. He’s only had “two tiny quarts.” As drunks will do, he gets philosophical “Divorce is like the other person dying.” Ok, but what’s this? Mae looking out the window at the sea.

Next day, Jerry sets off to the boat; that leaves sleep-it-off Earl in the house with Mae. “How did I get here?” She tells him. Pop pops in; he gives Earl a quick dirty look and says “you don’t like work, heh?” Of course, Earl gets down to brass tacks with Mae immediately, asking her if she’s happy. He’s certain that she isn’t.

He doesn’t respect the fact that she’s married. “Don’t you know I love you?!” For all his machismo, Earl is weak and needy. Peg comes by–she’s showing off her ring–she and Joe are engaged. Earl rolls out some demeaning quips. When Peg leaves, Mae tries to get rid of him; but he grabs her, after some struggling, they embrace and kiss.

On the boat, the crew gets the news that there’s another Pops crisis, and that Mae’s gone to the fair with Earl. Vince claims he didn’t know anything about Pops going bezerk in the bar. But Vince mentions Earl…is word seeping out about Mae carrying on with the lout? Yep, that’s it.

Jerry quizzes his dad about the fight; the fact that Pops just cries confirms the cuckolding situation. Not only that, but Jerry finds some stuff that only Earl could’ve given her. At that point, Earl returns with Mae. Well, Earl’s busted; he tries to pass the gifts off as little doodads, but Jerry is livid.

He tells Earl off. Basically, Mae feels bad about it; but she’s defensive, giving Jerry the line that married life is boring. This is a long, powerful scene. Turning on his wife and Earl, Jerry lambastes them with “what are you, animals?!”

A segue with clouds and landscape. Here’s Earl and Mae on the beach; “this is my last shot at happiness” he says. Ditto for her. Earl is so delusional, saying that Jerry “can’t take care of himself.” Earl has no idea who he is, or what he wants to do; and Mae’s not much different. They talk about the baby like it’s a bargaining chip, if not just a nuisance.

Working up to a wild denouement, I think. Anyway, when she gets home, Jerry says he’s willing to forget the past, if they can have a future. She just says that she’s going to leave the next day with Earl. What a dummy. He offers to sell the boat so that they can “go away.” When he tries to force his affections on her, she threatens him.

He’s so pissed when she says that she’ll take Gloria, that he pushes her out. Vince tells him that he should take her back, whether she likes it or not. “Blow his brains out!” urges Vince, Earl’s brains that is, if he has any. Joe walks in on Peggy and Mae–his turn to tell Mae off. And then, to the impressionable Peg, he talks about what marriage means to him “you’re just as much responsible as I am!” Sounds reasonable.

Earl is back in the projection room; doesn’t that make him an easy target? It’s not Mae that comes up, it’s Jerry. Uh-oh. He’s definitely out for blood; they struggle, Jerry nearly strangles Earl, but Mae intervenes just in time. No harm done, legally. That night, Mae swings by to pick up the baby and say goodbye to Jerry.

But Pops says that Jerry has split with the baby; and tells off both Earl and Mae. Earl calls Gloria “that kid.” She wonders if she should follow through and leave with Earl. He calls responsibility a “trap.” It’s obvious that he could care less about the baby. “Somebody’s throat has to be cut.” For once, she realizes that Earl’s attitude is selfish. Now she doubts that she loves Earl.

He’s possibly right that her new personality makeover is a phase of some sort “you played me for a chump!” Another apt comment: “you may lose both of us.” She goes to the boat; Jerry’s not exactly calmed down. “I wasn’t your husband, I was nothing!” She admits that she’s not a safe bet. Finally, Jerry says “I have to trust you…you got to trust someone, there ain’t no other way.” So, they each give in, to make another go of it. The end.

I was very surprised that no one was killed. That’s definitely a hint that character, and not action, is our focus here. We’ve stepped up from melodrama to the more sophisticated, nuanced level of drama. Both Jerry and Mae change significantly; Jerry’s heightened awareness shows up much sooner than Mae’s, who realizes, only at the very last minute, that Earl is an immature schemer and dreamer.

Earl, Mae, and Jerry are presented as very different, and very distinct people. Jerry’s uncomplicated and easily satisfied (as exemplified by his dad, who thinks things should be set in stone). Earl is the exact opposite: rootless, restless, and unappreciative. Mae is pretty much a female version of Earl, and attracts men as easily as Earl attracts women.

Its good that Jerry seems like such a ‘big lug’ compared to kool-kat Earl; otherwise his nebulous, almost beatnik-like non-conformism would seem useless next to the practical, down-to-earth (down to the sea?) Jerry.

Peggy and Joe make an interesting reflection of the married couple. Joe is somewhat like Jerry, but he has his Earl-like bossy, even abusive moments with Peggy. In their case, Peggy is actually more like Jerry, just wanting someone who will love her without telling her what to do. In fact, it would make a sort of poetic justice if Joe winds up with May, and Peggy with Jerry.

What connects the two couples is the predatory Earl. He certainly lives up to the cliche which posits that the ‘bad boys’ get the ladies. The script kicks him to the curb, ultimately; he ‘gets’ nothing, in fact, the town probably gets rid of him.

Joe’s bit about the responsibility in marriage being mutual really gets at the heart of the theme. This is fairly progressive stuff for the era, and belies a lot of the misogynist posturing and actions by both Joe and Earl.

The performances of the main characters are outstanding. And well cast: Stanwyck does her alluring, world-weary indifference so well; Ryan pretty much is one of his film noir anti-heros–minus the crime; Monroe is vulnerable, but resilient and deeply sensuous; Douglas’s role is enigmatic, the guy who gets wise to himself.

The beautiful locale helps to sort of set off, even amplify the characters’ issues. It doesn’t need to be stated that this is a natural paradise, with a village-like charm. So why are all these folks in turmoil? In a way, the setting mocks the drama, as though it’s a veneer of a civilization–which Pops seems to think–is already lost.

Actually, there’s some truth to looking at both facets of Monterey. Or anywhere, really. Some folks can blend in, as Jerry does; or, like Earl, and for the most part, Mae, they can be outliers. There’s another possibility too, as Peggy seems to show; one can be restless, but accept the situation that they’re in at the moment.

Clash By Night makes us think, an indication of an interesting, well-made movie. 9/10.

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