Thursday, June 21, 2012

Another side of Fritz Lang: Clash by Night (1952)

Posted By on 06.21.12 at 07:35 AM

Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Langs Clash by Night (1952)
  • Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952)
Marilyn Monroe was terrified of Fritz Lang. "The actress vomited before almost every scene," writes Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan about the shooting of Clash by Night, "and grew so apprehensive about her dialogue that she broke out in red blotches. It didn't help her standing with the director that Monroe was habitually late, or that she insisted on her personal dialogue coach Natasha Lytess being present on the set at all times. Or that newspaper columnists squired to the soundstage by RKO publicists ignored the veteran player, Barbara Stanwyck—not to mention the veteran director—demanding instead to interview, in Lang's words, 'the girl with the big tits.'"

At that point in his career, however, Lang was in no position to complain. His last two releases had been House by the River (1950), a no-budget murder mystery for the poverty-row studio Republic Pictures, and An American Guerrilla in the Philippines (1950), a routine war movie for 20th Century-Fox that had been slammed by critics. Essentially a romance, Clash by Night may not have been ideal material for Lang, but it was a respectable project. The producers, Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna, were known around Hollywood as "the whiz kids" for their recent string of hits; the script, adapted from a half-forgotten Clifford Odets play, was solid; and the three actors playing out its anguished love triangle (Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, and Robert Ryan) were all highly regarded professionals.

Lang still managed to leave his stamp on the film, particularly in the five-minute opening montage. The Odets play had been set on Staten Island, but Wald decided to relocate the action to a fishing village along Cannery Row. Lang and his cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca—who'd shot such evocative RKO films as Cat People (1943) and Out of the Past (1947)—went out to Monterey and captured a wealth of documentary footage of the fishing and canning industry, which Lang assembled into an elaborate pictorial narrative of an entire economy: not just the nets spilling over with fish but the yawning workers (Monroe among them) filing onto the assembly line to sort through and package the catch.

It's the perfect naturalistic set-up for the love story, a sort of Darwinian hanky twister in which Stanwyck, returning to her hometown in defeat, marries the lumpen but devoted Douglas but soon falls under the malign spell of the tall and handsome Ryan, a spectacularly misogynistic movie projectionist (carping about his unfaithful and absentee wife, he promises, "Someday I'm gonna stick her full of pins, just to see if blood runs out"). Monroe has a small part as the girlfriend of Stanwyck's brother, though by the time the film was released, she'd become notorious for a nude photo published in a girlie calendar and RKO had responded by elevating her to top billing alongside the three stars. That's what they call natural selection.

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