Academic journal article CineAction

Running out of Places: Fritz Lang's Clash by Night

Academic journal article CineAction

Running out of Places: Fritz Lang's Clash by Night

Article excerpt

Clash by Night belongs generically to the great cycle of `fifties Hollywood domestic melodramas which have been so central to film criticism since the 1970s. In accounts both of Lang and of melodrama however, the film has had a marginal place, apparently regarded neither as significant Lang nor as important enough to deserve analysis within the canon of melodrama. Most Lang critics largely ignore the film or treat it with indifference; one--Reynold Humphries--roundly condemns it as `a grotesque and unintentionally funny sub-melodrama with nothing to recommend it' (Humphries, 1989: xv).

I want to argue that it it is both extraordinary melodrama and remarkable Lang, its particular qualities coming precisely from the conjunction of genre and auteur. The film is unusual among the major 1950s domestic melodramas in having a working class rather than a bourgeois setting but in other respects Alfred Hayes' and Lang's adaptation of Clifford Odets' 1941 stage play places the film firmly in the terrain of those melodramas which explore dilemmas of domesticity and which present these in terms of incompatible desires, particularly for women. Like Sirk's All I Desire, for instance, Clash By Night begins with a woman returning home and enacts a drama of intractable situations in which she has effectively two paths available to her--marriage or passion, home or rootlessness--but neither can lead to fulfillment.

Much of the power of melodrama in this period comes from the way its hyperbolic dramas of polarised desire expose contradictions in ideological constructions of gender and analyse tensions within the American family. Although Lang rarely made films that centred on the family, ideals of and illusions about the couple and domesticity are crucial to a significant number of his American movies, from Fury and You Only Live Once to Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. Intractable situations have, of course, been taken to be a veritable hallmark of his work and one of the most obsessive tensions in his films is that between the determining forces operating on his characters and the possibility of individual responsibility and moral choice. Clash By Night develops an extraordinary analysis of the characters' social situation (which also implies a strong critique of values central to American ideology) by means of a highly individual inflection of familiar melodramatic concerns and a fascinating variation in point of view strategies. The intensity of fifties melodrama comes from a constant play between powerful emotional involvement with the protagonists and varied forms of distance--cognitive, analytical, moral and so on. Characteristically, Lang shifts the balance towards the analytical, so that although the film is full of highly wrought emotional situations we are rarely if ever invited to take up a relationship to the characters that could be thought of as `identification'.

The Lang fihns scripted by Alfred Hayes--Clash By Night and Human Desire-- both have openings that strikingly encapsulate the constraints within the central characters move. Each is quintessential Lang, offering simultaneously an introduction to a specific social world and an informing image--unmistakably presented as such--which signals to the spectator some of the conditions which will govern the fictional world and our relationship to it. Each also carries strong connotations of determinism, Human Desire using the image of the train and railway tracks to establish the tension in the Glenn Ford character's position between controlling and being controlled and Clash By Night developing in an extended montage of the returning fishing fleet and the cannery a more complex image of the relationship between instinctual life, human society and industrial process.

But in a way Clash By Night has a double opening, with the credit sequence made up of a montage of scudding clouds and crashing waves acting, in combination with the turbulent music, almost stereotypically to signify unrestrained emotion and particularly sexual passion. …

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