Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fritz Lang, "Clash by Night"

Within the last few years, film noir has made such a comeback that every studio and label is tripping over itself trying to flesh out their catalogue of DVD releases. As a recent convert to the genre I have benefitted greatly, but it's easy for the budding film buff to get taken in by the shifting standards of these companies. I have seen several films recently that, despite being filed under the noir category, were categorically not representative of the style. I recently wrote a post about a Hammer film studio collection that falls short of the archetypal description of noir.

For every noir set that exploits the craze, there is another that presents some of the major works of the canon. The first Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection lived up to its name with ground-breaking works such as The Asphalt Jungle, Murder, My Sweet, and Out of the Past. This set really defines the genre, and is a great place to start for the curious. It establishes the defining attributes of noir- an undeniably criminal element, convoluted plots, femme fatales, snappy dialogue, moral confusion and shadowy cinematography. Warner Brothers followed up on their success by issuing two subsequent collections, and plan to release several more. The problem is that there are only so much film noir to release, and many of the best have already been made available. As WB plumbs the depths of noir, the selections become more debatable. That brings me to Fritz Lang's 1952 release, Clash by Night.

Fritz Lang made some of the best-known and best-regarded noir in film history. Some experts claim that his 1931 M was the first noir ever. Regardless, it is hard to deny the credentials of such notables as Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. But it's a mistake to affix the noir label to every other movie in his wide ouevre. Clash by Night is a story of small-town romance gone bad. It stars two luminaries of noir stardom- Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity) and Robert Ryan (Crossfire, The Set-Up). Stanwyck is a cynical, bitter woman who returns to her hometown for want of any better option. She meets and agrees a fishing captain, played by Paul Douglas. Douglas is clearly not up to Stanwyck's conception of attractive- he is none-to-smart, conventionally boring, and the prototype of a "lunk". But he's a nice chap, honest, and ready to worship the ground that Stanwyck trods.

The tough broad decides to settle for a marriage that reeks of domesticity, despite her inclination toward romantic complexity. Robert Ryan plays a troubled and disillusioned divorcee who poses as Douglas' friend. He decides that he needs Stanwyck, and pursues her in his brash and overconfident way. The film traces the ambivalence of a woman resigned to the caprices of fate, examines the morality of her decisions, and shows the repercussions for the characters involved.

The story is believable, affecting, and even compelling. I was at times shocked at the emotional impact of the script and acting. The moral complexity sustained itself until the ending, and then deteriorated into cliche. Yet it's hackneyed finish didn't take away from my enjoyment of the film as a whole. I'd recommend it, especially for those who like other films made during this time period. But it is clearly drama and not film noir. In fact there is not even a single criminal act commited throughout the film. Stanwyck's character lost her femme fatale's credentials with her last-minute decisions. The interaction between characters has a touch of sentimentality that is frankly unwelcome in noir. The addition of traditional film noir elements wouldn't make this a better movie. It is fine as it is. But I think it's disingenuous to mislabel a decent film just to cash in on a profitable consumer trend. That does an injustice to the filmmakers and the audience alike.


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