One day jaded and faded beauty Barbara Stanwyck shows up in the village, because she has nowhere else to go. She has spent years as the companion of a married rich man, since deceased, and has nothing to show for it. She has come to stay with her brother Keith Andes, the humorless he-man boyfriend of tough-talking fish factory worker Marilyn Monroe.
Andes is a longtime worker on Douglas' boat. Andes talks the besotted Douglas into dating Stanwyck. The two are soon an item, but Stanwyck is reluctant to commit due to her restless nature. Douglas' best friend is film projectionist Robert Ryan, a sarcastic and embittered jerk.
Stanwyck is so repelled by Ryan that she marries Douglas, his opposite. They have a baby girl, but Stanwyck is still restless, and begins an affair with Ryan. In the small village, their secret is soon out. Stanwyck decides to skip town with Ryan. Douglas confronts Ryan and nearly strangles him. But the Production Code compels a plot resolution that affirms the sanctity of marriage, and leaves Ryan both alive and the odd man out.
How others will see it. In film circles, Clash by Night is best known as the only movie directed by Fritz Lang in which all the characters survive. Though, in the original Clifford Odets play, the husband does murder the lover. Fritz is a beloved director among classic movie fans for both his groundbreaking pre-war German films and the film noir dramas he later made in Hollywood.
Clash by Night is also noteworthy for Marilyn Monroe, who later became the biggest sex symbol of the 1950s. Monroe apparently caused considerable production headaches, flubbing her lines and co-dependent on an acting coach. As usual, though, it is little apparent in the finished product.
Ignored by film festivals and absent from the list of top-grossing 1952 films, Clash by Night has benefitted from the passage of time and the continued popularity of film noir. Today, it has considerably more user votes at imdb.com than Hans Christian Andersen, the top box office draw of 1952 for RKO. The user ratings are high but less than stellar. Women over 45 grade it 7.5, a bit above the 7.1 ceded by male viewers over 45.
User reviews are typically positive, with expected praise for the cast, writer Odets, and director Lang. Some note that is more of a romance drama than a film noir, despite Ryan's edgy performance and Stanwyck's potential femme fatale. A few complain that the Production Code interferes with the logical outcome, the break-up of the Douglas-Stanwyck marriage.
How I felt about it. Douglas, Stanwyck, Ryan, and Lang are professionals, and do their job well. The problem for me wasn't just Stanwyck's last minute decision to return to her husband after he nearly kills Ryan. Her character, a woman of the world, would never have taken up with Ryan to begin with. He's a jerk, and while he might be on good behavior for brief intervals, his awful self will again surface.
If Ryan had money, she could possibly see him as a means of escaping the trap of marriage and motherhood. But he doesn't have much money, which makes him a poor substitute for Douglas, who can at least provide. Ryan is also likely to dump Stanwyck for another prospect, sooner or later.
While Douglas is the obvious choice over Ryan, provided that J. Carrol Naish doesn't talk him into another attempted manslaughter, that doesn't excuse the film's other testament to marriage, Andes' big speech to Monroe. He lays down the law: say you will love me forever and never consider another man, no matter how things go in the future. While the Production Code might find that admirable, his lack of humor, and actual and threatened physical abuse of his special other, hasn't aged well over the past seven decades.