‘Clash By Night’: Marilyn’s Neo-Realist Heroine

Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952) is one of many classic Hollywood films with progressive credentials covered in Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner’s 2002 book, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favourite Movies. As cannery worker Peggy, Marilyn was given a rare opportunity to play an authentically blue-collar woman like herself; and though it was a supporting role, she is prominently featured in the film’s opening scenes. (The Asphalt Jungle, and the 1951 adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, are also mentioned in the book.)

“The shift from the ambience of the censored thirties is most literal, in a different sense, in Clash By Night. Adapted from a [Clifford] Odets drama, its screenwriter was former Popular Front [aka the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League] lyricist Alfred Hayes, who had most recently worked in Rome scripting (albeit without credit) scenes of Paisan, the neorealist classic directed by Roberto Rossellini. Set in the considerably less romantic ruins of contemporary Monterey, California, Clash opens realistically with a proletarian scene of boats bringing back the catch for the fish-processing plant, then sweeps in to show a young Marilyn Monroe, rising sleepily and unwillingly from her lonely bed at the call of the alarm clock, then walking to the plant for her production-line job of fish sorting. Soon enough, we learn that the catch is down, part of a larger melancholy drift: Monterey’s happiest days as a working-class town are now well behind it, and the urgency to get out has become supreme.

Altogether, the opening is one of the best depictions of work in any Hollywood film. The camera in Clash then suddenly moves from the factory floor to a nearby exterior, where a lone woman, played by Barbara Stanwyck, comes into view … Unlike the kindly but simple Monroe character who soon happily marries a local, Stanwyck doesn’t belong here. The struggle that continues is not class against class, but gender against gender …”