#13 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Based on the poster, I really expected something pulpier than a straight adaptation of a stage play. I expected larger than life characters battling things out with each other in a game of wits to destroy everything around them. I mean, look at that, in the bottom right there’s a girl being choked with a towel. Well, straight drama is what this film is. The marketing team tried to sexy it up a bit, though they don’t lie. That towel bit is in the film. It’s a throwaway moment between two minor characters, though. Fritz Lang wasn’t known for these kinds of movies. His visual sense is too overblown (in the best of ways) and his predilections too pulpy to expect something like this, and yet he manages it very well. In fact, this is one of the minor greats from his body of work, a film I was not expecting to take such a crown.
Ten years ago, Mae (Barbara Stanwyck) left the small seaside community she had grown up in with her brother Joe (Keith Andes). Now, she comes back to find Joe working on a fishing boat owned by the good-natured lug of a man Jerry (Paul Douglas) and with the pretty Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) as his girl. She has a tale of woe that she has no interest in telling anyone, probably revolving around a man back east who ended up leaving her with nothing, and she doesn’t know what she wants to do. When Jerry gets smitten with her, she decides to go along because there’s nothing better to do in that little dump of a place, and Jerry falls head over heels in love with her. Not all that bright and not all that smart, he promises that he’ll do anything to make her happy if she’ll marry him.
Well, she could, but Mae knows that she’s not that kind of woman, the woman to do the washing every day, the cooking every evening, and seeing the same old every day of every week. Into this comes Earl (Robert Ryan), Jerry’s friend, and he’s the exact kind of man who excites Mae. He’s rough, makes her feel good about herself in some twisted way, and he’s dangerous. He’s also married to a woman half a world away, and Mae decides that she’s going to give Jerry a go. They marry, they have a daughter, and then Earl gets his divorce.
I think this had to have been a vehicle for Stanwyck, that it’s a film that she drove to get made. Originally a stage production by Clifford Odets, it contains this central character of Mae who is the exact kind of complex and conflicted protagonist an actor would drool over landing, and as time has gone on and I’ve discovered more of her work, Stanwyck was the kind of accomplished actress who could make it work. And she does make it work. Her Mae is a fiery, passionate woman who has experienced pain but also knows what she wants. That conflict within her is the conflict of the movie, her dual desires for both Jerry and Earl. It also gets reflected in microcosm with the relationship between Peggy and Joe, with Peggy outright admiring Mae for going with her heart and Joe simply refusing to accept that as a good thing.
More modern audiences might call the film puritan in nature with its heavy emphasis on the joys found within the family, steady companionship in favor of impassioned pleasures, but in a culture as obsessed with the self as we have today, this is a very welcome reprieve from the more self-centered idiom we have now. It is a conflict, though, not an easy answer. Can Mae push aside what she thinks is her nature to stay at the side of a good man? Can the good man remain good in the face of betrayal?
I think there are two things that strike me wrong in the film, though. The first is less important: the baby. In terms of how little Gloria is used, she’s always just in the other room and sleeping. She is the quietest, sleepiest baby I’ve ever seen, conveniently pushed aside by the author for extended periods of time that don’t quite make much sense. The second is the very end of the film. I enjoyed it in the moment. It was a nice bit of redemption for some of our characters, but the more time has gone on the less I’m enamored with it. I do think that Jerry might go through with his forgiveness, but it ends up robbing him of any growth. An ending where no one is happy and everyone is alone might have been more appropriate. This is akin to the ending of Fury, but I think the ending in the earlier film fit better with the film here. I’m not so sure I’d go so far as to call it a misstep, but the ending as it is probably doesn’t work as well as the ending as I think it could have been.
Still, the buildup to that point is the kind of strongly constructed, character-driven drama that one should expect from a film intelligently made from a theatrical production. Lang keeps it from ever feeling claustrophobic, using his every visual trick to maintain visual interest in the limited number of sets (it feels like half of the film takes place in Jerry’s kitchen). Taking a step back, it feels obvious that the film was made from a play with its small number of characters and locations, but Lang brings his talent to the visuals to help make it feel cinematic rather than theatrical.
Lang’s predilections tended more towards the melodramatic than the dramatic, so it’s nice to see him tackle something less overbearing while maintaining his style and confidence.