"She was sharp as a razor and soft as a prayer." This line from Tom Waits' "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" comes to my mind when thinking about Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang's 1952 film Clash by Night. The movie's about the contradictions in a person's nature, the coexisting desire to give and receive love with a fundamental dislike for other people. It's a beautifully shot film with effectively constructed characters, captivating in their parts of a vivid portrayal of self-destructive psychology.
Four people get top billing--Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, and Marilyn Monroe, but Monroe's part is really only that of a supporting character, the girlfriend of Stanwyck's brother. A sort of tomboy who works in a cannery, Monroe could maybe be seen as a version of Stanwyck's character before she left town to try to make it in the big city, before she comes back home, at the beginning of the movie, beaten and jaded.
The conflicts of the film are mainly played out between Stanwyck, Douglas and Ryan. Douglas is a big, kind of dumb, nice guy. He's the solid, hard working sort, seen in well shot location footage among other fishermen at work, hauling nets.
Ryan is a film projectionist, a cynical intellectual Douglas looks up to and doesn't seem to recognise or mind the patronising tone Ryan takes with him.
The conflict is Stanwyck's as she chooses between these two men, each being a personification of a side in her internal conflict. Douglas seems eager to marry Stanwyck and she says she'd like the security but cares enough for Douglas not to inflict herself on him, as she tells him in one effective scene. Later she succumbs to her daydream and agrees to marry him with disastrous results.
It's a larger than life story but the dialogue flows naturally and the performances clench the deal. There's an abrupt ending one senses was forced by the censors, but mainly one leaves the movie wondering why human beings often so desperately need things that their essential nature inevitably sabotages.