During the shooting, the now famous nude calendar photos of Monroe surfaced and reporters swarmed around and hounded the actress, creating considerable distraction for the film makers.
Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home town, the fishing village of Monterey, California after ten years "back East." Her fisherman brother Joe (Keith Andes) is not particularly pleased to see her, but accepts her back into the family home. His girlfriend Peggy (Marilyn Monroe) is more welcoming. When Joe asks Mae about the rich man she was seeing, she explains he was a married politician. He died and left her some money, but his wife and relatives took her to court and won.
Mae begins to date Jerry (Paul Douglas), a good-natured, unsophisticated fisherman with his own boat. Mae instantly despises Jerry's friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a bitter, dissatisfied film projectionist. Mae's politician lover had made her feel more confident in herself; in stark contrast, Earl has a low opinion of women in general and makes no attempt to hide it. His wife is a vaudeville performer who is away frequently on tour.
Earl, sensing a kindred restless spirit, is attracted to Mae right away. Jerry is oblivious to the tension between the two and soon asks Mae to marry him, despite her warning that she is not good for him. Mae decides to accept, even though she does not love or even respect her future husband, for the security and in the hope that she can change.
After having a baby girl with Jerry, Mae becomes bored and restless after a year. Earl, now divorced, makes a move on Mae. She resists at first, but then begins an affair with him. Jerry's uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish), who bears a grudge against Mae, tells his disbelieving nephew. When Jerry confronts the couple, Mae admits that she wants to leave Jerry to be with Earl.
After a few drinks and prodded on by Vince, Jerry finds and starts strangling Earl, until Mae arrives and breaks up the fight. Jerry leaves, horrified at what almost happened. When Mae goes home to take her baby away, she finds the crib empty. Earl tries to coax Mae to leave with him anyway, without the baby, but this does not sit well with Mae. After trading bitter recriminations, she breaks up with him. Mae repents and convinces Jerry to take her back.Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle D'Amato
Paul Douglas as Jerry D'Amato
Robert Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer
Marilyn Monroe as Peggy
Keith Andes as Joe Doyle
Silvio Minciotti as Papa D'Amato
J. Carrol Naish as Uncle Vince
Diane and Deborah Stewart as Gloria D'Amato
Odets' Clash by Night was originally performed in 1941 as a neo-realist Broadway play with Tallulah Bankhead in the Stanwyck role. Fritz Lang changed the locale from Staten Island to a fishing town in California, but he kept intact the oppressive seacoast atmosphere.
The drama is structured into two almost equal parts and each is almost a complete drama in its own. The two parts are separated by a year in time. Each section begins with a non-fiction, documentary look at the fishing industry in Monterey, California. It then moves on to the story. Arguably, the motion picture is two films: each of around an hour's length and strung together as a serial.
The title of the film comes from Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" (1851). Specifically: It is a place "where ignorant armies clash by night."
Joan Crawford was originally announced as star.
When the film first opened the staff at Variety magazine was harsh on the film but appreciated Barbara Stanwyck's work, writing, "Clifford Odets' Clash by Night, presented on Broadway over a decade earlier, reaches the screen in a rather aimless drama of lust and passion. Clash captures much of the drabness of the seacoast fishing town, background of the pic, but only occasionally does the narrative's suggested intensity seep through...Barbara Stanwyck plays the returning itinerant with her customary defiance and sullenness. It is one of her better performances. Robert Ryan plays the other man with grim brutality while Marilyn Monroe is reduced to what is tantamount to a bit role."
Critic Sam Adams wrote about Fritz Lang directorial style, "Restraint was never Fritz Lang's problem. Indeed, his version of Clifford Odets' Clash by Night is overwrought verging on camp... In Clash's wild kingdom, strong women can only be sated by the threat of male violence: After she marries sturdy lug Paul Douglas, Stanwyck is unerringly drawn towards Ryan's volatile woman-hater, while fish-canner Marilyn Monroe shows her affection to fiance Keith Andes by socking him in the arm, a gesture he threatens to return in spades. Lang tilled the same turf two years later in Human Desire, a similarly heavy-handed expose of man's bestial nature. Perhaps Lang should have stuck with the style of Clash's extraordinary, near-wordless opening, which begins with shots of seagulls and seals and slowly mixes in the actors in their natural habitats."
Critic Dennis Schwartz wrote, "The performances are stagy but filled with fiery emotion. The performers are able to bring out the complexities underlying each of their characters as they battle each other, hoping not to die of loneliness or of cynicism. Everything about these characters and their alienation seemed natural, something that was grounded by Lang's showing them at work, never cutting them off from all the other travails they were going through. Lang's point is how easy it is not to see the faults in yourself, as easy as it is to see them in someone else. Clash by Night brilliantly tells how some lonely folks break out from their shadowy existence, as if that darkness was a prison where survival at any cost is the name of the game."
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 92% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 11 reviews, marking the film as "Fresh."
Another production of the Odets play was directed by John Frankenheimer for Playhouse 90 on June 13, 1957 with Kim Stanley in the lead role.