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The Clay Pigeon
Warner Archive Collection

The Clay Pigeon
The Warner Archive Collection
1949 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 63 min. / Street Date June 5, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 18.49
Starring Bill Williams, Barbara Hale, Richard Quine, Richard Loo, Frank Fenton, Frank Wilcox, Marya Marco, Robert Bray, Martha Hyer, Harold Landon, James Craven, Grandon Rhodes, Ann Doran.
Robert De Grasse
Film Editor Samuel L. Beetley
Original Music Paul Sawtell
Written by Carl Foreman from a novel by Philip Benjamin
Produced by Herman Schlom
Directed by Richard O. Fleischer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of RKO's most interesting films from the pinchpenny Howard Hughes years is the no-star crime tale The Tatooed Stranger. Filmed in New York by a team that specialized in short subjects, what it lacks in dramatic depth it gains in terrific location work and gritty realism -- even the audio was recorded on location. Somewhat from the same mold but not quite as smooth is 1949's The Clay Pigeon, a more talky crime tale with a topical script by Carl Foreman and competent direction by Richard Fleischer. Although much of the film takes place in Monogram-like plain sets for offices and apartments, key sections were filmed in downtown Los Angeles, particularly in the old Chinatown, before the 10 Freeway cut through the city.

In a Navy hospital in Long Beach, sailor Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) wakes up from two years in a coma to learn that he's accused of murder and treason for things that happened in a Japanese prison camp. He slips away, evades the police, and looks up the widow Martha Gregory (Barbara Hale), whose husband Mark died in the camp. Only now does Jim learn that he's accused of informing on Mark to receive special favors. Jim ties up Martha and enlists the help of his friend Ted Niles (Richard Quine), another former prisoner. Martha finally believes Jim's story, and they pause at a beach town to rest up before continuing on to Los Angeles. In Chinatown Jim is shocked to see Ken Tokoyama aka 'The Weasel' (Richard Loo), a sadistic guard from the POW camp. Jim enlists Ted's help while Martha helps him avoid the government police -- and a pair of sinister men who followed them from San Diego.

Writers have to start somewhere, and the successful Carl Foreman does well enough with The Clay Pigeon, a diverting if not particularly convincing thriller in the mysterious amnesia subgenre. Peculiarly selective amnesia is the main failing of memory loss epics, but Jim Fletcher's case isn't too annoying. Yet the story ambles from one unlikely event to another. Jim has been out for the count for two full years, yet pops out of bed and into action as if rising from a nap. He starts his relationship with his best friend's widow by socking her on the jaw, and then kidnapping her for a highly dubious car ride. No sooner does Jim light in L.A. than he runs into a major war criminal, who has set up shop for a counterfeiting ring right in the middle of a city where his prisoner victims are likely to spot him. Then again, we're also told that The Clay Pigeon was based on a 'true story,' and we know that true stories are often very strange.

The Clay Pigeon has a basic 'nice guy needs help' vibe going for it. It shares with other postwar films the strange notion that the widow of any particular fallen veteran is 'the property' of whatever returning buddy arrives first to claim her, as if soldier husbands were interchangeable. This was veteran director Richard Fleischer's third film. Like writer Carl Foreman, Fleischer was bouncing back and forth between RKO, Columbia and Stanley Kramer's fledgling film unit. Much of Foreman's dialogue is forced -- an opening scene with a Navy nurse fulminating about the 'traitor' Fletcher is particularly awkward -- but the writer also shows his pronounced liberal viewpoint. While on the run from the thugs of the hated Japanese villain, Jim is given shelter by a Japanese-American housewife (Mary Marco), who happens to be a war widow as well. She's also a mother, and her baby smiles at Jim from its crib. The Clay Pigeon doesn't acknowledge the internment camps, but just the sympathetic treatment is notable.

That's pretty much where the film's sensitivity ends. We see only enough of Ken Tokoyama to tag him as a rotten crook. Foreman's insights into the war are fairly shallow, as the character of The Weasel gives the impression that Americans were tortured and murdered in Japanese POW camps because of individual rotten-apple sadists like Tokoyama. Many low-ranking Japanese guards that had followed official orders were hanged in the war trials, while the officer corps that set up the barbaric system was allowed to return to civilian life. Seventy years later we know that sick things can be routine in any military prison system, even our own.

Fleischer's direction is so limited by the budget that the best he can do is keep the narrative straight. Even then we quickly guess the identity of writer Foreman's surprise bad guy. Bill Williams is likeable but dull; he'd already played a returning veteran with problems in the thoughtful Guy Madison/Robert Mitchum drama Till the End of Time. Five years before winning her lifetime paycheck role in TV's Perry Mason, Barbara Hale is fine as Jim's confidante and protector. This was a good couple of years for Hale, with roles in Joseph Losey's The Boy with Green Hair and Ted Tetzlaff's The Window. Ms. Hale and Bill Williams had already been married for three years when they worked together on The Clay Pigeon, and they stayed married until Bill's passing 44 years later. Their son became the well-known actor William Katt (Carrie).

Young Martha Hyer can be seen in a fleeting part as a receptionist. Co-cast member Richard Quine had already co-directed one movie. His directing career that took off in the '50s with his association with Kim Novak -- Pushover, Operation Mad Ball, Bell Book and Candle, The World of Suzie Wong.  1   Quine shares with Blake Edwards the distinction of working for years as a lower-case film actor, before making it big through a job change.

Lean, unpretentious and entertaining, this was the kind of picture that provided career steps for a new generation of postwar writers and directors. RKO did a bunch of these before delivering lasting hits like Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin. The Clay Pigeon is a good candidate for noir fans seeking more of the RKO crime vibe.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Clay Pigeon is a very good encoding of this minor 1949 show, from a time when RKO mogul Howard Hughes was running his studio into the ground, yet also releasing modest little program pictures. This was reportedly the first release under Hughes' aegis. Picture and sound are both quite satisfactory.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Clay Pigeon DVD-R rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 19, 2015


1. I keep confusing the actor Frank Fenton with the noted writer Frank Fenton, who worked with Richard Fleischer and producer Stanley Rubin and wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Fleischer and Disney. Nope, that's somebody else.

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson

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