The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a nifty little suspense thriller just released on DVD in the Warner Archive Film Noir Collection. I first saw this film three years ago and enjoyed returning to it. It’s a lightning-fast tale which manages to pack a lot of plot and characterization into a scant 63 minutes.
Bill Williams plays Jim Fletcher, who comes out of a coma at the Long Beach Naval Hospital only to learn that he’s going to be court-martialed for an act of treason committed while he was imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp.
Jim’s prison memories have been completely wiped out; terrified at being accused of something horrible he doesn’t remember, he escapes from the hospital. Jim hopes his old war buddy, Mark, can help him out and meets Mark’s wife Martha (Barbara Hale). Jim has another ugly shock coming when he learns Mark is dead and he’s responsible.
Jim and the initially unwilling Martha go on the road looking for answers, which might be found with another old war buddy, Ted (Richard Quine). It’s quite a challenge, with both the navy and strange men with guns following Jim around Los Angeles. And Jim has an even bigger shock coming when he’s sitting in a Chinese restaurant and suddenly spots the Japanese guard who beat him!
The theme of a couple on the run is something I seem to have been watching a lot of in the last few weeks, including Pacific Blackout (1941) and another Warner Archive release, Two O’ Clock Courage (1945). It’s fun to watch the real life Mr. and Mrs. Williams on screen together; married in 1946, they have a comfortable, appealing rapport costarring in this film. They previously appeared together in West of the Pecos (1945) and A Likely Story (1947).
The movie has another familiar film noir theme, a veteran with a big problem. Veterans seem to have had an especially rough time in film noir land! I could doubtless make a very long list of film noir veterans who find life back in the States perhaps more dangerous than what they experienced in the war.
The Clay Pigeon has some great atmosphere, with settings including a coastal trailer park and L.A.’s Chinatown, filmed in black-and-white by Robert de Grasse.
There’s an especially nice scene where Jim hides in the apartment of a war widow. She’s played by Marya Marco, who (billed as Maria San Marco) played Keye Luke’s bride Jeannie in Sleep, My Love (1948). It’s an interesting thematic touch that while Jim has been tormented by a Japanese man, both during the war and after, his life is saved by a Japanese-American woman.
The Clay Pigeon has excellent behind-the-scenes talent, with a screenplay by High Noon scripter Carl Foreman and directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer seems to be warming up for his 1952 noir classic The Narrow Margin, which was set almost entirely on a train headed for Los Angeles; the climax of this film also takes place on a train, this time headed out of L.A.
The Warner Archive DVD is a fine print of this RKO film. There are no extras.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films and Disney can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005. Follow Laura on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LaurasMiscMovie.