“The Clay Pigeon” is one of earliest in a series of bare boned budgeted film noirs director Richard Fleischer made in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Not as sharp as his best, “The Narrow Margin”, hampered by a lackluster leading man, the film still packs an interesting, if somewhat hard to believe story. However, with B-noir, stories are not always what is best. It is more about style and atmosphere and “The Clay Pigeon” has both. One of the unintentional highlights, as it is with Fleischer’s other noir works from this period, is the documentary view of 1950’s Los Angeles that has been captured on film.
Jim Fletcher wakes up in a naval hospital with a case of amnesia to find himself accused of treason and responsible for the death of his best buddy in a Japanese POW camp. Soon to be put on trail Fletcher escapes from the hospital in order to try and clear himself. He is aided, at first reluctantly by Martha (Barbara Hale), the wife of the buddy whose death he is being held responsible for. Together they head for Los Angeles where another former POW, Ted Hines (Richard Quine) believes Fletcher is innocent and is willing to help him out. Along the way they are almost killed when the driver of another car forcibly pushes Fletcher’s car off the road. Once in L.A. it seems everywhere Fletcher and Martha go someone is trying to kill them. Whoever it is, knows just about every move they make. The situation becomes even more unsettling when Fletcher recognizes his former POW tormentor on the streets of L.A.’s Chinatown. It all comes to a climatic ending in a train compartment. These scenes are sharply edited, with each cut quicker and shorter than the one before as a swelling of tension explodes within the final moments as the police arrive in the nick of time.
The screenplay is by Carl Foreman who also wrote such works as “Champion”, “High Noon”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, and “The Men” among many others. Filmed with enthusiasm, the film keeps you interested despite at times a hard to believe script and a leading man who is blander than vanilla ice cream There are some nicely done hallucinatory flashback scenes where we see Fletcher tortured while a POW. Barbara Hale who many will remember as Della Street, Perry Mason’s ever-vigilant girl Friday, portrays the female lead Martha. Hale and Bill Williams were husband and wife in real life at this time and would eventually give birth to “The Greatest American Hero”, aka William Katt (there is a strong family resemblance between father and son). Hale actually made quite a few films, mostly low-budget affairs, including a few westerns with husband Bill. Williams who is probably best remember for his early TV series, “The Adventures if Kit Carson.” Richard Quine would become better known as a director in the 1950’s and beyond making his own contribution to film noir a few years later with “Pushover.” In addition, contributing some nice performances are Richard Loo who is downright scary as the sadistic former Japanese POW guard and Mary Marco is affecting as a Chinese woman who conceals Fletcher from his pursuers. Look for a young Martha Hyer in a small role as a receptionist.
In the 1960’s and after Fleischer’s work would become filled with bloated and overblown productions (Dr. Doolittle, Fantastic Voyage, The Jazz Singer) or worst yet just plain dull (The Don is Dead). On rare occasions his talent still shown through in films like “10 Rillington Place” and “The Boston Strangler” smaller works, both based on true stories, as was his 1959 film “Compulsion.” These were all “A” pictures but small, closer in scale to his classic B-noirs. Overall, “The Clay Pigeon” is an efficient, nicelt paced and satisfying little film, essential viewing for any fan of film noir.
I agree that Bill Williams wasn’t the most dynamic leading man in a noir, but he had a believable “all american guy” wrongly accused and in-over-his-head presence that served him well in this film and “Deadline at Dawn.”
I love it in these noirs when the action takes a field trip to Chinatown. It must have been a popular (and easy) plot device after WWII. I can think of two other films just off the top of my head that do the same, “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948) and “Woman on the Run” (1950).
You expressed my feeling exactly regarding the “unintentional documentary view” we get of L.A. and similar urban locations of this period in these B-films. Have you ever seen “Without Warning”? Some scenes feel like you’re watching a beautiful, big-budget home movie! The close-ups of Angela Stevens (just smoking a cigarette in her car) are especially haunting. Or Andre De Toth’s “Crime Wave”. It’s a trip listing to “Demon Dog” James Ellroy’s dark & hilarious commentary about the film locations.
I have another Bill Williams film on my list for future viewing, “A Dangerous Profession”(1949). Although it sounds like Ella Raines may be the only good thing about this flick, I’ll give it a shot anyway!
Truth be told this is the only film I have seen with Bill Williams, however, Deadline at Dawn is a film that has been on my want to see list for a long time. I have seen “Crime Wave”, a nice little film, but I have never heard of “Without Warning.” You have stumped me with this one. I will have to check it out. I love finding these obscure little films.
Definitely worth owning – some DVD’s as low as 5 bucks.
Thanks Brett, I am going to check it out.
I’ve never seen this film but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen from Fleischer up to now.
It’s just had a R2 release in France from Montparnasse (who have put out quite a few otherwise unavailable RKO noirs in affordable editions) and I may well pick it up.
If you have seen and like some of Fleisher’s othe film noirs, I think you will enjoy this one. Nice to know they are releasing this stuff.
Foreman also penned the screenplay of YOUNG WINSTON (1972) a film I have high regard for. THE NARROW MARGIN is one that deserves praise, but I will have to respect your position on this one, especially since this is your specialty, John. Still, your summary judgement admises a look-see. I like your description of Bill Williams there! Ha! Deft editing can really life even lackluster material in this genre, and apparently this happened here. Again, an insightful and authoritative essay!
Sam – I remember your essay on “Young Winston” and your admiration for it. A film that has disappeared from the radar. I agree on your praise of “The Narrow Margin”, Fleischer’s greatest noir. I am also fond of “Violent Saturday.” “The Clay Pigeon” IMO is not at the level of “The Narrow Margin” but is certainly worth seeing.