Monday, May 28, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Clay Pigeon (1949)

THE CLAY PIGEON is a nice little 63-minute film noir starring the real-life husband and wife team of Bill Williams and Barbara Hale.

Jim Fletcher (Williams) comes out of a coma at Long Beach Naval Hospital, only to learn he's going to be court-martialed for a wartime crime. Jim has no memory of his supposed crime and escapes from the hospital, heading for the home of his war buddy, Mark. Thanks to a newspaper headline, Jim learns that he is supposedly responsible for Mark's death. Jim, suffering from partial amnesia, hadn't even realized Mark was dead.

Jim goes on the lam with Mark's unwilling widow, Martha (Hale), who soon comes to realize that Jim is a nice guy who couldn't have killed her husband. Jim hopes that Ted Niles (Richard Quine), who was in a POW camp with Jim and Mark, will help him clear his name, but it won't be easy with strange men trailing Jim all over Los Angeles. And why is the evil prison guard who beat Jim during the war wandering around freely in the United States?

The veteran with a big problem is a familiar theme of postwar noir, and a guy and gal on the run together isn't original either, but the appealing leads and director Richard Fleischer make it work. The movie has a great sense of time and place, with atmospheric shots of L.A.'s Chinatown and the California coastline.

Fleischer was also the director of the noir titles BODYGUARD (1948) and FOLLOW ME QUIETLY (1949), which similarly teamed a man and woman to solve a crime. More significantly, Fleischer directed the noir classic THE NARROW MARGIN (1952), which is set almost entirely on a train; THE CLAY PIGEON can be looked at as a warm-up for that title, as the nail-biting climax takes place on a train outbound from Los Angeles.

In THE CLAY PIGEON Fleischer tells a fast-moving, interesting story; I like short movies but I would have been happy if this one had had another five or ten minutes to develop the plot and characters even further.

Bill Williams and Barbara Hale were married in 1946, the same year Williams starred in another noir title, DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946). They costarred in A LIKELY STORY (1947) prior to making THE CLAY PIGEON. Williams and Hale also had successful TV careers, Williams in THE ADVENTURES OF KIT CARSON (1951-55) and Hale on PERRY MASON (1957-66), in a role she revived decades later for a series of successful TV-movies. Williams and Hale had three children; their son, William Katt, used his father's birth name for his acting career and starred in the popular TV series THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO (1981). (When I was about ten I saw Katt singing "16 Going on Seventeen" in an L.A. stage production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC!) Bill Williams died in 1992; Barbara Hale just turned 90 a few weeks ago.

The supporting cast includes Ann Doran, a favorite of mine, as a resentful nurse at the naval hospital. Mary (Marya) Marco plays a war widow who helps Jim when he's on the run. Martha Hyer has a scene as a receptionist. Richard Loo is the former prison guard.

The movie was written by Carl Foreman (THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI). The black and white cinematography was by Robert de Grasse.

THE CLAY PIGEON is an RKO film which had a VHS release but has not come out on DVD in the United States. It has had a Region 2 DVD release in Europe. It turns up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

June 2015 Update: THE CLAY PIGEON is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

July 2015 Update: My review of the DVD is here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much as I like Fleischer, I though this was just average. The leads were ok without being anything special, but the biggest problem for me was that the small cast drew all suspense out of the mystery aspect.

The Narrow Margin is a superb piece of work, but of the other films you mentioned, I think Follow Me Quietly is much better than this one - it's visually more impressive if nothing else.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I enjoyed THE CLAY PIGEON because of the leads, but I agree that FOLLOW ME QUIETLY was more stylish. There were a couple scenes in that one which were hard to forget! Love THE NARROW MARGIN although the plot has one great flaw with Marie Windsor's that makes it a head-scratcher.

Best wishes,

11:24 PM  

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