I tend to celebrate B movies here, and I’m seldom as critical as I could be. But even I have to take my shots at The Clay Pigeon.
Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) wakes up in a military hospital with a blind man clawing at his throat his throat. A nurse intervenes, but rather than offering comfort she calls Jim traitor. He soon learns that he’s accused of ratting his fellow POWs out to the Japanese, who then tortured and executed them. After Jim’s convalescence, he’ll face a treason charges. The only problem is that he can’t remember whether he did it or not — he has amnesia! Hoping to somehow recover his lost memories and clear his name, Jim (inexplicably unguarded) escapes the hospital and flees for San Diego — remembering that his best friend from the Navy, Mark Gregory, lives there with his wife Martha (Barbara Hale). Martha is charming as she ushers Jim inside, but when she excuses herself to make coffee Jim notices the headline on her newspaper: “James Fletcher, Seaman First Class, Wanted for Treason! Blamed for Torture Killing of Mark Gregory” Holy Smokes! Jim rushes into the kitchen to explain, and finds Martha frantically attempting to dial 1119. (See what I did there?) They fight! Martha scrapes and claws like a wildcat, but Jim subdues her. He then uses her phone to contact another buddy from the POW camp, Ted Niles, who agrees to help. Dragging a trussed-up Martha along for the ride, Jim takes her Plymouth and makes for the City of Angels. (Now folks, if the baby-faced Jim was actually guilty, this wouldn’t be called The Clay Pigeon, so once Ted gets involved it becomes pretty clear who the real culprit is. If nothing else, this is a movie that just can’t keep a secret.) At any rate, Jim drives; Martha stews. Then, in one of B filmdom’s most mind-boggling leaps in logic, somewhere along the road, and in spite of her being a kidnap victim, Martha accepts Jim’s protestations of innocence and decides, in light of any evidence in his favor, that he can’t be responsible for her husband’s death. For the rest of the hour (this is a short one), she makes like his girl Friday (Hale neatly anticipating her career-defining role as Perry Mason’s Della Street). And in no time at all, everything works out in their favor.
Richard Fleischer directed The Clay Pigeon for newly minted RKO chief Howard Hughes. Fleischer knew his business (three words: The Narrow Margin), so the direction is up to scratch. This moves quickly and with purpose, the pacing and staging are fine, the acting is competent, it has several stylish scenes (including a nice on location cat and mouse sequence through L.A.’s Chinatown) and more than enough tension in the final reel (especially impressive when the denouement is a no-brainer). The problems here have to do with the script, with the limitations of the running time, and most importantly, with the film’s failure to live up to the responsibility of its premise.
But in terms of competent storytelling The Clay Pigeon is a misfire. Worse than that, it must have been terribly insulting to a large segment of its 1949 audience. Look no further than Martha’s change of heart. Here’s a woman who lost her husband to the war — and not even in combat. Mark was executed in a POW camp after being accused of stealing rations by a fellow American, his best friend. Now that bastard, a traitor on the front page of every paper, is at her front door — making a fool out of her and her husband’s memory. Martha’s fight with Jim is an eyebrow raiser: savage, believable, and utterly appropriate, but her inexplicable and abrupt change of heart mere moments later is the film’s great crime. It does a profound injustice to the postwar audience members who lost loved ones overseas and couldn’t move on quite so easily as Martha does. I don’t mean to suggest that there wasn’t a plausible way to get her on Jim’s side, but rather that the movie’s attempt is pathetic. Surely new testimony from a fellow prisoner who saw the newspaper, or even the early return of Jim’s lost memories might have convinced Martha of his innocence. Instead, she comes to believe in him even before he himself — don’t forget his amnesia — can recall exactly what happened. The next thing the audience knows, they’re shacked up in a beachfront cottage, swimming and cavorting a week away while Jim gets his head straight. It just doesn’t wash, and this is a movie — B or not — that owed an audience with fresh memories of cataclysm a little more respect.
There’s a oft-noted moment however, when it tries to make good, but I say it still comes up short. Earlier I mentioned the foot chase sequence through the (strangely deserted) streets of Chinatown (One of them, at least. Back then L.A. had three: Old Chinatown, New Chinatown, and China City). In the scene, Jim ducks into a building and shelters in the home of a Japanese American woman, who also happens to be a war widow. She covers for Jim when the hoods barge in, and we soon discover that her dead husband earned the DSC as a member of the legendary Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment. The script expects us to take for granted that she’s too simple to read the newspaper, because although she easily intuits that Jim’s pursuers aren’t the policemen that they claim to be, she’s inexplicably unaware that the man in her back room is the most wanted fugitive in the southland.
Certainly the scene pays homage to the Japanese Americans who fought for their country, an important balancing act given that one of the movie’s villains is the POW camp guard, Tokoyama (Richard Loo), who murdered Martha’s husband and is now hanging around chop suey joints in Chinatown. This all raises an important question: What in the world would a fugitive Japanese war criminal, or even a Japanese American widow, be doing in Chinatown? Weren’t the Japanese responsible for the murder of nearly 6,000,000 Chinese citizens throughout the course of the war?1 Believe me folks, I dug into this as deeply as I could and all indications are that those of Japanese descent steered clear of Chinese neighborhoods in the months and years after the war. It’s unfathomable to me how The Clay Pigeon postulates that anyone and everyone of Asian descent would make themselves at home in Chinatown.
War is terrible, and some people do horrible things to get through it. In the end, the most troubling aspect of The Clay Pigeon is its failure to grapple with this — treason here is just another plot device, an excuse for Jim Fletcher to run. His amnesia only serves to keep us in the dark for a brief time while the movie builds some steam — until, just like Martha, we get to know him well enough to understand that such a nice, clean-cut boy couldn’t possibly have betrayed his pals. (Go ahead Martha, why not just forget about your dead husband and marry the guy?) Well, in Act of Violence, Van Heflin’s clean-cut Frank Enley doesn’t have the luxury of amnesia. Enley actually committed the crimes that Jim Fletcher is accused of, and he has to live with himself. Act of Violence dwells long and hard on Enley’s guilt — and builds forcefully towards his desperate final act of contrition. There’s a reason why it’s a minor classic and The Clay Pigeon is merely a cardboard exercise “in what happens next?” moviemaking.
What does happen next? They get married, of course.
The Clay Pigeon (1949)
RKO Radio Pictures
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Produced by Herman Schlom
Written by Carl Foreman
Cinematography by Robert De Grasse
Starring Bill Williams and Barbara Hale
Running Time: 63 minutes