The issues faced by returning war veterans have been tackled by more than a few film noirs. Generally, the difficulties related to an inability to settle back into civilian life or the fact that the old familiar things had changed in their absence. The hero of The Clay Pigeon (1949), however, is presented with a set of circumstances that are of an altogether different nature. This movie falls into the nightmare/amnesia sub-genre, wherein a character has no memory of a crucial period and thus finds himself confronted by the consequences of actions that he has blocked out. This kind of storyline has enormous potential of course, but The Clay Pigeon never exploits it to the full.
Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) is a sailor, waking up in hospital after sustaining a bad head injury. He knows his name and most of the details about his past life, but he can’t recall what led to his being in hospital. And there’s the rub: Fletcher has been accused of treason during his time in a Japanese POW camp. What’s even worse is that his actions apparently led to the torture and subsequent killing of his friend. Knowing that he’s faced with a court martial at which he has little chance of clearing himself, Fletcher decides that his only alternative is to duck out and try to get to the bottom of it all by himself. Naturally, a penniless fugitive isn’t likely to make much headway without some assistance, so he takes a chance on contacting his friend’s widow. Unsurprisingly, this lady, Martha (Barbara Hale), is both suspicious and hostile initially. She grudgingly agrees to go along to Los Angeles though when a call to another old buddy, Ted Niles (Richard Quine) promises further help. Whatever doubts Martha may have had are gradually eroded on that long drive, particularly when an unknown car tries to force them off the road to their death. Their arrival in LA reveals just how complex and deadly a mess Fletcher has blundered into – a lethal conspiracy involving counterfeiting, war criminals and personal treachery. The whole thing culminates in a chase through Chinatown, followed by a train journey that exposes the real traitor.
The Clay Pigeon is a genuine B picture, coming in at little over an hour in length and never really pausing for breath. As such, there’s no time for any kind of character development amid the chasing and dodging. If anything, that’s probably the biggest weakness of the film: in these kinds of stories the audience needs to be kept guessing as to whether or not the hero is really as clean cut as he’d like us to believe. As it is, neither the audience nor the character of Fletcher has the least suspicion that he may indeed be the villain of the piece after all. I can’t honestly say that the fault lies with Bill Williams’ amiable playing as the part was written that way for him. I’d be more inclined to place the blame on Carl Foreman’s script (whose dearth of characters makes it pretty obvious who the traitor is right from the off) and the cheap-jack production values. That’s not to say there’s nothing positive to take away; Williams and Hale play well off each other, and the location filming is very welcome. This was one of Richard Fleischer’s earliest directorial efforts and he manages to create some nice angles and images, and does his best to create tension from a script that seems bent on draining away every vestige of suspense. The opening, the night drive to LA, and the Chinatown sequence are all ably handled and point to better things ahead for the director.
The movie comes to DVD from French distributor Montparnasse (I think there are Spanish and Italian editions out there too) and the transfer is one of their more typical efforts. It’s not especially bad, but there’s a slightly heavy-looking image that may have some contrast boosting, and it appears to be interlaced. Extras are confined to an eminently missable introduction. However the disc is certainly passable and the subs are not forced on the English track. It’s probably worth bearing in mind too that this film is likely to be a candidate for the Warner Archive in R1, so a vastly improved transfer isn’t something I’d be holding my breath for. All in all, The Clay Pigeon is pacy little B noir that passes the time painlessly. I just feel that a bit of fine tuning to the script might have added some much needed ambiguity and resulted in a more memorable film.