by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Clay Pigeon, a surprisingly good 1949 quasi-noir “B” from RKO billed as the story of an amnesiac who comes to and suddenly finds he’s being charged with treason. I had dreaded the prospect that this might be one of Howard Hughes’ paranoid propaganda-fests, but it turned out to be a quite watchable 63-minute movie, expertly directed by the young Richard Fleischer from a script by later blacklistee Carl Foreman. The film starts at the U.S. Navy hospital in Long Beach, where Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) is coming to after a two-year coma. It starts with a silent sequence in which a blind man is shown putting his hands around his neck — apparently attempting to strangle him, though we’re not sure why — and his doctor (Frank Wilcox) and nurse (Ann Doran) comes in and stops him. Fletcher regains consciousness just in time to hear the doctor and other members of the hospital staff say that they’ve been awaiting his return to consciousness to put him before a court-martial on charges of treason, and that now that he’s come to he’ll be transferred to the prison ward awaiting trial. He sneaks out of the hospital room, steals some clothes from a supply closet, and escapes.
His plan is to seek out his two best friends in the Navy, Mark Gregory (who’s already dead and isn’t seen in the film, not even in flashback) and Ted Niles (future director Richard Quine), to find out what they know about his life and what he might have done to make anyone think he was a traitor. He goes to Los Angeles and then to San Diego, invading the apartment of Mark’s widow, Martha Gregory (played by Williams’ real-life wife, Barbara Hale) and holding her hostage when she tries to call the police on him. Determined to get in touch with Ted Niles, whom he thinks is the only person who can establish his innocence of whatever the charge against him is — he still doesn’t know that — he commandeers Martha’s car and forces her to drive him north in a sequence surprisingly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s films The 39 Steps and Saboteur (also about an innocent hero forced into association with a woman who, at least at first, considers him guilty).
She turns around and realizes his innocence when they’re followed by a car with two men inside whom she (and we) at first think are cops, but instead of pulling them over and arresting him they try to run him off the road and kill him. They survive the attempt on their lives but the shock causes him to black out and relive some of his wartime experiences — and, in a flashback depicted with an early and quite effective solarization effect, we see that he, Mark Gregory and Ted Niles were all inmates in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp run by a sadistic Japanese officer, Ken Tokoyama (Richard Loo — who when he got the role must have groaned and wondered why he was still being offered the parts of sadistic Japanese officers four years after the war had ended!), and Jim remembers that Mark was the head of a group of prisoners who supplemented their atrocious food rations by stealing from the Japanese storehouse, and that the charge against him is that he allegedly reported Mark to the Japanese and got Mark killed.
Jim and Martha spend a week in a trailer park in Oceanside, with him recuperating from the shock, and when they finally get to L.A. they discover Tokoyama is living there — they spot him in a Chinese restaurant called “The White Lotus” that is abruptly closed down the day after, Jim traces the property agent that controls the location, and eventually it turns out that Niles was the real villain (something we guessed about three reels before the filmmakers finally told us); not only did he report the food thieves to Tokoyama, but he, Tokoyama and Wheeler, the property agent, are involved in an elaborate criminal scheme to pass some of the counterfeit U.S. currency the Japanese printed up just after Pearl Harbor for their agents and invading forces to use once they conquered L.A. There’s a suspenseful climax on board a train (with Fleischer seemingly warming up for an even more stylish thriller, The Narrow Margin, which he made at RKO three years later) in which the bad guys take Jim hostage and make their escape, but agents of Naval Intelligence finally track down Martha Gregory (there’s a neat little mini-reversal in which they enter the hotel room where she and Jim have been staying and at first she thinks they’re the thugs who’ve been trying to kill her and Jim, and when they turn out to be genuine law-enforcement agents she heaves a sigh of relief and, in a way too chipper tone of voice, goes, “Naval Intelligence? Why didn’t you say so?”) and she leads them to the train station, too late to catch the train before it leaves, but they’re able to get to it anyway after Fletcher pulls the emergency stop cord just before the baddies are going to kill him.
The Clay Pigeon (which seems to be the only movie on imdb.com’s list that’s called that, though I’d have thought it would be a really obvious and fairly common thriller title) is a neatly done thriller, maintaining audience interest and suspense throughout, and Carl Foreman’s script is an object lesson in the art (and the limits) of the “reversal” modern-day writer-directors like Tony (Duplicity) Gilroy would do well to heed — as well as containing a beautiful scene between Jim and a Chinese widow (Mary Marco) who helps hide him from the bad guys as they chase him through Chinatown whose defiance of all the typical racist stereotypes gives away Foreman’s Leftist politics. The movie is so good one can forgive the flawed casting — Bill Williams is annoyingly nerdy, especially at first (he gathers strength as the film progresses), just as he was in his best-known film, Deadline at Dawn (in which he was also cast as a sailor unjustly accused of a crime); and though Barbara Hale acts her own part with authority and conviction, there’s utterly no charisma between them on screen even though they were a real-life couple; Bogart and Bacall these two are not!