Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Clay Pigeon (1949)

40s & 50s B movies (movies made for the lower end of double bills) and film noir go together exceptionally well, sometimes even resulting in genuine classic noirs like 'D.O.A.'. And while 'The Clay Pigeon' from 1949 is not a classic by any means, it is still a pretty good and entertaining movie that was made for the lower end. Apparently based on a true story, this noir was directed by Richard Fleischer who directed about half a dozen noirs at RKO, probably the best late 40s/early 50s studio for B noirs, including this one. Carl Foreman (Oscar-winner for 'The Bridge Over The River Kwai' but only receiving it in 1984, because of being blacklisted at the time) wrote the story, Robert De Grasse ('Bodyguard', 'Follow Me Quietly') did the cinematography and Paul Sawtell ('Raw Deal', 'Bodyguard' and over 300 other movies!) did the score.

This is one of the many amnesia noirs, and an above-average one at that. After being a in a coma for 2 years, Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams, 'Deadline At Dawn') wakes up in a naval hospital with 2 hands gripping around his neck. The hands belong to a blind man, and are pulled off him by a nurse who gives him a disgusted stare, and the guy calls him a traitor, but he has no idea why. A few minutes later he overhears the nurse having a conversation with a doctor, and again he's called a traitor, and that he'll be up for court-martial soon. To his astonishment, because while Fletcher knows who he is, he has no recollection of why he's in the hospital, let alone why he's about to stand trial. Not willing to go down that easily, he escapes from the hospital in search of his memory and the truth. His last memories include being held as a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp, and he goes in search of one of his army buddies, Mark Gregory, who was also with him in that camp, only to find Mark's widow Martha (Barbara Hale, 'The Window'). There he reads about his escape from the naval hospital and the torture killing of Mark in the newspaper, for which he is wanted. He contacts another buddy from the POW camp, Ted Niles (Richard Quine), who tells him he ratted out Mark and some others to the Japanese guards for stealing food, causing Mark's death as a result, something he can't believe he did. He takes Martha with him, who still thinks he's responsible for her husband's death, and they drive to LA to meet up with Niles. After an attempt on their life on the way to LA, making Martha think Fletcher might not be so guilty, they arrive in LA. There they have dinner in Chinatown where Fletcher sees Ken 'The Weasel' Tokoyama (Richard Loo), a sadistic and brutal officer from the prison camp. Even though Ted tells him to lay low while he hires a detective to look into Tokoyama, Fletcher goes on his own investigation. The problem however is that the men who wanted him dead seem to know his every move, and he still has no idea what exactly happened in the prison camp and what the connection is to these men.

The movie's short length of 60 minutes and a few seconds forces the movie to be brisk and lean and the plot to move at a swift pace, and it does all of that. There are hardly any filler scenes here, and even those serve a purpose and are kept short and sweet, like a sort of breather before the whirlwind picks up again. The action sequences are well-done, with some nice shots, especially considering the low budget. There are also some recurring shots, notably some where a threat to Fletcher's life is seen in a mirror, be it a car in a rearview mirror, a man with a gun standing behind a door or an oncoming train he's about to be thrown in front of. That is not to say this is a visual noir nirvana, in regards to noir visuals this movie is severely lacking. The overall cinematography is pretty mediocre and the noir-looking dark, shadow-filled shots are few and far between. But those recurring shots, the great opening scene with Fletcher waking up to a man trying to strangle him, and the train scene as a whole, definitely are a precursor to Fleischer's later noir work like 'The Narrow Margin' from 1952, an overall much better and more accomplished noir. There is also a nice chase through LA's Chinatown, which at the very end includes a short (and at the time probably fairly unusual/uncommon) tribute to the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a highly decorated US division of soldiers of Japanese descent during WWII, adding some depth and counterbalance to the crooked and evil nature of the only Japanese character of note here, Tokoyama.

Bill Williams and Barbara Hale were married in real life, and it shows, they have great and warm on-screen chemistry, adding to the overall enjoyment of watching this movie. Maybe their chemistry is a bit too good however, Hale looks very comfortable around Williams, even when her character still thinks he is a traitor responsible for her husband's death. But once she starts to believe Jim is innocent, their partnership becomes very believable and real. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed their performances and their obvious warmth & affection for each other, neither are really fit to be noir icons, especially Williams. The movie's poster depicts Williams as some sort of Dana Andrews knock-off with his chiseled facial features, but his face is much smoother in reality, and like Hale, he comes off as way too nice to be a true noir lead. Both did appear in other noirs, but not too many. Hale's biggest noir connection is playing Della Street in the 80s & 90s Perry Mason reboot opposite noir heavy Raymond Burr. As a sidenote, Williams and Hale were one of the few Hollywood couples that lasted, they were married for 46 years until Williams' death in 1992, and they are the parents of actor William Katt ('Carrie'), who is the spitting image of his dad.

Richard Quine would not do many noirs as an actor, but he did direct a couple of noirs, namely 'Pushover' and 'Drive A Crooked Road', both from 1954. He was involved with more movies as a director than as an actor, and he is onlt decent here, coming off as a nice, handsome fellow with a sinister, but also cowardly, edge, but Quine seems wooden and awkward at times. Richard Loo has a pretty one-dimensional character, one he played many times in various ways. His part is too small really to make any sort of real impression.

Overall, 'The Clay Pigeon' is a fairly mixed bag, especially when viewed as a noir. It is a highly enjoyable and fast-moving thriller that starts off in a great and intriguing way, has real chemistry between the leads, some memorable scenes and shots, but is too nice and light overall to convince as a pure noir. So as an amnesia noir, it falls a bit short but as an amnesia thriller, it delivers. So it's still thumbs up for me.

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