Thursday, September 4, 2014

PITFALL (1948)

André de Toth, 1948
Starring: Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr, Jane Wyatt

A bored L.A. insurance agent, John Forbes, accidentally strikes up an affair with an attractive blonde, Mona, despite the fact that he is relatively happily married and has a young son. He has been investigating Mona, a department store model, because her boyfriend Smiley gave her a number of expensive gifts with stolen money. Because she knows he’s a good guy who made bad decisions, she gives all the gifts to Forbes – including her diamond engagement ring -- insuring that Smiley will be out of prison sooner. Though Mona breaks off the affair after she learns Forbes is married, she is the target of a stalker, MacDonald, a private detective working for the same company as Forbes. Though Mona and Forbes are eager to forget each other, MacDonald is determined to have Mona for himself or make sure the situation escalates to murder.

Based on a novel of the same name by Jay Dratler, this film noir from director André de Toth is certainly one of the most effective from the late ‘40s. De Toth is generally known for House of Wax, the 3-D horror film with Vincent Price, or for his marriage to troubled film noir star Veronica Lake (or possibly for his dashing eye patch). Though Pitfall bears some things in common with the similarly themed Nora Prentiss, it is a far superior film. Nora Prentiss is also concerned with a bored family man in the middle of a mid-life crisis. He strikes up an affair with an attractive blonde nightclub singer and – rather than leave his family – he fakes his own death to start a second life with her in New York, which of course goes horrible wrong. Though that film has some excellent moments, Pitfall is ultimately far more devastating, simply because it is more believable.

For one thing, Forbes doesn’t do anything to spell his own doom. During the course of one day, he is dissatisfied with his tightly scheduled, domestic life and has a brief affair, which he regrets. Powell, once known as a star of musicals, was excellent in Murder, My Sweet (1944), Cornered (1945), and in Pitfall. Able to play the charming, yet guileless everyman, many of his characters, particularly Forbes, are doomed to violence because of white lies and small mistakes.

The women of the film are equally strong. Jane Wyatt (Boomerang) is refreshingly, if somewhat coldly practical and pragmatic, a complete 180-degree change from her role as the sweet, innocent, devoted wife of Boomerang and also quite different from the traditional wife or “good girl” of film noir. She is assured and sexy and it is easy to see why Forbes instantly regrets his indiscretion and happily returns to family life. Noir regular Lizabeth Scott (Dead Reckoning, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, I Walk Alone) is at her best here as a tragic figure sometimes mistaken for a femme fatale. She’s caught in the center of a doomed triangle between the decent, but misguided and criminal Smiley, the married Forbes, and MacDonald, the violent, obsessive stalker. At the film’s conclusion, it is Mona who is doomed, not Forbes. Her boyfriend, pathetic though he may be, is dead, and she was forced to kill her stalker all because Forbes didn’t want to call the police and alert his wife of their affair. It is he – the seemingly nice guy, the moral family man – who condemns her to possible life imprisonment. Though the conclusion is unclear about her fate, she is being indicted as Forbes walks out of the police station.

Like Mildred Pierce, this is a bright, sunny, suburban tale of doomed fate and sexually motivated violence. Forbes’ fears about falling into the trap of domestic bliss are valid and there is a definite sense of claustrophobia about his routine, dull life. While Mona represents social freedom, this is also her downfall. The lack of stability provided by married life leaves her vulnerable to crooks and, worse, characters like MacDonald. Raymond Burr (The Blue Gardenia, Rear Window) is excellent here as the terrifying stalker, ex-cop, and private detective, a more evolved version of Laird Cregar’s stalker-detective from one of the first films noir, I Walk Alone. Interestingly, no male character is around to protect Mona or come to her rescue; she asks Forbes for help, but he only reluctantly intervenes on a few occasions. She is forced to take matters into her own hands.

Though it isn’t available on DVD yet, you can find Pitfall streaming online or for rent on Amazon. It comes highly recommended and works because, unlike many other noir efforts, it is restrained and believable. Nothing is overdramatized, none of the characters are stock noir tropes, and the conclusion is utterly bleak because it refuses to answer whether or not Mona will go to prison, whether she killed MacDonald, or whether Forbes and his wife will stay married. There is a little hope for the future, but also an indication that things could get much worse. 

1 comment:

  1. Coming to DVD/Blu-Ray on November 17th via Kino Lorber