This is a GREAT film noir. A straying husband’s ‘innocent’ dalliance wrecks lives and puts his marriage in jeopardy. Been there, done that? Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott are menaced by Raymond Burr, while wife Jane Wyatt is kept in the dark. Andre de Toth’s direction puts everyone through the wringer, with a very adult look at the realities of the American marriage contract, circa 1948.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 86 min. / Street Date November 17, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Jane Wyatt, Raymond Burr, John Litel, Byron Barr, Jimmy Hunt.
Cinematography Harry Wild
Art Direction Arthur Lonergan
Film Editor Walter Thompson
Written by Karl Kamb from the novel by Jay Dratler
Produced by Samuel Bischoff
Directed by André De Toth
Is ‘domestic noir’ even a category? I think so. Some of the creepiest late- ’40s noir pictures take intrigue, sin and murder out from the bars and nightclubs, and into the average home. In The Reckless Moment Joan Bennett covers up a killing committed by her daughter; Act of Violence sees a happy home invaded by a terrible secret in Van Heflin’s war record. But both of those thrillers open with extraordinary events. Neither invades everyday reality in the calmly subversive manner seen in André De Toth’s 1948 Pitfall.
It’s an unrecognized classic noir that identifies a strange dissatisfaction, a soul-sickness in the new peacetime prosperity.
The leading character is not a private eye but an insurance man, a 9 to 5 plodder with a cynical attitude. We meet John Forbes on his way from his modest hillside home to work in downtown Los Angeles. He describes himself as being ‘in a rut six feet deep.’ Pitfall is an amazing time capsule of The City of Angels in the immediate postwar period.
The story is a carefully designed domestic nightmare. As part of a petty rebellion against the constraints of his job and marriage, the bored John Forbes (Dick Powell) foolishly becomes involved with fashion model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). Mona’s boyfriend Bill Smiley (Bryon Barr) is in prison for embezzlement; Forbes’ job is to recover the expensive gifts the convict bought for her with stolen money. Trouble comes when John bends the rules and lets Mona keep part of the loot, a small boat. They connect and hit it off. Both of them like to sit in quiet bars in the afternoon. As if ashamed that he’s tied down to a marriage and a child, Forbes doesn’t let on that he’s married. The old story.
Hulking, maladjusted private detective MacDonald (Raymond Burr) located Mona for Forbes. He’s been harassing her for a date and deeply resents John’s cutting in. When he realizes that Mona and John have become lovers, MacDonald beats up John in his own driveway. The affair ends when John confesses to Mona that he’s married. He returns to his loving wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and son Tommy (Jimmy Hunt). But the scheming MacDonald doesn’t let up on Mona, even when she rebuffs his advances.
The detective visits Bill Smiley in prison and inflames him with allusions to Mona and John’s affair. When Smiley is released on probation, MacDonald gets him drunk and gives him John’s address. Although he thought his sins would never follow him home, John now must stand guard in the dark for a stranger who wants to kill him.
What began as an ordinary thriller shapes up as a modern Young Goodman Brown, or another version of Eyes Wide Shut. The difference is that John Forbes doesn’t merely contemplate straying off the straight and narrow. As in Eyes Wide Shut, an innocent woman pays the penalty for his thoughtless indiscretions.
The casting is precise. Dick Powell, already an accomplished Philip Marlowe for RKO, is the cynical Forbes, forever grousing to his wife about the lack of adventure in his life and rather selfishly feeling sorry for himself. Jane Wyatt’s Sue Forbes is an amazingly astute piece of casting. Sue subtly resents her husband’s idle daydreams of South Seas adventures with ‘dusky dames.’ John Forbes wants to know where the magic and adventure went. Sue sees his whining as an immature streak, to be patiently indulged. Sue is patient with John’s sour comments but insists on a ‘real’ kiss when they arrive at his office.
Actress Wyatt’s function in Pitfall is to show the evolution of the idealized American woman in Hollywood films. She’s really known for two big career roles. Although not exactly a ‘dusky dame,’ back in 1937 Wyatt served as the exotic love interest in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, an ultimate escapist dream story. A decade forward, and she would come to represent the ideal poised housewife with her role on TV’s Father Knows Best. But in 1948, Wyatt’s Sue Forbes is not a fantasy object. The adult issues she must address make Pitfall play as a rebuttal to the myth of American domestic harmony. Sue must make her marriage work on her own. Women’s magazines aren’t yet urging wives to keep their marriages by freshening their sex lives.
Is Pitfall just a variation on a ‘Loser Noir?’ Some loser noirs delight in demonstrating that one innocent mistake will sweep an ordinary guy into a vortex of mounting jeopardy. The perfect example is the aptly titled 1951 Mickey Rooney film Quicksand. The message is simple: keep your nose clean, or this could happen to you. John Forbes is more like Al Roberts in Detour, in that his mistakes stem directly from a lousy attitude. Feeling domesticated, demoralized and de-sexed, John lets down his guard when he meets ‘the babe’ Mona Stevens. Her casual company is in itself a luxurious indulgence. His interest quickly goes beyond professional limits. Letting Mona keep the speedboat seems a small thing but is another betrayal, of his employers. Sleeping with her under false pretenses is far worse. Mona is just looking for a chance to be happy. Having barely recovering from a relationship with a felon, she now has an even lower opinion of herself.
Unlike Al Roberts, fate has not set a trap for John Forbes, who instead foolishly injects himself into a pre-existing tragedy. Bill Smiley and MacDonald are dangerously unstable and potentially murderous. Fearful of losing his marriage, John allows events to spiral out of control. Thanks to John, more mayhem ensues. A woman who trusted him is ruined, perhaps forever.
But Pitfall has much more to say about selfishness and dishonesty. The screenplay by Karl Kamb from Jay Dratler’s novel re-frames the institution of marriage in pragmatic terms. Although unnoticed by most viewers, a ‘minor’ side plot in Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! (1947) uses Jane Wyatt as the particularly shallow spouse of a district attorney played by Dana Andrews. She engages in a crooked land deal with one of the film’s villains, a scheme that goes forward, unquestioned. When her husband suggests that ethics may require that he forgo their privileged lifestyle, Wyatt’s ‘respectable’ wife carefully sidesteps the issue. The look in her eyes tell us that she doesn’t care who goes to jail, as long as she retains her money and her social position. And she’s one of the film’s nice characters. Nobody ever mentions this sidebar issue in Boomerang!, which plays as a pointed example of how privilege is maintained in the upper middle class.
Wyatt’s housewife in Pitfall isn’t as calculating but she does take a vindictive view of her marriage contract. She patiently endures her husband’s complaints of boredom and dissatisfaction but seems to think his attitude is entirely his problem. (Beware Spoilers) The finale shows John Forbes defeated and contrite, and Sue taking complete charge of their marriage. In one car ride the balance of domestic power shifts 180°. Sue is willing to forgive John ‘for the sake of her child’ but she will now dictate new terms for their marriage. The family will move to another town to protect their reputation and to keep Tommy from learning of his father’s sins. John is definitely on probation; Sue will decide when their relationship will return to normal, if ever.
Compare John’s marital prison sentence to the ‘soft landing’ in the later ’50s milepost The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Wife Jennifer Jones blows a fuse when she learns of her husband Gregory Peck’s wartime affair, now ten years in the past. But upon regaining her equilibrium she comes around to the humanist-moral position of supporting Peck’s desire to provide for the child he left overseas. In Pitfall, Sue Forbes was willing to stand with her husband in anything — except infidelity. We can see the glaze come over Jane Wyatt’s eyes as she learns the truth.
But it’s even worse. John is morally culpable for Mona Stevens’ grave legal problems. Nobody is going to help Mona; she’s almost certainly going up for a long prison term. John can’t help her either. It’s clear that he had better not as much as mention Mona to Sue, or she’ll have his head on a plate.
We’re left wondering what the future will hold. John wanted adventure, and now will pay for it with a future of middle-class tyranny. Sue is one of those women that trusts unconditionally until she’s crossed, at which point trust vanishes forever. She will always have the upper hand in their relationship. As John’s nature is to grouse and complain, how long will he last under Sue’s disapproving looks? Will he seek forgiveness with other women? The outlook for 1950s America seems to be one of disillusion and divorce.
Dick Powell’s skill with hardboiled dialogue is entertaining in a ‘tough guy’ noir like Cry Danger, but the cynical wisecracks in Pitfall seem a symptom of his depression. It’s a relief to see John Forbes let down his guard and smile when he meets Mona. It’s also heartening to see him reunited with his family, newly appreciative of what for most of the world is an unattainable dream: a loving home, a reasonably secure future in a peaceful country. A few years of Sue’s accusing face will put an end to that fantasy.
Lizabeth Scott is not everyone’s favorite noir actress but she’s perfect for Pitfall — attractive and cheerful until the world seems intent on making her miserable. Mona Stevens is beautiful, but Lacks the innocent pose that might win over a jury. She’s the consort of thieves and crooked ex-cops. She’s also the evil Other Woman, the enemy of the sacred American family. No sympathy there. Mona seems to know this at the film’s conclusion, as she takes the Brigid O’Shaugnessy elevator ride.
This is also one of Raymond Burr’s best pictures. His oily, covetous MacDonald shows no scruples whatsoever. MacDonald comes on to Mona like he’s Robert Mitchum, too egotistical to realize that people call him ‘Gruesome’ behind his back. In a strange pre-echo of Scotty Ferguson in Vertigo, MacDonald pretends to be a customer at The May Co. and obsessively forces Mona to follow his direction modeling a dress. MacDonald’s just crazy enough to think that Mona will become his girl, even after he’s arranged to have a competing suitor killed.
An important sidebar issue concerns John’s young boy, Tommy. He’s played by Jimmy Hunt, the great child actor from Invaders from Mars. That entire science fiction classic almost seems an extension of a scene in Pitfall. Little Tommy’s nightmares bring his parents to his room to lovingly settle him back down to bed again. John thinks he’s found the source of his son’s bad dreams in Tommy’s stack of violent comic books, about ‘men from space and torturing women.’ But John is wrong: Tommy’s nightmares come from his father’s own inner disturbances. The uneasy blend of surface tranquility and underlying insecurity in the postwar atomic age affects the adults, who pass it on to their children. Tommy’s awareness of his father’s angst and bitterness makes him feel insecure. He wants his father to be an Alpha Male warrior like his friend’s dad who won the Silver Star. The ray guns and woman-stranglers in the comics aren’t to blame.
John tells Tommy that everyone is like a camera, and that happiness comes from ‘only taking pictures of good things’ so as not to be troubled by ‘bad pictures that come loose in the night and become nightmares.’ John’s speech distills Pitfall’s insight into the moral malaise of the 1950s. John and Sue Forbes are perfectly good people, but like most Americans they feel little sense of connection to a greater social responsibility. Sue will do her best to forget Mona, and will encourage Tommy to ignore disturbing thoughts that might negatively affect his worldview. But as John already knows, the existential nightmares will still be there, insisting that something’s not right.
André De Toth’s career wandered all over the genre map, but most of his movies have a genuine bite and a keen intelligence, as with his superior war film Play Dirty. There’s not a wasted shot or facial expression in Pitfall. De Toth saves his stylistic touches for favored moments. The pathetic Bill Smiley is introduced through the mesh screen of a prison visiting room; both he and the loathsome MacDonald are abstracted by the mesh, as if they were suffering from bad TV reception. De Toth’s handling of the scenes in the Forbes household is exemplary. When John turns off the lights in anticipation of Smiley’s arrival, his home is transformed into a noir trap — John must hide in his own living room like a burglar, backed up behind a bookcase.
Pitfall transports us back to Los Angeles in the years before freeways, when people still rode the Red Cars. Mona Stevens is seen outside The May Co. at Fairfax and Wilshire. It’s now part of the County Museum of Art. John is able to park his car only few feet from the intersection; just try that now and see what happens. We also see him near our familiar City Hall building. In his excellent commentary included on this disc, Eddie Muller blows the identification of another location — he announces that we’re looking at Newport Island, even when a sign on the pier says Santa Monica. We can also see the Santa Monica bluffs and have a clear view of the California Incline roadway later featured in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The giant Pacific Ocean Park is also visible further down the beach in Venice. Eddie Muller doesn’t claim to be an expert on Los Angeles, but this little mistake is so atypical of him that it’s amusing. For films shot in San Francisco, I think Muller has a personal relationship with every street corner and lamppost.
The Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray of André De Toth’s Pitfall is a good rendering of this independent production, which was rescued back in the 1990s by the UCLA Film Archive and released on a now-rare laserdisc. The recovered film element identified by Kino as a 35mm dupe negative, had problems on the old laser — shrinkage that caused some jitter and focus issues — that are now almost completely cleared up. The new scan for HD can only be said to be a bit light here and there; otherwise it’s beautiful.
Kino adds some trailers of other noirs it’s promoting this year, but the hot extra is the gotta-hear Eddie Muller commentary. Casual viewers and noir-hounds alike will want to know more about Pitfall, and Muller has the straight dope and in-depth detail on all aspects of the film. He also discusses the film’s unusually adult view of morality and marriage — I think one reason we like noir so much is that its best films make us question our own values, as opposed to mainstream entertainments with their consensus platitudes. Even if we feel we won’t fall from grace as does John Forbes, we may be wise enough to realize that we’re all vulnerable to some form of temptation.
So another Missing In Action key noir gem surfaces! The Film Noir Foundation is busy performing similar cinematic rescues. Let’s hope that the already restored Woman on the Run, Too Late For Tears and Try and Get Me! are on the noir horizon.
Thanks to correspondent Edward Holub for research help with this article.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Pitfall Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Eddie Muller, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 14, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson