Monday, July 28, 2014

Pitfall: A Suburban, Middle-Class Film Noir

In a 2006 article for L.A. Weekly, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier called Pitfall (1948) "a film to rank among the best, the sharpest and the most original of noirs." I'm not sure I'd rank Pitfall with the genre's finest, but it's nonetheless a highly-effective drama that breaks free of the typical film noir conventions. There are no femme fatales, no bleak streets, and no hardened criminals.

A family breakfast scene in a film noir?
Instead, the protagonist is a middle-class insurance adjuster who lives in a suburban neighborhood with his loving wife and son. The problem is that John Forbes (Dick Powell) is disenchanted with his idyllic life. He's tired of playing bridge every Thursday. He's tired of going to work at the same time every morning and getting home at the same time every evening. When his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) informs him that his breakfast is on the table, he retorts: "Where else would it be?"

Lizabeth Scott as Mona.
Johnny's life gets turned upside down when he tries to recover property purchased with embezzled money. The recipient of the "gifts" is Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a pretty store model who oozes vulnerability. An afternoon visit turns into an unexpected boat ride, a dinner invitation...and more. Private detective Mac McDonald (Raymond Burr), who is already infatuated with Mona, observes her interest in Forbes. One evening when Forbes arrives home late, Mac emerges from the shadows and administers a beating. Guilt-ridden and sinking in a sea of lies, Forbes decides to end his relationship with Mona. Unfortunately, it's too much too late.

Director Andre de Toth, in an interview in the book de Toth on de Toth, noted that the women dominated the film. For the role of Mona, he said: "I did not want a fashionable Hollywood bambola to cheapen the story...I wanted a warm, sincere, vulnerable human being." Strangely enough, de Toth thought Lizabeth Scott--who played her share of husky-voiced bad girls--was perfect for the part. And he was right. She's excellent as the young woman who seems to specialize in the wrong kind of man: one who commits a crime for her; one that's uncomfortably obsessed with her; and a nice guy that's already married (though she doesn't know that initially).

While Jane Wyatt's wife is a background figure for most of the film, she has two excellent scenes in the final ten minutes. In fact, she's the driving force behind an ending that Tavernier calls "one of the strongest, the iciest and the least complacent in movies of the era."

Mac (Burr) ogles Mona as she models.
Yet, while it's the female characters that propel Pitfall, it's Raymond Burr's slimy private eye that provides the film's necessary menace. In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, he visits the fashion store where Mona works and makes her model a slinky evening gown as he leers at her. He also visits the prison to tell Mona's jealous ex-boyfriend about her dalliance with Forbes. Still, he's not responsible for bringing adultery and murder into the Forbes' household.

Wyatt in the uncompromising final scene.
That distinction belongs to no one but John Forbes. With one horrible decision, he puts his family at peril, potentially destroys his marriage, and commits an act that will haunt him forever. Ironically, Forbes complains at the beginning of Pitfall that he's "in a rut six feet deep." By the end of the film, he has placed himself into a far deeper rut, one person is buried six feet deep, and another borders on death. He has allowed the bright cheery life that he took for granted to be invaded by the invisible shadows of film noir.


  1. Nice post on one of my favorite noirs.

  2. I'm not a big fan of Dick Powell noir - I'm always waiting for him to break into song. Yes, yes, I know I'm in the minority. (I couldn't stand him with Ruby Keeler either. I always thought he had a funny face. Not funny. Funny ha-ha.)

    Still I enjoyed reading your post Peter. I don't have to like the movie to like the post - do I? Nah.

  3. Excellent article on a movie I found uncomfortably disturbing. Kudos to de Toth. It takes us down a well-worn path in unexpected movie turns. Like you, I'm not in total agreement with Mr. Taverner's "a film to rank among the best", but I do appreciate its originality.

  4. This is an excellent review of a fascinating noir. It shows how boredom can help make someone make an extremely poor decision. I thought the performances of Powell and Burr and Scott and Wyatt were all spot on. Scott has the pivotal role around which everything else happens. She truly is quite believable and sympathetic because she did not know about Powell's marriage. I think the ending is quite good and I am so glad you included the photo showing the new iciness that has become Powell's new reality. Very well written, Rick!

  5. Had just had a water cooler conversation with a co-worker about our mundane lives of groundhog day. Then randomly from amazon prime I download this to watch waiting in the doctors office. It's a great movie and every bit relevant today. Just a look or flirtation away from pitfall. John was vulnerable as well as mona. We have to need careful what we wish for