Pitfall (1948)

 “People were born to have certain things.”

pitfallIn Pitfall middle-aged married insurance agent John Forbes (Dick Powell) is bored. He has a pretty, slightly nagging wife named Sue (Jane Wyatt), a precocious son Tommy, and a tidy little home in suburbia, but he feels as though he’s on a timed treadmill. Forbes’s tedious domestic life is shaken up when he meets the beautiful clothes model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott).

Forbes is trying to recover $10,000 embezzled from a company by Bill Smiley (Byron Barr). Smiley is now in jail, but his girlfriend, Mona Stevens, is waiting for him. Forbes sends private detective MacDonald (Raymond Burr) to trace the missing money, and MacDonald returns with his report along with a glowing review of the beautiful, uncooperative Miss Stevens. Forbes goes to interview Mona and see if he can recover any money or goods bought with the stolen money.

Soon Forbes is lying to his wife about Mona, and MacDonald is jealously stalking both Mona and Forbes. Then tangled passions explode into violence ….

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when MacDonald arrives in Forbes’s office for the first time. There’s a sullen obsequiousness about MacDonald–like an untrained dog, he waits for a sign of approval from Forbes, and when none comes, he becomes resentful and misbehaves. It’s a tribute to Powell’s acting ability that his dislike for MacDonald is conveyed in such subtle, slightly dismissive ways.

With the insurance company theme, it’s impossible not to begin comparing Pitfall to Double Indemnity–one of the great noir films of all time. The characters in Pitfall are not quite as deeply explored as those in Double Indemnity–the emotionally detached Forbes doesn’t plunge into the deep end of evil–he sticks his big toe into the hot water of infidelity and then immediately tries to scramble back to shore. Mona Stevens possesses a vulnerability and fatalism that causes her to become a natural victim to the men in her life. The husky voiced Lizabeth Scott is one of my all-time favourite film noir actresses–how sad her career was ruined by rumors that she was a lesbian. Raymond Burr as the Machiavellian villain of the piece is well cast–one tends to forget how sinister he could be before assuming the Ironside persona.

Pitfall is a nice tidy little noir drama–definitely enjoyable and a must-see for connoisseurs, but Forbes and Stevens are too timidly rooted in socially accepted behaviour to make this film one of the all-time greats. (I’m thinking:  The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Narrow Margin, Double Indemnity…) From director Andre de Toth.

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Filed under Film Noir, Lizabeth Scott

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