Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pitfall (Regal/United Artists, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran the 1948 movie Pitfall (there seems to be some confusion about the title: the novel by Jay Dratler on which it was based was called The Pitfall, and that’s how the film is listed in The Film Noir Encyclopedia and on the Turner Classic Movies schedule, but the actual title credit reads just Pitfall and that’s how it’s listed on, a production by Regal Films (a plushy crown appears as a backdrop to the credits, which might lead one to expect a medieval-set swashbuckler instead of a contemporary film noir), released through United Artists. It was directed by André de Toth (the director who later was famously assigned to helm Warner Bros.’ first 3-D movie, House of Wax, even though he only had one eye and therefore couldn’t see the 3-D effects himself) from a script by Karl Kamb based on Dratler’s novel. It’s an example of the subset of noirs that also includes the 1945 film The Woman in the Window (directed by Fritz Lang from a script by Nunnally Johnson based on a novel called Once Off Guard by J. H. Wallis) and the 1949 The Reckless Moment (directed by Max Ophuls from a script by Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg based on a novel called The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and equally powerfully remade in 2001 as The Deep End) in which the central protagonist is a man (or, in The Reckless Moment and The Deep End, a woman) living an ordinary suburban lifestyle who is suddenly and without much warning thrust in the noir world. The central character of Pitfall is John Forbes (Dick Powell), an insurance agent who’s married to his college sweetheart Sue (Jane Wyatt) and has a pre-pubescent kid named Tommy (Jimmy Hunt). But he laments the loss of his dreams, and in particular the fact that instead of building a boat and sailing around the world with his wife he’s stuck in a mid-level job as an agent for the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company (the very clunkiness of its corporate name becomes an element in the movie symbolizing the way John feels stuck in a boring lifestyle that offers him nothing but the ability to support his family). I couldn’t help but note the irony that in 1937, when he was still Dick Powell 1.0: Boy Crooner instead of Dick Powell 2.0: Noir Hero, Powell made Gold Diggers of 1937, which also cast him as an insurance agent. Anyway, the plot of this one kicks off when John Forbes is told to investigate Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott, second-billed), whose boyfriend Bill Smiley (the “other” Byron Barr — the one who didn’t change his name to Gig Young and become a bigger star than this one) embezzled to buy her an engagement ring, a boat and some furs and dresses. He was caught and sentenced to a year in prison, and the insurance company is on the hook for $10,000 and is attempting to recover it by seizing the presents Smiley bought Mona and selling them.

They first send J. B. “Mac” MacDonald (Raymond Burr at his oiliest), an ex-cop turned private detective the company frequently works with, who immediately forms an intense crush on Mona which is totally unreciprocated: she compares him to an animal and can’t stand him. Forbes takes over the case himself and also immediately falls for Mona, who takes him for a ride on the boat the company was trying to seize, takes him to cocktail lounges in the afternoon and ultimately — at least it’s hinted in that veiled way enforced on filmmakers by the Production Code — takes him to bed. Alas, Forbes is caught leaving Mona’s apartment in the wee hours by Mac, who tails him to his home, threatens him, beats him up and tries to blackmail him by saying he’ll tell Mrs. Forbes about her husband’s affair if Mr. Forbes persists in seeing “his” girl. John returns to his family but is filled with guilt and angst that Mac’s antics have only ramped up, and instead of breaking it to Mrs. Forbes, Mac chooses an even more insidious form of revenge. He starts visiting Bill Smiley in prison and dropping veiled hints that Mona’s been cheating on him while he’s been in stir, and when Smiley is paroled it’s Mac who meets him, takes him drinking, gives him a gun and tells him to visit the Forbes home (whose address he helpfully provides) and … The situation resolves itself when, tricked into it by Mac, Smiley tries to kill John but John kills him instead, then is cleared by police on the grounds that the homicide was justifiable since Smiley did intend to kill him; while Mona shoots Mac and is arrested — and at the end it’s not certain whether Mac will live or die, meaning it’s unknown whether the charge against Mona will be murder or merely attempted murder. John and Mona pass each other in the country jail — John being released and Mona being imprisoned — and John asks for the chance to talk to her and is told that would not be allowed. Later there’s a tag scene in which John and his wife are in a car and they decide John will ask to be transferred to another city where his company has an office so they won’t have to live down the scandal in the same town.

One interesting thing about Pitfall is that, though it qualifies as film noir thematically, very little of it is visually noir: much of it takes place in daylight and the Los Angeles streets are just that — actual streets, not studio backlots or “outdoor” interiors. Real-life businesses like the May Company and Vons are clearly recognizable — reflecting the increasing portability of film equipment that by the 1960’s would render the whole idea of a backlot obsolete. Charles also noted that the story seemed contrived, more an excuse for certain sequences, and it was almost as much a soap opera as a noir. He said the film Murder, My Sweet (Powell’s first noir, based on Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) did a much better job than Pitfall in creating the sense of a world in which these sorts of things could actually happen — and I said, “Yes, and that’s why Raymond Chandler’s books are still in print and Jay Dratler’s aren’t.” Some of Pitfall did indeed seem arbitrarily plotted — its producers seemed to be aware that the public for a noir film with Dick Powell in 1948 would want either to see him get beaten up or beat up someone else, so they included scenes in which he did both (Powell beats up Raymond Burr as part of his revenge against Burr for having beaten him up somewhat earlier) — but I found it quite powerful and engaging even though some of its most interesting possibilities weren’t really exploited. There’s a powerful scene in which John Forbes, attempting either to get his family out of the house or at least do the best he can to protect them from being knocked off by the murderous ex-con who’s after him, is confronted by his son, who’s had a nightmare that someone was trying to break into their home. John decides that his son has merely dreamed this from the lurid and violent comic books he reads (this anticipates the major Congressional attack on comic books by at least five years), and I was a bit surprised that Tommy hadn’t seen Smiley trying to break into their home and his “dream” was really him witnessing, though not understanding, some of the danger his dad was in, which would have made the scene more powerful and given it some dramatic point.

Still, I quite liked Pitfall (better than Charles did), largely because of the surprisingly complicated characterizations created for Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr. Mona is a model by profession (she has a portfolio of photos that I suspect were actual head shots Lizabeth Scott had had done to send to casting directors), so she’s used to making a living off her looks, and she comes off as neither an innocent heroine nor a femme fatale but simply a woman living on the edge (financially) and making her way through the world the best she can. There’s real pathos when she laments that the first man who seemed to love her enough to buy her an engagement ring had stolen the money to pay for it, and when Forbes finally tells her he’s married there’s a sort of philosophical acceptance in her attitude, a “damnit, I should have known, all the good ones are taken” attitude. Raymond Burr’s character is also quite remarkable; as much as romantic obsession is a staple of the noir genre, I can’t offhand think of a major noir from the classic period that has a major character who’s an out-and-out stalker. (In Farewell, My Lovely/Murder, My Sweet Moose Malloy is Velma’s ex-lover and the whole plot line involving him is driven by how well she covered her tracks after she “married up,” to the point where he doesn’t even know who or where she is until the very end.) The most chilling scene in Pitfall is one in which Mac corners Mona at a fashion show she’s working and insists that she show him dress after dress, which he says he has the money to buy for “my girl, who’s just about your size,” and there’s nothing she can do to get away from his nauseating attentions because he is, after all, a customer and “the customer is always right.” And if it seems that there’s no reason for his actions because he’s just making himself more repulsive to her instead of attracting her, that’s been a question raised about some real-life stalking cases as well!