The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for one reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
John Forbes (Dick Powell) is, to borrow the title of the 1955 novel and 1956 film, “the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” He’s an insurance agent, wrapped in a snug suburban cocoon with his devoted wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) and son Tommy (Jimmy Hunt). The Forbes family is the picture of domesticity and the embodiment of the American Dream—they pay their bills on time, they eat breakfast and dinner together as a family…heck, they probably invite the neighbors over for a barbecue on a regular basis. And you just know that every Sunday they’re attending the house of worship of their choice.
But a certain malaise has set in with our man John. He’s restless, describing himself as “in a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.” He dreams of getting away from it all and running off to South America, an idea Sue humorously encourages though she knows he really doesn’t mean it. Punching the time clock at his office at the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company, he complains to his boss and close friend Ed Brawley (Selmer Jackson) about the rut that’s “six-feet deep” they all seem to be in, pointing out that they’ll get together for dinner and play bridge this evening…like they did the week before…and two years before that.
Forbes will soon find a remedy for his disquiet. He’s been assigned to investigate an embezzlement case, and the man in charge of doing the legwork is a sebaceous private eye named J.B. “Mac” McDonald (Raymond Burr). Mac is giving him the lowdown on the case, reporting that a woman (Lizbeth Scott) answering to “Mona Stevens” received a lot of “pretties” (gifts) from the embezzler, who’s cooling his heels in prison, and that Mac finds Ms. Stevens quite attractive. So, Forbes makes an appointment to retrieve the gifts, and finds not a sultry femme fatale but a sympathetic woman in Mona, who works as a dress model in a department store.
Mona hands over all the merchandise she received from the embezzler boyfriend with the exception of one item that’s a bit too large for John’s briefcase: a speedboat. The two of them go down to the harbor to check the craft out, and she invites him to take a spin on the vessel—non-ironically named “Tempest.” By the time they’ve had their brief outing at sea, John finds himself falling for the woman. They have drinks, and then… well, let’s just say Mr. Forbes arrives home at an hour when Mrs. Forbes is already in bed.
As a favor to Mona—his own little “pretty,” you could say—Forbes leaves the speedboat off his list of items that were recovered. Fortunately, good ol‘ Mac is there to keep him honest by reminding him of the omission. Mac is also jealous of the time John spent on the high seas with the girl Mac sort of has his eye on…to Mac, he’s a hunka hunka burnin‘ love—but to other women, particularly Forbes’ secretary Maggie (Ann Doran), Mac is affectionately known as “Gruesome.” Forbes makes the mistake of stopping by to see Mona again to let her know that he had to report the boat…a bad mistake on his part, for when he returns to suburbia “Gruesome” is there waiting for him to pummel him in a jealous rage.
The beating Forbes receives from Mac is just the first in a series of incidents that send the insurance man into a downhill spiral. Before he comes clean to Sue about his indiscretion, two people will wind up dead and a third arrested for the crime of killing one of them. Though there is a slight glimmer of hope at the film’s conclusion that the couple will be able to patch up their differences, the message of Pitfall (1948) seems to be that middle–class complacency is an invitation to chaos.
That was one of the central themes in many of the films of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who was said by many to have lived a strictly-controlled, orderly existence in order to keep chaos at bay. It’s odd that this Hitchcockian subject matter is the focus of a movie directed by André de Toth—a second-tier director who spent much of his career (when he wasn’t behind the camera) denigrating Hitch and his work; if you’re familiar with a segment on Hitchcock that runs occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, you’ll be familiar with de Toth’s opinion of Sir Alfred. (If you haven’t seen it…well, I imagine Hitch probably wouldn’t have asked Andre for a reference should he have had to seek employment at the time.)
De Toth was a Hungarian émigré who had made a few films in his native country before fleeing to England at the outbreak of World War II; he had become good friends with producer Alexander Korda, who gave him a job as a second unit director on Jungle Book (1942). Arriving in the States a short time afterward, he began a career that never quite reached the heights of fellow émigrés Robert Siodmak or Fritz Lang, possibly because André had a fierce independent streak. De Toth would find his niche in helming B-westerns and film noirs; his best-known film is probably the 3-D masterpiece House of Wax (1953), a movie de Toth would never experience watching in 3-D owing to the loss of his left eye in an accident years earlier. (He was also known as Mr. Veronica Lake, as he was married to the silver screen bombshell with the peek-a-boo bangs for a short period between 1944 and 1952.)
In a 2000 interview (published in Film Noir Reader 3 in February of 2001), de Toth explained that his involvement with Pitfall came about when he was hired to do a rewrite of a script based on a novel by Jay Dratler entitled The Pitfall. Working uncredited with writer William Bowers, a good friend of André’s that would later collaborate with him on the screenplay for The Gunfighter (for which they received an Oscar nomination); de Toth produced a rewrite that satisfied actor Dick Powell, who had signed on as an executive producer. De Toth related that Powell agreed to star in the film if André would direct.
According to de Toth, he made many of the casting decisions himself. The producer of Pitfall, Sam Bischoff, had wanted Humphrey Bogart for the role of MacDonald but Andre wound up substituting Raymond Burr after seeing Burr’s photograph in a stack of glossies supplied by a casting agent. De Toth also insisted that Lizbeth Scott play the part of Mona, musing that “you had to believe that this girl was real” and “I wanted somebody whom Powell would be attracted to as a person.” Both casting choices were right on the money, particularly Scott, who convincingly plays a freshly-scrubbed yet devastatingly attractive woman which makes Powell’s character a man who suffers the consequences of an extramarital affair and not just a wolf on the prowl. That’s the job Burr was hired to do, and he’s extremely good at conveying a true sense of menace while disguising it in a sort of soft-spoken, pleasing manner (he’s always addressing John as “friend,” so when he lashes out with extreme ultraviolence at Forbes it packs quite a wallop).
By the time he made Pitfall, star Dick Powell had successfully shed his former chorus boy image of the 1930s (thanks largely in part to his performance as Raymond Chandler’s literary sleuth Philip Marlowe in 1944‘s Murder, My Sweet) and reinvented himself as a movie “tough guy.” And yet I think Powell transcended this archetype in many ways because of his apple-cheeked crooning past. He was a much more effective Marlowe than Bogie in The Big Sleep (1946), for example, because he was better able to convey the idealism that Chandler created for the character; he fully embodied the notion of Marlowe as the knight in shining armor functioning in a world staggering under the weight of its own cynicism.
Powell also had a way with a wisecrack; he seemed to toss them off with aplomb unequalled by his tough-guy peers. In Pitfall, his Forbes is saddled with the task of rowing out to see Mona’s “Tempest,” and when she asks him if he’d like for her to take the oars he responds: “Are you kidding? I’m good for another ten seconds…” The banter between Powell and screen wife Wyatt also crackles; when he asks her what ever happened “to those two people who were going to build a boat and sail around the world” her reply is “Well, I had a baby—I never did hear what happened to you.” Wyatt, who is probably best remembered as mom Margaret Anderson on the Robert Young television sitcom Father Knows Best, nicely underplays her character here…and if you want my honest opinion, I find myself more attracted to her than Scott’s character. (Even in the film’s opening scenes she’s quite striking-as if Margaret waited for Princess, Bud and Kitten to leave the house and then let her hair down.) It’s interesting to contrast Wyatt’s hausfrau here with the slightly shallow spouse she plays to Dana Andrews’ district attorney in Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! (1947).
Because of its lack of rain-swept streets and dark alleys—and also the absence of an alluring femme fatale who lures the protagonist to his doom—many fans might have difficulty warming to Pitfall as a noir. But I’ve always believed that noir was much more than just a style (or “look”) of filmmaking—the stories told in film noirs are cloaked in a disappointed cynicism, suggesting that the comfortable middle–class existence of Powell’s Forbes can be easily shattered by a simple, stupid mistake. (His situation reminds me of that of Farley Granger’s mail carrier in the 1950 movie Side Street, who in a brief moment of insanity swipes $200 from a lawyer’s office--it’s all for wife Cathy O’Donnell, who is great with child—and finds himself on the next bus to Sweat City.) The strength of the protagonist’s family ties—both his wife and kid still love him despite his moment of weakness—keep him from suffering the same fate as the luckless Al Roberts of Detour (1945), even though Sue stresses that their marriage will need a lot of work.
Pitfall was recently released to DVD in November 2012 by a company called Film Chest—and while it would have been nice if Film Chest had been able to get the UCLA restoration of the film that was issued on laserdisc and VHS (from Republic Home Video) in the mid ’90s (more than a few folks have expressed their opinion at Amazon that the Film Chest DVD print isn’t quite up to snuff) I’m glad it’s become more accessible to classic movie fans, particularly since the VHS/laserdisc is out-of-print (and very hard to find). The film was originally released by United Artists (it was produced through the independent Regal Films) and didn’t quite received the protection that a production would have been afforded by a larger studio. But it’s an important picture all the same; it demonstrates that noir can take place during the daytime hours (there are only a few scenes set in the dark—several in a cocktail bar) and that what the postwar American film style is really all about is a maturity in filmmaking that dares to expose the soft white underbelly of life in these United States.