Monday, November 14, 2011

Pitfall (1948)

Pitfall (1948)

Pitfall is certainly a film noir and although it mostly lacks the characteristic noir visual style it manages very effectively to convey the necessary mood of paranoia and doom.

It was directed by André De Toth, produced by an outfit called Regal Films and released through United artists in 1948.

The basis of the plot is that one small mistake is all it takes to turn a perfectly happy life into a waking nightmare. Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell) works for an insurance company. He has a lovely wife and he has a son and they live in a comfortable suburban house and his life is placid and well-organised. It’s so well-organised that when he leaves for work he can tell his wife he’ll be home at exactly 5.50 pm.

Pitfall (1948)

It’s an idyllic life but it’s the sort of life that a man can easily take for granted. Johnny’s problem is that he’s basically quite happy but he doesn’t realise it. He thinks he’s bored. Today we’d probably say he was having mid-life crisis.

The conviction that his life is dull and routine hits him with special force when he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). Mona’s boyfriend Bill Smiley has been imprisoned for embezzlement and Johnny’s company had to pay out as a result. Johnny’s job is to try to get some of the money back. Smiley had stolen the money to buy expensive presents for Mona.

Pitfall (1948)

Mona seems to represent what’s missing from Johnny’s life. She’s sexy and exciting and she’s bad. Or at least she looks like she’s bad. Johnny loses his head completely. Unfortunately he’s not the only one who’s fallen under Mona’s spell. J. B. McDonald (Raymond Burr) is a private investigator who does work for the insurance company from time to time and he’s well and truly obsessed by her. He’s also completely mad, dangerously violent and entirely untroubled by a conscience.

Johnny and Mona on the other hand are very much troubled by pangs of conscience. Mona immediately breaks off their affair when she finds out that Johnny is married. While she looks like a femme fatale and she has the effect of a femme fatale on Johnny’s life she’s actually not bad after all. She never wanted poor Smiley to steal for her and she has no intention of wrecking Johnny’s marriage. But she just can’t help being the sort of woman who makes men crazy.

Pitfall (1948)

Johnny has been badly frightened by the whole thing and just wants to go back to being a respectable family man again but McDonald is getting crazier and crazier and he’s not going to leave either Mona or Johnny in peace.

Johnny really hasn’t done very much wrong. The affair with Mona was extremely brief. In the whole of his married life he’s misbehaved for a day or two; all the rest of the time he’s been a devoted husband and father. He has never inhabited the world of film noir. His life has been lived in the sunshine, a life of neatly maintained lawns and duty and responsibility. But that one misstep has changed everything and his orderly life has been plunged into chaos and violence and ultimately murder. He can be accused at most of weakness and poor judgment.

Pitfall (1948)

Mona has also done very little wrong. If she has a fault it’s simply that she’s not a very good judge of men. She certainly doesn’t deserve the nightmare that her life becomes.

Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott are terrific, giving nicely understated performances. Powell is convincing as a nice guy who can’t believe that one little mistake really can destroy his life. Raymond Burr on the other hand goes totally over-the-top, giving us a memorable portrayal of evil and obsession. Jane Wyatt has the relatively thankless role of Johnny’s devoted wife but she does a fine job.

Pitfall (1948)

The relative lack of overt noir visuals works to the film’s advantage. This is a nightmare played out in broad daylight and bright sunshine. The ending is where a lot of very good film noirs fall apart but Karl Kamb’s screenplay shows a sure touch in this department - it manages to be both downbeat and hopeful. There is tragedy and there is a price to be paid but there’s no cheap nihilism. These are grownups not teenagers and they don’t have the luxury of adolescent nihilism.

One thing I found amusing was a review describing this as a subversive noir. In fact it’s quite the opposite in most ways. It’s very pro-marriage and the message is that respectability and duty lead to happiness. And I really don’t think this message is intended to be ironic. The lesson Johnny learns is that accepting adult responsibilities is more conducive to happiness than chasing glamorous blondes.

Synergy’s DVD presentation has attracted a lot of negative comment but I have no idea why. It’s a perfectly decent print.

This is film noir at its best. Highly recommended.


  1. Fine review of a very satisfying movie. Excellent job by Dick Powell, who is sympathetic without being heroic.

    1. It's a movie that definitely should get a bit more attention.