A good example of a flat, stoic, buttoned-up film noir, Pitfall is as minimal and undemonstrative as they come, depending on how you view sex and death.
The stars are Dick Powell, deadpan Dick as usual, while Lizabeth Scott is the femme fatale, a model (and so an independent woman) who’s not so much bad as just plain elementally disruptive. There are three key men in this film – Powell as the everyday happily married insurance man John Forbes, Raymond Burr as “Mac” MacDonald, the shifty private investigator Forbes sometimes uses in murky cases, and Byron Barr as Smiley, a crook now doing time for a bent insurance claim.
All have lost or will lose their heads to Mona (Scott), a woman who just can’t help herself, but it’s Forbes who eventually gets it worst, the everyday family man chafing against the ideal suburban life of post-War America who comes across Mona while tying up loose ends on one of Mac’s assignments. “This dame,” – Mac has more or less said to Forbes while reporting on his progress in recovering “gifts” improperly given by Smiley to Mona – “wow”.
As if pulled by a magnet, Forbes decides to see for himself what’s with this Mona (telling himself this is an everyday part of his job). She initially gives him a frosty reception but then comes clean about items Mac’s digging had failed to turn up. Congratulating himself, perhaps, or kicking against stifling convention, Forbes decides on a whim to take Mona up on her offer of a thrash around the harbour on her speedboat (one of Smiley’s gifts, which makes this a legitimate thrash around the harbour to his way of thinking) followed a drink in a cocktail bar… in the afternoon.
Much is made of this “afternoon” business, as if Mona, a creature of the night, were siren-like luring Forbes, a daytime sort of fellow, into her realm. Sure enough, after riding on her boat, Forbes has soon taken a ride on Mona too, a fact that the insanely jealous Mac soon gets wind of.
From here Forbes finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place – being dragged one way by Mona, the other way by his smart and capable wife (Jane Wyatt) and his commitments to his family.
It’s a strange film. Forbes is essentially the film noir detective, except here he’s embroiled in a case that’s all of his own making. He’s the perp. And Mona (name surely no accident) isn’t a bad person, it’s just the way she’s drawn (as Jessica Rabbit would much later quip, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). In fact, once the chips are down, Mona does her level best to make things right.
Everyone in this film moves as if they are pieces assigned to roles by callous fate. The girl can’t help it, nor can Forbes. Mac is also being pushed by forces he cannot understand or control – Raymond Burr’s bulk really counts for something here. And even Smiley, supposedly a hard-bitten criminal, seems hopelessly swept along by events and feelings once he eventually enters the story.
The writer Jerome Charyn once described a certain style of film noir acting as “dreamwalking” (see Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Dana Andrews). There’s plenty of it in Pitfall, most of it from Lizabeth Scott, whose dead-eyed style never got her much love from the critics but whose throaty rasp meant she got plenty of work playing dangerous dames.
The light touch of director André De Toth is evident everywhere. Look at the scene where Forbes and Mona go out in her boat and they swap driving positions twice, scooching over/under each other on the banquette seat. No more need be said. He’s got an eye for this sort of compressive storytelling detail and a camera that knows what it’s setting out to achieve and does it without fuss.
The same could be said about De Toth himself, who got around objections to the film by representatives of the morally restrictive Hays Code – who were unhappy that the adulterous Forbes wasn’t copping enough punishment for his acts – by blackmailing adulterous members of the board.
No one is as decisive as that in this film. It wouldn’t work at all if they were.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022