Pitfall (1948) Andre De Toth

Post war American bliss is shaken to its core in this Andre DeToth tale of the company man’s discontent. The film opens in a “Father Knows Best” environment complete with Jane Wyatt as Sue Forbes, though in a much sterner version than the thoroughly sweet homespun loving wife/mother she portrayed on the 50’s TV show. Making breakfast for her family, she calls up to husband John (Dick Powell) telling him to hurry or he’ll be late to the office. John’s been a good husband providing for his family, even as he grumpily notes at the breakfast table he feels like he is in a rut, a “six feet deep” one.  After all, he married the prettiest girl in school and he was voted the most likely to succeed; he should be doing better, and not just another average guy working for an insurance company.

That morning in Forbes office waiting for him is Mac (Raymond Burr), a sleazy private investigator, sometimes used by Forbes company to do some legwork.  Currently, he is working on an embezzlement case involving an imprisoned thief named Bill Smiley (Byron Barr) who spent most of the stolen loot on his girl Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), buying her jewelry, fur coats, even a boat. Mac was hired to spy on her, identify the stolen goods and report back to Forbes. Only, along the way he develops an unhealthy crush on Mona; he wants her for himself.

Forbes tells Mac his job is finished and to leave the woman alone, he’ll handle it from here on. He heads to Mona’s apartment to retrieve the gifts, hoping to return them and recover as much of the stolen insurance money as possible. At first, Mona dismisses Forbes as, “a little man with a briefcase who goes to work every morning and does what he is told.” The statement stings Forbes already declining low self esteem. Still, there is an attraction between the two, Forbes apologizes, invites her out for a drink. Soon they are taking a ride on her boat, one of the gifts from Smiley, having dinner together and more. When Forbes leaves Mona’s place late that night, parked outside in his car watching is the obsessed P.I.

Mac violently confronts Forbes outside his home one night, sucker punching him; he warns him that Mona is his, and to stay away. Mac continues to force himself on Mona, who is repulsed by the gutter trolling P.I., until Forbes, an ex-boxer retaliates, using Mac as a punching bag, this time warning him to stay away from Mona. Changing his vindictive tactics, Mac visits Smiley in prison, letting him know about Mona’s infidelity and setting him into a jealous rage so when released a short time later, Smiley will threaten Forbes at his home.  The film ends in either death or disgrace for all due to one man’s illicit affair and cover up.

“Pitfall” is filled with individuals who expose weak spots in their character, all except for Sue Forbes, the wife who once her husband confesses his infidelity, shows her strength, as she attempts to keep her family together, even if it means lying to the law. Later, when Forbes comes clean to the district attorney, who views the shooting of Smiley as self defense, though he chastises Forbes by saying this all could have been avoided if he had called the police and spoken the truth, Sue remains strong wanting to keep the family together.

DeToth and his writers weave a downward spiraling tale with elements of suburban discontent, stalking, infidelity and murder. Aptly titled, “Pitfall,” the film reflects the consequences of one man’s actions on many. Forbes infidelity leads to at least one man dead, possibly two (we never find out if Mac dies after Mona shoots him),Mona herself,  is in jail arrested for at least attempted murder, and of course Forbes own marriage is now in a fragile state.

By the time of this film’s release, Dick Powell had already established himself in the dark streets of celluloid crime with films like “Murder My Sweet,” Cornered” and “Johnny O’Clock.” Powell had a kind of every day man’s look, and it fits perfectly here in his role as Johnny Forbes, insurance company claims investigator. Lizabeth Scott has been a registered card carrying member of film noir’s gat carrying dames club, with films like, “I Walk Alone,” “The Racket” and “Dead Reckoning” among others in her arsenal. Scott’s combination of seductive bedroom eyes and a raspy voice that have seen the inside of too many long nights in smoky bars and cheap hotels sent men’s blood pressure level’s soaring high into the danger zone. Raymond Burr is perfect as the bottom feeder P.I. Mac. At this stage of his career, Burr had quite a few roles playing low-life characters in films like “Desperate,”  “The Blue Gardenia,” “Borderline,” “A Cry in the Night” and “Rear Window” before moving on to TV heroics in series like “Perry Mason” and “Ironsides.”

“Pitfall” is one of those films that was released in a bargain basement VHS edition back in the 1990’s, only to quickly disappear into out of print heaven. Here’s hoping, one day soon, the film gets a well deserved DVD release.

****

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12 comments on “Pitfall (1948) Andre De Toth

  1. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a most interesting post on a film I’ve wanted to see for a while, and you just piqued my interest further. I’m hoping that with all the interest in film noir these days it will soon get a DVD release. I’m watching the schedule at TCM to see if it turns up there. That’s where I saw Powell in “Cornered” awhile back and found it quite entertaining. An interesting comment about Lizabeth Scott being in the film noir hall of fame femme fatale club. She made quite an impression on me when I was a boy watching this type of movie on TV, especially that voice, not to mention those sultry eyes and lips. Today I can see her definite limitations as an actress, but as a film noir icon she definitely had the right aura.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D.,

      Thanks R.D. Hopefully it pops up on TCM. Scott was limited as an actress but her look more than made up for it. My first recollection of her was as a young teen in LOVING YOU, an Elvis film,where she played an older woman who was “interested” in the young rock and roll star.

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  2. Sam Juliano says:

    Excellent presentation here John on a film that has long cried out for a legimate DVD release. It’s an exquisite film on a number of counts, and Maurizio Roca just placed it in the #43 position in his presently running countdown. PITFALL is a solid film, probably’s de Roth’s finest, though I’ve always had a soft spot for HOUSE OF WAX. Ruttenberg’s ravishing work is intoxicating, and teh central players are up to the task.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam,

      I don’t blame you for that soft spot for HOUSE OF WAX, a fun film, Vincent in Priceless in it (sorry, I could not help that). I apparently missed Maruizio’s review and will head over there now and check it out. He has been doing a fantastic job. A DVD release of this is a must!

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  3. Laura says:

    I picked up the VHS copy of PITFALL from an Amazon vendor a couple weeks ago and am looking forward to checking it out. Thanks for an enjoyable preview! Especially loved Dick Powell in CRY DANGER.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  4. Judy says:

    I think I’ve only seen Lizabeth Scott in ‘Dead Reckoning’ with Bogart – I thought he was great in that but she was possibly a bit limited, as you say. I’ve mainly seen Dick Powell in singing roles but have heard he is better in noirs – they sound like an interesting combination in this from your intriguing review!

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  5. Maurizio Roca says:

    John, Pitfall has finally been released on dvd. Yes it seems to be an on demand burn that supposedly is from a bad print, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers. It’s available on Amazon for a relatively moderate sum. I guess its the best we can hope for at this point.

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  6. […] deToth made only two film noirs in his career, this film and the earlier underrated 1948 film, “Pitfall” with Dick Powell and Elizabeth Scott. The script, by Crane Wilber, is based on a Saturday Evening […]

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