Pitfall, 1948, 86 mins, Streaming (YouTube)
Here’s further proof that no matter how many films I’ve seen, there’s always some genuinely great ones waiting for me, most of which I’ve never even heard of. Here’s one of them, another of those noir with a darkness resonating through the decades: this one was released in 1948, seventy-four (seventy-four!) years ago, well before I was even born, and its been waiting, waiting…
Lizabeth Scott brought me here (heartfelt thanks to Colin for the recommendation); yep its her again in another noir- while its likely true that Too Late for Tears is her best performance, there must be a case for Andre De Toth’s Pitfall being the best film she ever appeared in, certainly of those I’ve seen (and I’ve seen quite a few films of hers over the past several months). Simply put, this is one hell of a film. Regardless of its credentials as a noir (and it ranks as one of the best I’ve seen), simply as a drama/thriller this is an absolutely solid film and one of the best I’ve seen this year- a timeless tale of a man suffering a midlife crisis, succumbing to temptation (Lizabeth Scott, who else?) and everything crashing around him as a result- it really doesn’t end well for anyone, and yet its not the heavy-handed morality play one might have expected in a film from 1948- its much more sophisticated than that, and there’s subtlety too. Its marvellously directed, with well-written script a full of twists, the performances are all excellent (I doubt Raymond Burr was ever any better, certainly never nastier) – some films are pretty much faultless, and this is one of them.
How frustrating, then, that I’ve had to watch this on YouTube (never the best way to stream a film, particularly one with dark moments like Pitfall features, particularly in its brutally effective climax), and that somehow it is a film not available on Blu-ray over here in the UK (come on, Arrow/Eureka/anyone, get your act together, surely there’s a market for great period films like this)? There’s nothing quite as frustrating as REALLY enjoying a film and knowing you can’t add it to your collection or investigate further via commentary tracks, etc. Unless I finally relent and buy a multi-region player (something I’m loathe to do after building a collection of R1 DVDs that I later could never play) it seems I’m never going to have the pleasure of watching Pitfall in the quality it deserves. Oh well, I suppose I should think myself lucky I managed to see it in any form; many noir have fallen into obscurity, public domain and negatives/prints suffering the ravages of time: YouTube streams are better than nothing, and certainly better than Amazon Prime’s penchant for only holding noir in unrestored, colourised versions (as repellent an experience as it sounds).
So to Pitfall. Bored husband John Forbes (Dick Powell) is feeling frustrated by the American Dream: he’s got an attractive wife, a bright young child, a lovely home in the suburbs and a well-paid job in the city, but it all feels like a trap, the promises and dreams of youth unfulfilled. The thrill of marriage is long gone, its a sexless affair -we see him in his PJs in his bedroom, the two in seperate beds (albeit much of that was at the behest of the Production Code, it visualises it perfectly). John’s hopes of adventure and excitement reduced to routine breakfast in the kitchen, a regular commute driven by his wife and a 9 to 5 of relentless boredom in the office He’s sulky and bitter and his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) humours him, as if waiting for him to finally grow up/out of it. He has it all, but John muses surely there should be more before he finally grows old?
At the office, John gets involved in an embezzlement case, his insurance firm trying to claw back the expensive gifts purchased with ill-gotten money that Bill Smiley (Byron Barr) lavished on his beautiful fashion model girlfriend Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). A hulking brute of a Private detective, Macdonald (Raymond Burr) has tracked down Mona for John, but creepy MacDonald, clearly no good and likely sacked from the police for shady practices, is smitten by her, deciding that he’s going to make Mona his own while Smiley is still swerving time in jail.
John himself falls under her charms whilst recovering the gifts from her. The attraction is accidental on her part- refreshingly for a noir, she’s not the femme fatale you might expect, she’s just a beautiful woman suffering attentions from the wrong men, and its clear at the end that she’s the real victim of the film. On their initial meeting, John notices Mona’s glamour pictures, and its obvious she represents everything John thinks he’s missing; excitement, adventure, maybe a second chance at the passions of youth. He doesn’t admit to being married or having a child and starts a liaison with Mona, meeting at quiet bars in afternoons and foolishly allowing her to keep a speedboat that Smiley bought her.
Macdonald meanwhile is proving something of a menace for Mona, harassing her and deeply angered when he realises that Mona and John seem to have started an affair. He beats up John (which John has to describe as a random mugging to maintain his own secret), further pursues Mona and later visits Smiley in prison to warn him of Mona’s affair. At this point, said affair is over, Mona having learned that John is a married man with a young boy has put a halt to it. John realises he has been a fool and that he should be content with his lot, and thinks he can resume his old life with his wife none the wiser; it was a foolish dalliance but no harm done.
Macdonald however has other ideas, seeing an opportunity to be rid of his two rivals- once Smiley has left prison, Macdonald gets him drunk, arms him with a gun and sends him to John’s house. John suddenly realises his sin has come home, arms himself with a gun and sits downstairs in his house in darkness waiting for Smiley to arrive. Upstairs, Jane is tending to her son when she hears shots break out. Rushing downstairs she finds John sitting with his head in his hands, “Call the police,” he groans. “I’ve just killed a man.”
The film isn’t yet over- Macdonald has gone to Mona’s to tell her she’s with him now, packing her clothes and announcing they are making a fresh start out of town. Mona is aghast, she’s always been repulsed by him but he has always refused to listen: far as Macdonald is concerned she’s got no choice in it, she’s just like a car he’s chosen to buy. She’s his, that’s the end of it. Well, Mona has a gun that might say different….
There’s a pretty grim coda to all of this in which John is emasculated by his wife, who having learned of his affair takes control of the marriage, dictating her terms. The police think John was acting in self-defence against an ex-con breaking into his family home, but Nona suffers the full weight of the law for shooting a man in cold blood. Poor Nona; stuck in an unhealthy relationship with a criminal, romanced by a dashing man who seems pretty decent but is actually lying to her, stalked by a crazy brute, she ends up heading for a long spell in prison.
My summary of the film really does it few favours- I can’t put across the character moments, the location shooting, the lighting, the imaginative camera set-ups (there’s some brilliant camera angles when Smiley is visited in prison, the framing through the partitions, faces filmed through a screen). Raymond Burr is utterly monstrous, a genuinely unnerving performance that is enhanced by the camera angles and expressive lighting but cleverly for all that it doesn’t slip into farce. Dick Powell meanwhile is excellent. I only know him from Johnny O’Clock and Murder, My Sweet, having had no experience of his earlier success as a singer/crooner in musical comedies, but he was clearly a fine actor moving into more dramatic material as he got older. There’s something genuinely authentic about John Forbes’ mid-life angst and frustration at the American Dream. Jane Wyatt meanwhile nearly steals the film from everyone- warm but pragmatic from the start, she’s fiercely protective of her family but once she realises she is a woman wronged she turns to ice, turning the tables on John and ensuring he’ll be paying penance for the rest of life.
Pitfall is a genuinely great film that’s been hiding in the shadows. Its probably up there with Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity for me, in how it feels so realistic and grounded in a reality which is so everyday, and as relevant today as it was in 1948. Sometimes film noir portray a dark world outside of the average viewer’s experience, and that’s part of its appeal with its criminals and desperate doomed heroes and seductive sirens, but Pitfall is a noir that speaks to what we all live and experience, and brings a noir nightmare into everyone’s lounge. Utterly compelling.
Please, Arrow, somebody, release this film over in the UK or somewhere sharing my region code.