Saturday, June 6, 2015

Stubs – Pitfall

Pitfall (1948) Starring: Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Jane Wyatt, Raymond Burr  Directed by Andre de Toth Produced by Samuel Bischoff. Screenplay by Karl Kamb, Andre de Toth and William Bowers. Based on the novel, Pitfall by Jay Dratler. Run Time: 86 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Film Noir

I’m a sucker for film noir and am always on the lookout for a forgotten gem to watch. When I saw Pitfall, which starred Dick Powell and Raymond Burr and had a logline that read like a B-movie version of Double Indemnity: “A married insurance man gets involved with a blonde model he meets on a case and commits fraud and murder,” I hoped I’d found one. But the proof is in the watching.

Pitfall opens with insurance agent John Forbes (Dick Powell) enjoying a comfortable, suburban home life in post-World War II Los Angeles. He has a wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt), and a son, Tommy (Jimmy Hunt). But he feels restlessness, saying out loud that the couple should have accomplished more and traveled more before now. He expresses dissatisfaction with his work and social routine to Sue, who humors him, but make sure he still gets to work on time. He has responsibilities that outweigh his flights of fantasy.

Jane Wyatt plays Ann, the good wife who keeps John on time to work.

At work, Forbes meets with a former policeman turned private investigator, J. B. MacDonald (Raymond Burr). MacDonald has been investigating an embezzler, Bill Smiley (Byron Barr), whom Forbes' company, Olympic Mutual Insurance, had bonded for up to $10,000. Smiley is already in jail. MacDonald reports he’s traced presents (fur coats, jewelry, etc.) bought with stolen funds given to Smiley's girlfriend, May Co. model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). MacDonald indicates that he is attracted to Mona and because of that Forbes pulls him off the case. MacDonald tells Forbes he intends to see her again socially.

J.B. MacDonald (Raymond Burr) is a less than scrupulous private detective.

John visits Mona at her apartment and requests a list of presents she has received from Smiley. Mona resists at first, and challenges John’s company man approach, reinforcing his own feelings that he’s sold out. John responds by asking her for a drink. Mona capitulates on helping and not only gives up the gifts, but even tells John about another gift MacDonald didn’t find out about, a speedboat called Tempest. They spend the afternoon speeding around Santa Monica Bay (too much screen time if you ask me) and then go for that drink, during which they become attracted to each other. Later that evening as he leaves her apartment, John is observed by MacDonald, who has been tailing them.

John (Dick Powell) takes Mona (Lizabeth Scott) for a boat ride around the bay.

The next day, John finds MacDonald waiting in his office, again. MacDonald has seen the list of items recovered and asks John about a speed boat that, as a favor to Mona, John has not listed. John then informs Mona he has to take possession of the boat as MacDonald might cause trouble for him. She thanks him for his help anyway and they begin an affair.

When John returns home that night, MacDonald is waiting for him at his garage. MacDonald tells John that he has been following them and is not happy John is stepping in on Mona. To drive home his displeasure, MacDonald beats up John. Meanwhile, Mona discovers that John has left his attaché case in her apartment. When she calls his place of business the next day, she’s told that he’s called in sick.

MacDonald waits for John to tell him he's not happy about him stepping in on Mona.

John is home getting bandaged up by a doctor. He’s told his wife that he was mugged outside their garage, but has refused to call the police. Sue can tell something is up, but John changes the subject rather than answer her questions. Meanwhile, Mona has borrowed a car and bought some food and driven to John’s house, arriving just as Sue and Tommy are leaving the house; Mona figures out John’s married.

John tells Mona that he was mugged.

Later, Mona tells John that she wants out, and that he should return to his wife. John does and, for a while, appears more content with his family life. But MacDonald continues to bother Mona, even stalking her at the May Co. and making a scene in front of her boss. She tells MacDonald that she does not like him and threatens to call the police if he continues. When he says he will tell John's wife about the affair if she is not "cooperative," Mona seeks help from John, whose response is to beat up MacDonald, telling him to leave her alone.

In retaliation, MacDonald goes repeatedly to visit Smiley in prison and tells him about John and Mona. As a result of Mona having returned the misbegotten goods, Smiley is released early from captivity and goes to Mona's apartment when released. MacDonald has already given him a gun and Smiley wants to go see John and settle the score. Smiley gets drunk and when Mona tries to take him home, he runs out on her. MacDonald does his part and drives Smiley to John’s house.

Mona calls John to warn him that Smiley is armed and on the way. At the Forbes’ house, John tries to scare Smiley away, but he returns, breaking a window. With Sue and Tommy upstairs, shots are exchanged and Smiley is killed.

Meanwhile, MacDonald shows up uninvited to Mona’s. She threatens him if anything has happened to either John or Smiley. MacDonald calls the police to confirm what he already knows: Smiley is dead. MacDonald starts to pack Mona’s bags, as if she’s his woman now, his possession. But Mona has other ideas. Pulling out her own gun, she shoots MacDonald, which we later learn doesn’t kill him right away.

When the police show up at John's house, he claims that the killing was self-defense against a prowler. But after they leave, John finally comes clean with Sue, telling her everything that’s happened and the prowler’s real identity. Sue doesn’t want John to go to tell the police the truth now, knowing what the admission could do to their family. But John goes off walking, ending up at his office the next morning. Even though he’s early, there are already two men from the District Attorney’s office waiting for him. John wants to confess everything and they take him in.

John eventually has to come clean with Sue and admits everything.

The district attorney (John Litel), tells him that Mona's fate will be determined by whether or not MacDonald survives the shooting. He then lectures John that Smiley's killing, though justified, could have been avoided. John should have called the police. Even though the DA would like to prosecute John, he can’t and he lets him go.

When John goes outside, he finds Sue is waiting for him in the car. She tells him that she’s considered divorce, but she wants to try and make a go of their marriage. Sue suggests to John that they move to another town and try to rebuild their life together. But you have to know John will be paying for his indiscretion the rest of his life.

The last time we talked about Dick Powell was during the review of Footlight Parade (1933). In the fifteen years since playing the juvenile, Scotty Blair, in that film, he had begun playing heavier roles, such as Phillip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet (1943). In Pitfall, he is supposed to be an everyman who for 24 hours goes off course and then must spend the rest of his life paying for it and making it up to his wife and family. I’m not sure this was the best part for him.

Raymond Burr is an interesting actor. Burr is perhaps best known to a certain generation as Perry Mason (1957-1966) and then as Ironside (1967-1975) on television. His portrayal as MacDonald, the menacing private detective, is pretty much spot on. He becomes obsessed with Mona and won’t let anyone stand in his way of getting her, even Mona, before she fights back. This role and his turn as the womanizer, Harry Prebble in Blue Gardenia (1953), show that he could and did play a variety of roles over his career. And who can forget him as Lars Thorwald in Alfred Hitchcock’s  Rear Window (1954), who seems to personify evil without speaking a word.

Lizabeth Scott, the film’s femme fatale, has always struck me as a poor copy of Lauren Bacall. From her look to her voice to her screen presence, so close, yet so far. Nowhere is this more apparent when Scott plays opposite Bacall’s husband, Humphrey Bogart, in Dead Reckoning (1947). Seeing Scott listed in the credits of a film is sort of a red flag for me. I knew she was in Pitfall going in, hoping that this time would be different, but sadly I was wrong. Every time I see Scott act, I can’t help but think someone else could do it better.

I always thought of Lizabeth Scott as a poor copy of Lauren Bacall.

Jane Wyatt is best remembered as the TV Margaret Anderson on Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and as Amanda Grayson, Spock’s mother on the original Star Trek series (1966-1969). Even though she’d been in films since One More River (1934), this is the first film I believe I’d ever seen her in. Her part of Sue Forbes is not too far off Margaret Anderson, the difference is that Jim Anderson was never unfaithful or ever killed anyone. Wyatt has an understated beauty as well as acting style.

"Jim, I mean John, breakfast is ready." Jane Wyatt plays a similar character to Margaret Anderson in Pitfall.

I believe this is also the first film I’ve seen directed by Andre de Toth, who worked in Hollywood from 1943 until 1978 (he was a second unit director on Superman). Born Sâsvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he fled Europe, like so many did, and came to Hollywood via England where he worked with fellow Hungarian émigré Alexander Korda. De Toth, who was once married to Veronica Lake, is perhaps best known as the director for the House of Wax 3-D (1953) and for his writing on 1950’s The Gunfighter for which de Toth and co-writer William Bowers were nominated by the Academy for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. Judging from this film, I’m not sure if I would be seeking out more of his directorial efforts.

While Pitfall is not a diamond in the rough, it is not quite a lump of coal either. Perhaps if you’re more of a fan of Lizabeth Scott than I am, I’m certain there are some out there, you might enjoy Pitfall more. I personally don’t think anyone in the film is really at their best. There are certainly other film noirs I would recommend before than this one. Pitfall might make an interesting double feature with Double Indemnity, it’s far superior insurance-based film noir cousin, but it is certainly no substitute.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment