Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pitfall (1947)

While I can say unequivocally that Andre de Toth’s Pitfall is one of the great film noirs, I cannot say with any certainty whether its final brilliance is by design. Is there such a thing as an accidental masterpiece? I’m not sure, but there is an ambiguity at the center of this film which is either a stroke of genius or a grievous oversight on behalf of the filmmakers.

Pitfall tells the story of John Forbes (Dick Powell) a married insurance agent who is bored at home and tired of being an “average American.” One day Forbes meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) the sexy girlfriend of a convict only days away from being released. Forbes and Mona have a few drinks, share some pointed conversation, and then spend a night together. Unfortunately for both of them, Mona is being stalked by a creepy private eye named MacDonald. He’s a bug-eyed nutjob, obsessed with Mona and none too happy about her new, married boyfriend. As MacDonald grows more violent, what might have been a brief adulterous affair turns into a walking nightmare for Forbes and Mona. This set-up is a perfect illustration of one of my favorite definitions of film noir (from Roger Ebert): an ordinary guy indulges the weaker side of his character, and hell opens up beneath his feet.

I’ve always loved that quote, and it certainly applies here, but what makes Pitfall so interesting is the way it sets up that basic situation but then, underneath, tells another story.

That story belongs to the “other woman” Mona Stevens. The plot prepares us to accept her as a femme fatale, but then an interesting thing happens on the way to the gallows. Mona turns out to be a nice person. Okay, she’s got bad taste in men. Her boyfriend is in jail for embezzling funds to buy her clothes and a boat. She attracts a psychopath like MacDonald on first meeting. Five minutes after meeting Forbes, she has him agreeing to stiff drinks in a darkened bar at three in the afternoon. Clearly, she’s got issues with men.

But she isn’t a femme fatale. Once she learns Forbes is married, she breaks it off with him. She rebuffs MacDonald, and she tries to shield Forbes from his wrath. While she makes some bad decisions, Mona never seems motivated by the greed and selfishness that are motivating just about everyone else. She is, without a doubt, the most interesting, sympathetic person in the movie. It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Lizabeth Scott, one of the great women of noir, whose specialty was being world-weary and fragile at the same time. While she was breathtakingly beautiful, there was an undeniable sadness to Liz Scott. Her eyes, sensuous as they may be, always look as if they’ve been crying, and while she sometimes played the blond ice goddess in film noirs, more often than not what shone through in her performances was a bruised and battered quality, a sense that she was a smart woman forced to make due in a dumb man’s world.

That was never truer than in this movie. Forbes lies to her to get her in bed, MacDonald stalks her, and her convict boyfriend is a whiskey-swilling imbecile. Pitfall may have the set-up of a femme fatale story, but by the end it seems to be more about Mona Stevens and three L’Homme fatales. The thing is, though, I’m not sure if the movie knows this. On the surface, it is still telling the story of Forbes, the ordinary man indulging the weaker side of his character.

And that’s a story the movie tells well. Dick Powell is excellent as Forbes. As a dramatic actor, Powell’s specialty was inferiority masked as smugness. Even when he played Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet, you got the sense that the smugness was just a way to cover up the fact the character was in over his head. Powell’s character is in way over his head here. His chief adversary, the psycho private eye MacDonald, is played by Raymond Burr at his villainous best. You do not want to find yourself staring down Raymond Burr in a film noir, especially if you are Dick Powell. The movie generates a lot of suspense as it tightens the vise on this weak, normal, believable man.

And yet…

Notice what happens at the end. What happens to Mona? Is she being punished by the Production Code for sleeping with a married man? Does the District Attorney’s angry words to Forbes (“I think we have the wrong person upstairs”) reflect the feelings of the filmmakers? Look at the last shot of her. Notice that we see her from Forbes’ perspective. Is this robbing Mona of her final moment? Or is it a commentary on the real tragedy of the story? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but ask yourself: when hell opened up beneath Forbes’ feet, whom did it swallow?


Director Andre De Toth also directed the wonderful Crime Wave. For an interesting interview with this underrated artist, click here.


Unknown said...

Excellent, incisive post on one of my favorite noirs, top ten at least. The ending reminds me of the last scene in The Breaking Point, subtle handling of the collateral damage from wrong choices, noir at its bleakest.

Jake Hinkson said...

Thanks, David. I like your connection between this film and Breaking Point. Both films end with the protagonist having to live with the ruin that he's brought down not just on himself but on other people.