Pitfall (1948)

Dir: Andre De Toth, 1948. Starring: Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr. Film Noir.
Pitfall (1948)

For a downbeat noir as pessimistic as they come look no further than Andre De Toth's Pitfall (1948). It's a film that depicts a time often thought of as a golden age of American prosperity and nuclear family bliss and then tears our warm and fuzzy notions to pieces. After the end of WW2 the G.I. Bill changed America for the better. For the first time many more Americans would get a chance to go to college while also being able to own their own homes. People had tons of kids. Suburbia and the good life soon followed and we never really looked back. But all this peace and prosperity left some feeling trapped. Life for some became bland and predictable and if noir has taught us anything it's that a husky-voiced blonde can be as lethal as dynamite.

Dick Powell plays John Forbes, a man who seemingly has it all: an adorable son, a loving wife, a nice middle-class house, and a decent job working in insurance. But John is sullen and not terribly appreciative of how good he has it. He goes out on a call about a woman in possession of stolen goods that her incarcerated husband had given her. Lizabeth Scott, best known for her noir vixen roles, plays Mona Stevens, the girl with the loot. Forbes expects to find the kind of girl he thinks would take up with a criminal but instead sees that Mona is a victim of circumstance and never asked for the things her husband stole for her. She's also beautiful and Forbes takes the opportunity to spend the rest of the day with her, conveniently forgetting to mention to her that he's married.

It's clear, whatever deals the filmmakers made with the Breen Office and their Production Code, that John and Mona are having an affair. But trouble comes not from Mona but from J.B. Macdonald played by Raymond Burr. "Mac," as he's called, practically drips with sexual menace. He's creepy and he's stalking Mona. Mona discovers that John is married and promptly calls off their affair though in the nicest way possible. It's more than John deserves. But the real problem is that Mac won't leave her alone and his obsessive behavior spurs John to go after him to protect Mona. But it's too little too late and Mona is the one who has her life ruined.

While Pitfall may lack a lot of the visual punch noir is associated with (shadows, chiaroscuro lighting) it is still one of the best examples of noir. It's a movie about adults making really bad decisions and are then forced to pay through the nose. It's about a woman who sleeps with a married man and then has her life ruined while the guy who lied to her, though chastened, gets to go back to some semblance of his safe existence. The sexual politics are pretty sophisticated for a movie from 1948. And the theme of Pitfall, that you can take your postwar nuclear family bliss and shove it, is strong stuff, compellingly rendered in this bitter little movie.

Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Apr 24, 2013 3:23pm
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