Noirvember Review: ‘Pitfall’
Every November fans of cinema celebrate one of the most influential genres of moviedom, the film noir. This cinematic movement from the 1940’s through the 1950’s, presented audiences with edgy pulp crime flicks with a dark and moody stylization. Film noir gives moviegoers no shortage; troubled antiheroes, seductive femme fatales, tenacious detectives, ruthless villains, urban wastelands, and violent crimes. This month I will be looking at some of the best noir movies for what has been dubbed Noirvember.
Post-World War II America is often seen as a time of great prosperity for white middle class Americans. The nation was left as the sole free super power in the world, the economy boomed, and men returned home to marry their sweethearts, have 2.5 kids and buy homes in the suburbs. But as with all things there was a dark side to it as we see in this 1948 film noir starring fan favorites Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott, Pitfall. This movie shows a subversion of the American Dream and how it can easily become a nightmare.
As an insurance salesman, John Forbes is what his wife proudly refers to as “an average American, the backbone of this country”. He works a solid 9-5 at the office then goes to his home in suburbia where he is welcomed by his wife and son. Despite being seen as achieving success, Forbes is burned out on an existence where all thrills are gone and in their place is a bland routine and stifling family life. He soon gets an unexpected dose of much-needed excitement when a private eye hired by his office discovers that a man who embezzled from the company, used the ill-gotten funds to buy his girlfriend a number of lavish gifts. Seeing this as a way to recover the money his office lost, Forbes pays a visit to the girlfriend in an attempt to repossess said gifts. The woman he finds is the sharp and tenacious blonde bombshell Mona. She easily sees past his stuffy professional demeanor and can read Forbes like a book. For a man feeling trapped by routine, Mona is a forbidden fruit tempting him away from his bland life of domesticity and into a passionate and dangerous affair. Unfortunately for him, his hired private eye, “Mac” MacDonald, played by Perry Mason himself Raymond Burr, also has Mona in his sights and his willing to ruin Forbes in order to have her. This kicks off a conflict between the insurance salesman and the detective, which culminates with Mac bringing Mona’s fresh-from-prison boyfriend into the fray. With passions running high, it is only a matter of time before this messy affair turns deadly. The film ends with a somber scene of Forbes and his wife driving in the car just as they had at the beginning of the movie. Only now she is no longer lovingly doting on him, rather they are discussing how their best course of action is to uproot the family and maybe try to fix their now broken marriage.
This was a movie which had been pitched around Hollywood for a number of years. The biggest obstacle was a common foe of film noir, the rigid moral code enforced by the Hays Office. The idea that the two main characters are adulterers who do not suffer any real punishment for their action violated their rules for film. The closest we come to consequences for the character’s actions are that Forbes and his wife probably get divorced down the road long after the credits have rolled or they begrudgingly remain together with these events forever looming over them. Luckily, Andre de Toth, the director behind Pitfall, happened to have a few acquaintances at the Hays Office. It may surprise you to learn that those charged with enforcing morality in Hollywood were themselves not the most upright people. De Toth threatened to expose their own affairs if they did not greenlight his movie. This plan worked and the film went into production. Unfortunately all of this hard work to get Pitfall made was almost for nothing. Produced by the tiny Regal Films, the movie fell into obscurity over time and for a while was thought to be lost. Luckily in recent years the film preservationists at UCLA discovered a print and had it restored. Thus Pitfall was spared the same fate so many other films have suffered.
Granted a film built around torrid affairs and love triangles could have easily been a stuffy piece of melodrama. Luckily Hungarian-born Andre de Toth approached this picture with a pulp edge which proved to be the difference maker. It is clear the idealized suburbs where Pitfall takes place is hiding shadowy secrets lingering beneath the surface. The reality of the Post-War years were undoubtedly not nearly as picturesque as nostalgia tells us, and this movie drives that point home. One element often explored in film noir was that the men who came back home from military service, were harder and tougher with an edge that probably was not there before. Pitfall’s protagonist John Forbes, is the perfect example of this. In addition to de Toth’s efforts behind the camera, the veteran cast of; Powell, Scott, and Burr knew how to handle their characters each of them portraying a world-weary soul looking for meaning in the most selfish ways possible.
Dick Powell may have built a reputation as a bankable star thanks to a number of hit musicals, but when he earned rave reviews in the landmark film noir Murder, My Sweet, the actor proved he could work just as well in darker edgier roles. Pitfall sees him play an anti-Jimmy Stewart, the man who has achieved the American Dream but instead of filling him with enthusiasm it has broken him. The only time we see him truly alive or passionate is once the seductive Mona enters his life. No doubt this probably resonated a bit in the heart-of-hearts of many men at this point in American history, though none would ever dare act on it. While Powell was able to transfer his star power to more light-hearted fare throughout his career, his costar in Pitfall, Lizabeth Scott was a noir icon through and through. Scott was always so damned good at the femme fatale role as she perfectly displayed in flicks like: Dark City, Too Late for Tears, and I Walk Alone. Despite countless roles in the seedy world of film noir, the actress always listed this film as one of her favorites, believing she gave one of her finest performances in it. It is hard to argue this as she perfectly portrays a woman with a sharp intellect and even sharper tongue. Yet beneath that there is a vulnerability which bubbles up to the surface, proving her character is undeniably as infatuated with the insurance salesman as he is with her.
Over the years, Pitfall has developed a cult following because while difficult to come across, those lucky enough to see it recognize it’s brilliance. And now thanks to the preservation efforts more film lovers can see this noir masterpiece. Pitfall exposes a rarely seen, but no doubt ever present, underbelly in this point of American history. This film is truly one of the great forgotten film noirs, and when you celebrate Noirvember this year you should definitely make an effort to remember it.