In a 2006 article for L.A. Weekly, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier called 1948’s Pitfall “a film to rank among the best, the sharpest and the most original of noirs.” I’m not sure I’d rank Pitfall with the genre’s finest, but it’s nonetheless a highly-effective drama that breaks free of the typical film noir conventions. There are no femme fatales, no bleak streets, and no hardened criminals.
Instead, the protagonist is a middle-class insurance adjuster who lives in a suburban neighborhood with his loving wife and son. The problem is that John Forbes (Dick Powell) is disenchanted with his idyllic life. He’s tired of playing bridge every Thursday. He’s tired of going to work at the same time every morning and getting home at the same time every evening. When his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) informs him that his breakfast is on the table, he retorts: “Where else would it be?”
Johnny’s life gets turned upside down when he tries to recover property purchased with embezzled money. The recipient of the “gifts” is Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a pretty store model who oozes vulnerability. An afternoon visit turns into an unexpected boat ride, a dinner invitation…and more. Private detective Mac McDonald (Raymond Burr), who is already infatuated with Mona, observes her interest in Forbes. One evening when Forbes arrives home late, Mac emerges from the shadows and administers a beating. Guilt-ridden and sinking in a sea of lies, Forbes decides to end his relationship with Mona. Unfortunately, it’s too much too late.
Director André de Toth, in an interview in the book de Toth on de Toth, noted that the women dominated the film. For the role of Mona, he said: “I did not want a fashionable Hollywood bambola to cheapen the story…I wanted a warm, sincere, vulnerable human being.” Strangely enough, de Toth thought Lizabeth Scott–who played her share of husky-voiced bad girls–was perfect for the part. And he was right. She’s excellent as the young woman who seems to specialize in the wrong kind of man: one who commits a crime for her; one that’s uncomfortably obsessed with her; and a nice guy that’s already married (though she doesn’t know that initially).
While Jane Wyatt’s wife is a background figure for most of the film, she has two excellent scenes in the final 10 minutes. In fact, she’s the driving force behind an ending that Tavernier calls “one of the strongest, the iciest and the least complacent in movies of the era.”
Yet, while it’s the female characters that propel Pitfall, it’s Raymond Burr’s slimy private eye that provides the film’s necessary menace. In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, he visits the fashion store where Mona works and makes her model a slinky evening gown as he leers at her. He also visits the prison to tell Mona’s jealous ex-boyfriend about her dalliance with Forbes. Still, he’s not responsible for bringing adultery and murder into the Forbes’ household.
That distinction belongs to no one but John Forbes. With one horrible decision, he puts his family at peril, potentially destroys his marriage, and commits an act that will haunt him forever. Ironically, Forbes complains at the beginning of Pitfall that he’s “in a rut six feet deep.” By the end of the film, he has placed himself into a far deeper rut, one person is buried six feet deep, and another borders on death. He has allowed the bright cheery life that he took for granted to be invaded by the invisible shadows of film noir.