There’s a formula to film noirs, and while not strictly enforced there are particular elements one looks for – the morally ambiguous hero, interplay between light and shadow, an evil femme fatale. It is both this adherence to and divergence from convention that makes director Andre de Toth’s Pitfall so special. Recently released on a luminous Blu-ray from Kino, Pitfall is a noir that may undeservedly fall through the cracks, but its standout exploration of adult themes presented through a noirish lens requires your attention.
John Forbes (Dick Powell) is a family man fed up with his mundane existence. When he meets a gangster’s moll named Mona (Lizabeth Scott), John finds a door leading to a new lease on life. But when an obsessive suitor (Raymond Burr) vies for Mona’s affections, it threatens to destroy the family John loves.
Andre de Toth (Veronica Lake’s second husband, in case you’re interested) takes what amounts to a simple domestic drama and exaggerates everyone’s life into a modern-day noir. John “Johnny” Forbes is as American as it gets, coming complete with house, adoring wife (Jane Wyatt), and precocious son.
Played by Dick Powell, the former song and dance man, only extrapolates Johnny’s everyman image. But for Johnny getting up everyday, prepping for dinner parties, and being a suburbanite are boring, nothing more than a slow march to the grave. Compare him with someone like Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff of Double Indemnity fame, a swinging single man content to break up a marriage thanks to a woman bored with her life. Neff doesn’t ask for our love, but we sympathize with him because it is Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis who is the instigator for his problems. For Johnny, it is the daily routine of work and repetition, aided by a family he loves but finds no excitement in, that puts him on the path to ruin. And once he’s on that path, he never does anything unforgivable. Despite his attraction to Mona, he never actively pursues a relationship, something that might disappoint fans expecting the typical noir trappings.
In fact, unlike most noirs where a murder or foul romance causes turmoil, screenwriter Karl Kamb (using Jay Dratler’s novel) uses life itself as the catalyst. Where characters knowingly enter into situations they know are wrong, the characters here are too nice for their own good. Mona mentions several times that Johnny is a “nice guy,” and it is that need to be polite that gets people into trouble. In fact, almost everyone populating the world is nice, albeit prone to mistakes which only emphasize their humanity. Endearingly played by Lizabeth Scott, her Mona Stevens doesn’t wear the anklet or other signifiers of a femme fatale, a sharp 360 from the character Scott would play a year later in Too Late for Tears.
She isn’t out to trap a married man; she has a means of supporting herself without the aid of a man. In fact, it is the man’s desire to support her – her boyfriend is caught embezzling and thus the gifts he’s given her must be returned, sparking Johnny’s meeting Mona – that causes all the trouble. Mona simply wants one night thing in life, a boat for instance, and comes to the painful realization that the best things in life aren’t free…and often come with deadly prices!
Another case of gender swapped noir conventions, Raymond Burr’s J.B. MacDonald acts as the catalyst for the film. His growing obsession over Mona feels frighteningly realistic and continues the concept of controlling men being responsible for the destruction of others (such as Mona’s boyfriend, Smiley, using gifts as a source of power). Other noirs employ the boyfriend/husband angle in terms of them being a character bumped off simply for existing, but by Pitfall’s end you’re waiting for MacDonald to receive his just desserts. His mad desire for Mona, a relationship he’s concocted in his head, creates a true source of tension and fear. When he visits Mona at work, forcing her to model a dress in front of him, it’s probably the noir at its most potently disturbing. As Scott takes off the shawl covering the dress, it takes on all the exposure and horror of an assault in broad daylight.
Powell, Scott, Burr, and Wyatt are all amazing, but, personally, Scott takes the cake. Mona Stevens could be a one-note character but Scott imbues the character with such empathy. She’s constantly placed in the position of becoming a spider woman, but turns in a performance engaging in its realism. Mona and John have a genuine attraction, and Mona doesn’t seek him out with harmful intentions; she’s taking a chance on love, and if this was a typical romance they’d be together (part of the fun and tragedy of the movie is seeing how, realistically, this plays out). When Mona drives to his house, finding out his secret, you actively detest Powell for lying to a “nice” woman. Again, he’s not intentionally a villain, he’s just too nice a guy to tell her he’s married and thus it is this omission that leaves you ambiguously conflicted about him.
For being such an anti-noir of sorts, the return to noir conventions does dampen the overall message a taste without ever ruining the film outright. Mona’s intentions, while warranted to an extent, are punished as demanded by noir, leaving us with a return to the nuclear family. In a noir world nice guys may finish last, but as least they have their freedom!
An incredibly intriguing mix of realism and noirish fantasy, Pitfall boasts the distinction of being one of the more unique noirs out there. Eschewing exaggerated conventions for a tale of everyday people stumbling into a noir of their own making, Powell and Scott create lived-in characters that blister off the screen courtesy of Kino.
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