Sunday 25 September 2016

Movie Review: Pitfall (1948)

A tense drama with noirish elements, Pitfall uncovers the dangers that seep to the surface when the thrill of an affair clouds better judgement.

In Los Angeles, John Forbes (Dick Powell) is an mid-level manager with the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company. Married to Sue (Jane Wyatt) and father to young son Tommy, John is going through a mid-life crisis, feeling stale in his life, marriage and career. At the office, private detective MacDonald (Raymond Burr) reports to John that he has uncovered Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) as the recipient of gifts paid for by the convict Smiley (Byron Barr) with ill-gotten money insured by Olympic. MacDonald also does not hide the fact that he found Mona to be stunningly attractive.

John sets off to meet Mona and recover as many of the gifts as possible. He is immediately attracted to her vulnerability and they embark on a brief affair. But MacDonald wants Mona for himself, and from behind bars Smiley is seething with jealousy. John's stray impulses set off a chain of events that will threaten his career and result in unexpected violence.

Directed by AndrĂ© De Toth, Pitfall carries the insurance-and-crime echoes of Double Indemnity and foreshadows the straying-man-ruins-life lessons of Fatal Attraction, but is not quite as sharp as either of these two classics. Pitfall builds a decent mood, boasts a good cast in fine form, and is packaged into a compact 86 minutes. But the crime elements take a long time to grab hold, and are focused within the obtuse character of the private detective MacDonald.

The film's black and white cinematography and crime elements suggest some noir-light aesthetics. But De Toth does not go out of his way to engage in the noir style, nor does the plot forcefully move in a noir direction. Pitfall is more of a morality tale about the dangers of wandering away from the comforts of family, with defined villains and few motivational ambiguities.

John Forbes is the prototypical middle class man, well established in his career with a loving wife and cute kid. And yet he has hit the middle age wall where he is deeply resentful of his life, using sarcasm as a crutch, questioning what it all means and aching for the carefree freedom of youth. In short, a perfect candidate for the lure of a quick affair, and he stumbles into Mona's apartment fully vulnerable to her sob story.

But alluring as she is, John does not belong in the sordid world occupied by the likes of Mona, MacDonald and Smiley, and his dive into emotional entanglements within their gutter creates ripples that culminate in a series of crimes. MacDonald's obsession is the main catalyst for evil deeds, but John's involvement makes a bad situation much worse.

Dick Powell is dependable and well suited to the role of bland insurance man. But Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr deliver the two most memorable performances. Scott is perfect as the attractive victim with the darkness of a misdirected life swirling behind her eyes. Burr as MacDonald is simply imposing in a suit about three sizes too big, a self-satisfied presence trying to force the world to bend to his will, consequences be damned. Jane Wyatt's role as Sue Forbes grows in importance as the story progresses, and Wyatt rises up to the challenge of the pivotal role Sue ultimately gets to play in deciding John's fate.

Pitfall may not always shine with new ideas or blazing execution, but it does deliver a solid cautionary tale about the hazards of succumbing to wayward impulses.

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