Pitfall (1948)

If Fatal Attraction represents the male pitfall-movie of the 1980s, with Glenn Close presumably playing a role akin to the AIDS virus, then Pitfall (1948 André de Toth) is the 1940s equivalent, with Dick Powell sliding into the equally heinous sin of finding life too boring. 

This is exactly the opening scenario of The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, and as in The Woman in the Window, the point is laboured in Pitfall.

With the war done and dusted, in fact, it seemed like a whole bunch of the film noir guys wanted a bit more action.

And there were a bevy of the deadliest women in the world on hand to supply it, steeped in the forbidden social excess and treachery that can only lead to trouble — and of course death.

Pitfall opens with Dick Powell as the bored executive, inured to the fact that his adventures are over.  He goes to work and comes home from work at the same time every day. Everything is so predictable — until he follows up one of his boring cases and runs into Lizabeth Scott.  Pretty soon they're having a wild speedboat ride, don't ask why.

Whatever the logic, Dick Powell and Lizabeth Scott zoom around the bay, with Powell's hat balanced to precision on his pleased-with-himself douchebag head.  His office attire is as masterful as his handling of the boat — and boy is he ever happy!

Who wouldn’t be thrilled to leave the office and race a speedboat up and down for a few hours, with a forbidden hussy sitting at your side.  Swell.

Love is a speedboat ... and Dick Powell thinks he can handle it
What’s interesting next is how all this plays with the idea of the tough thriller.  It’s a criminal adventure all right, but not in the conventional sense, because the hero occupies the most normal life possible — within a family and within an insurance organisation.

All of the action of the film, including the exotic lady he falls for, are desired counterparts to the mundane life of the hero.

Lizabeth Scott - the Innocent Femme Fatale
As in The Woman in the Window, the bored hero falls for the dangerous woman not on the strength of meeting her or being with her, but on the strength of her etchings — in this case a fashion portfolio — for which you may think pornography.

It’s telling how often women in film noir are represented in images, or in mirrors, but there is a reason for this — and it’s the danger that is all around us — a modern pitfall.

Women are so often represented in images in real life that it’s hard to forget they are real at all.  Every screen and every printed news and magazine page seems to figure the image of the attractive woman — it’s so normal that it’s hard to notice it.

The shoulders of Raymond Burr
Star of Pitfall isn’t Dick Powell though, but one of three men obsessed with the Lizabeth Scott character, Mac, played by Raymond Burr.  You have never seen shoulders as wide as Rayomd Burr’s.

He arrives on screen with the hangdog cynicism of the lovelorn, and yet his size constantly threatens violence.   He is in fact something of a brute, a display of unbound masculine power who has the sort of full-blooded obsession with the girl that the Dick Powell character is not permitting himself.

Pitfall then is a little disquieting as it deals with both the desire for and dread of transgression.  It’s got just about every quality you’d ask for in a noir — the femme fatale — the grotesque hood — the emasculated male — and a woman in charge.

In a sense it’s a warm deep bath of pathos, so flawed is everybody, and if it weren’t for Raymond Burr’s amazing star turn it may not even be that worth recommending. 

Lizabeth Scott is a femme fatale only insofar as she is the catalyst for the ruin of others (so many of them!) although she herself is a rather innocent, kind of doe-eyed girl, who seems to attract these car-crash males.  You need to recall that throughout the film, Lizabeth Scott’s character really stands up for the sanctity of marriage for example, and also often appears dressed in white.

Jane Wyatt
If there has to be any hero at all in this mess of ego, lust and blundering violent obssession, it has to be Jane Wyatt, as the faithful wife.  Wyatt is the sole anchor in Pitfall, and at the end of the film, when Pitfall switches quickly from the emotional wreck of film noir to the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, it's Wyatt who has to do all the work saving the picture from ridicule.

Wyatt in fact, as Dick Powell's wife, has to forgive Powell, allow him to move on, and then has 2 minutes to reconstitute the American family for another decade of cheating and lies.  Of course Pitfall is a completely chauvinist film, and no amount of pretend grovelling from Dick Powell about his own 'pitfall' is going to alter that.  Jane Wyatt becomes the focus for our sympathy right at the then end, then, but hers is not the psychotic mind running the show.

More than other films from this time, Pitfall is most frankly about stalkers.  Lizabeth Scott is a fairly innocent person and yet there are these guys lumbering about in the dark after her, all drawn to her for reasons they cannot control.

The fact that this noir is set in the heart of the American family, and in the heart of the American dream highlights all of this, making it in some respects a fairly subversive picture.  Suburban decorum is taken apart and shown for the sham it is — and this has always been one of Hollywood’s greatest marvels — it’s ability to show the sham of life in a series of metaphors, which one presumes sink in unconsciously and thus allow us all to happily live the lie we know we’re lumped with, rather than railing about it.

Dick Powell. Two handed phone technique.
It’s all down to the male, and his habit of failing on every count.  Notice how Jane Wyatt who plays Dick Powell’s wife seems to be playing a role and enjoying it, much more than her husband.  She is sarcastic and seems to have their life summed up and be satisfied with its falsities, in a way that Powell’s character is not.

And then there’s his son (played by Jimmy Hunt, who later played the boy who would try and warn the adult world about the Invaders from Mars in 1953) — the kid has these bad dreams, which clearly indicate that something is not right in Eden, and that lurking below the surface is a steaming, shadowy evil world of noir demons, all fighting for possession of the people’s souls.

Watch out then for the pitfalls!

1 comment:

  1. Pitfall was an entertaining noir. The characters were interesting and the story had you waiting to find out which one winds up with the bad end of the stick. Turns out they all did.