Femme fatales are fun for mulling lurid fantasies, but often represent a case of a male-dominated society unfairly blaming a woman for its prejudices. In an ordinary postwar film noir, the femme fatale is a harbinger of doom, a spider who turns a man’s worst instincts against him, though the latter is often regarded with empathy, while the former’s contemptuously scrutinized. The man is often vulnerable, while the woman is a sexual alien who offers the hero a break from his wife, who’s boring precisely because she adheres to a man’s rules. Women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t, but the films don’t always seem to know that. Like Caught and The Prowler, Pitfall represents a bracing brake from this tradition, offering a woman who’s destroyed by male society for the crime of desirability. The film is The Scarlett Letter of hardboiled crime fantasies.
The woman in question, Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), is a model at a department store, a beautiful blonde capable of selling the American illusion of glamour and transcendence as being but a few bucks away from anyone’s fingertips. Mona’s boyfriend, Smiley (Bill Barr), has gone to prison for embezzling money that he spent attempting to procure her good favor, buying her a boat, a fur coat, and a ring, along with other objects of status. Soon, insurance man John Forbes (Dick Powell) is in the picture, investigating Mona so he can confiscate the ill-gotten gains for his client. Dick has already hired private eye J.B Macdonald (Raymond Burr) to investigate Mona, and so he knows she has Smiley’s goods. It’s a matter of whether or not she will play along.
Contemporary noir fans watching Pitfall for the first time will reasonably assume that Mona is the villain, who will seduce John into killing Smiley or committing fraud that will allow her to keep the boat. But Mona’s revealed to be a decent young woman surrounded by jackals, suggesting an aspiring actress attempting to navigate the casting couches so as to land a decent part and make a comparatively autonomous life (the film’s source material, Jay Dratler’s novel The Pitfall, was a showbiz thriller). Mona’s drawn to John, and he sees quite a bit of her before he’s forced to tell her he’s married. J.B. is a hulking, sleazy bully who stalks Mona out of hopes of sleeping with her too. The private dick forces Mona and John’s hands, though John, a man with a “respectable” nuclear arrangement, is far better equipped to survive. Mona isn’t quite the protagonist, but she haunts Pitfall. Our sympathies extend to this woman, her smoky, earnest voice telegraphing vulnerability.
We’re mostly stuck with John as he grapples with J.B. and weathers his encroaching boredom with his all-American wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt), and gratingly adoring son, Tommy (Jimmy Hunt), though the film devotes an exceptional amount of time to charting the contours of Mona’s uncertain life as a fantasy object. Powell’s unsentimental performance is the film’s boldest stroke. Most noir heroes encourage the audience to identify with their hungers, vicariously enjoying sex with rarefied women, but Powell establishes John as a bitter mediocrity who spits his lines out in short, direct, nearly staccato bursts. There’s longing and despair underneath that bitterness, but one has to look long and hard at John to see them. Mona discerns this regret because she’s also wounded, and disappointment is an aphrodisiac in noir, as it often is in real life among broken people.
André de Toth directs Pitfall with characteristically compressed vigor that speaks to the tension buried deep under the suburban settings. When Mona visits Smiley in jail, the bars of the prisoner’s cell are emphasized in the foreground, intensifying Smiley’s sense of helplessness and rage. A pair of fistfights between John and J.B. are edited with piercing exactitude, the sound mix amplifying the mostly implicative violence. Episodes of sad and glamorous day-drinking are framed in angular shadows. A stand-off in a living room at night is cloaked in ferocious, painterly alternations of light and darkness. Most hauntingly, there’s an image of a woman in white disappearing down a vast hallway, swept away for inherited sins.
The image is soft at times, and grain occasionally compromises foreground detail. This is largely an attractive presentation, though, which is particularly evident in the refurbishing of the whites. These colors have a delicately purposeful sense of shrillness, most obviously in the bar scenes that abound in the light that the characters are attempting to escape. Blacks are strong and rich, most strikingly in the climax. Facial detail is vivid, honoring the telling close-ups frequently offered of Mona as she attempts to talk her various unstable suitors up or down, depending on the circumstances. The soundtrack hisses and pops at times, but is largely clean and nuanced.
Eddie Muller’s commentary is rich in astute dissections of the behavioral business that director André de Toth incorporated into the film so as to infuse Pitfall with an unusual element of realism. Muller observes that the “rakish angle” at which John wears his hat is his sole concession to nonconformity, adding that his walk “embodies his ennui.” Quite a bit of time is devoted to de Toth’s succinct shot selection, which can establish important character contrasts in a matter of seconds. When J.B. sits in John’s office chair, for instance, we understand the gesture as symbolic of the former’s encroachment over the narrative. Muller highlights how de Toth covers a fistfight in five shots, which show J.B’s growing prominence as John dwindles into a “non-factor.” The commentary abounds in these sorts of details, also offering behind-the-scenes gossip as well as glimpses into de Toth’s working relationships with the actors, such as his perceptive understanding of Lizabeth Scott’s abilities, despite her poor reputation among many of her peers. This is the only supplement on the disc, not counting a few trailers, but it’s a significant complement to a film that’s due to be rediscovered.
Wonderful news for noir fans: An underappreciated quasi-feminist gem has been spruced up for home video, complete with a commentary by film noir maestro Eddie Muller.
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