I tend to struggle with some films older film noirs, and I couldn’t say why specifically. I tend to believe that, with today’s crime statistics, some of these older films present issues and portrayals of crime and violence that are almost quaint by contemporary standards. So long as the performances are solid, I can almost sit through anything, though I prefer flicks where there’s less emphasis on the philosophy of the circumstances and more emphasis on some quality acting, but I thought much of PITFALL felt uneven if not downright listless, not in a good way.
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary for the discussion of character and plot. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers reviews entirely spoiler-free, then I’d suggest you head elsewhere or scan down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. But if you’re the type who doesn’t mind a few hints of things-to-come, then read on!)
John Forbes (played by the reliable Dick Powell) is a man at a personal crossroads. Sure, he loves his wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt), but he misses the welcome adventurousness from the early days of their marriage. “Whatever happened to the two people who were going to buy that boat and sail around the world?” he wonders aloud, and she tells him that she got pregnant and he became a father. Still, doubts persist for a path to a better life, and that’s exactly when Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) enters his life. Down on her luck but awash in a life of luxury fueled by her boyfriend-turned-convict, Stevens has a boat; but Forbes – as the insurance inspector taxed with repossessing her ill-gotten gains – can’t bring himself to take it away from her. Smitten, he stumbles into a brief extra-marital affair, and this attracts the attention of J.B. MacDonald (Raymond Burr), the slumming private eye Forbes hired to look into Mona’s personal affairs. As fate (and any good noir script) would have it, MacDonald’s also taken by the fashion model, and his desires force him to put Mona, Forbes, and the soon-to-be-released convict on a collision course toward brutality.
PITFALL was directed by Andre de Toth with a script by Karl Kamb (based on the novel by Jay Dratler). There’s a great amount of banter between husband and wife – and later between lover and lover – that propel the strengths of the first half, but as the inevitable ‘pitfalls’ develop much of that muscle vanishes in favor of brute strength. Forbes and MacDonald exchange fists based on different circumstances, and both come out looking good and not-so-good alternately. It’s Burr, however, who pushes these players to the ultimate climax – hint: noirs NEVER end well for everyone involved – so the parts wherein he’s removed from this volatile equation don’t function as well as when he’s present.
Still, quite a bit of PITFALL hasn’t aged as well as one would like. In the end, it all comes off feeling a great deal like a pro-marriage message picture – not a bad thing, but there really was no TV avenue for Lifetime Movies in the early 1950’s. I’d imagine that a whole cadre of bible-thumpers would’ve recommended it as “standard viewing” for newlyweds before they consummated their nuptials as clearly the bulk of the resolution favors wedded bliss over casual copulation. When everyone has something to prove, the union of man and wife won’t work out as well as originally intended; while I personally agree with that message, I’m not all that convinced that PITFALL makes for a worthwhile presentation in the modern age.
PITFALL is produced by Regal Films, and this DVD’s distribution is being handled through Film Chest Media. It looks and sounds about as well as any black & white shot in 1948 can for its full eighty-eight minutes, but, alas, there are no special features to speak of. Shame, shame, shame! There’s the real crime, indeed!
RECOMMENDED with some reservation. PITFALL isn’t entirely forgettable, but it’s sure close for me. I expected better of Dick Powell. Anybody else? So far as film noir goes, it’s an interesting addition worth (at least) a single view, but I’d find it very hard to believe that any scholars or buffs would find it to hold up well on subsequent viewings. While the story (infidelity, stalking, and some non-violent crime) remains timely, the performances don’t, with Powell vacillating between weird male perkiness while exploring his unfaithfulness to a wooden, almost laughable stoicism when experiencing pangs of remorse over the same. It goes without saying that Wyatt’s porcelain good looks look downright magical here, so how was any red-blooded male supposed to accept Lizabeth Scott’s raspy vixen as a convincing substitute? To his credit, Burr looks menacing just standing there, rounding out the lead players.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Film Chest provided me with a DVD screener of PITFALL by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.