My buddy Kelly Greene and I watched PITFALL (1948) for the first time yesterday. Based on the novel THE PITFALL by Jay Dratler, screenwriter Karl Kamb and director Andre De Toth do a great job in constructing a tight (running time of 86 minutes) and taut little thriller.
Dick Powell stars as insurance agent Johnny Forbes (an echo of Fred MacMurray's character in Billy Wilder's masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). Forbes has a beautiful wife, Sue (Jane Wyatt) and an adoring young son, Tommy (Jimmy Hunt). But Forbes is tired of the dull, monotonous routine of his daily life. He feels trapped and suffocated, frustrated by the never ending predictability of his work and home life He yearns for something different to happen. Of course, he should be careful what he wishes for.
Forbes has hired private detective J.B. MacDonald (played with hulking menace by Raymond Burr) to recover some items in the possession of Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott). The items were given to her by her boyfriend, embezzler Bill Smiley (Byron Barr). The insurance company and Forbes just want to cover their policy and potential losses. But Mac is strongly attracted to Mona and soon, so is Forbes.
Forbes and Mona have a brief fling but when Mac beats up Forbes and threatens his family, the budding romance is nipped in the bud. Mac wants Mona for himself and is determined to ruin Forbes and Smiley (who is about to be released from prison). He sets in motion a dangerous game that will end in death.
PITFALL does a good job of subverting our genre expectations. You keep expecting Lizabeth Scott to become a femme fatale and lure Dick Powell into a twisted scheme. But she's only guilty of having poor taste in men and becomes a victim herself of Mac's sinister and unwanted advances. Powell does a good job of going from frustrated and bored insurance agent, to devoted family man when he realizes how close he's come to losing it all, to a trapped, desperate man who is ultimately forced to take the law into his own hands.
PITFALL ends on a note of tentative hope, which somewhat mitigates the inevitable doom that hangs over Forbes' head throughout the film. But there is blood on the hands of two of the major players, blood that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.
If you're a film noir fan, you've probably already seen PITFALL. If not, check it out. It's a good one.