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Director Andre De Toth got crackerjack performances out of antagonists Dick Powell and Raymond Burr in this 1948 film noir, largely forgotten until it screened at the Telluride Film Festival as part of a tribute to the director. The stars team as an insurance investigator and a private eye locking horns over an embezzling case, particularly when both develop a yen for the embezzler's beautiful girlfriend, Lizabeth Scott. Though more morally straightforward than other films of the genre, the picture still packs a punch as the two seasoned male stars go after each other and Scott proves how tough she can be when backed into a corner.
Like Double Indemnity (1944), Pitfall is the tale of a decent man led astray by his romantic attraction to the wrong woman. Powell's John Forbes is happily married (to an understanding Jane Wyatt) but a little bored with his staid suburban existence. Working on the embezzlement case puts him in close proximity with a different type of woman in the form of blonde bombshell Scott, and before long, he's in love, an affection leading him first to some crooked business dealings and eventually to murder.
The film is unusual in having a suburban rather than an urban setting and less of the fatalistic air of most other films noirs. In some ways, this makes the picture more subversive. The dark alleys and dimly lit back rooms of the urban jungle seem a perfect breeding ground for crime and corruption, but De Toth brings all the story's crimes into the pristine world of slipcovers and manicured lawns. The film's ending puts this suburban dream world further into question. Without giving it away, let's just say that Hollywood's Production Code Administration, usually a stickler for leaving no crime unpunished in the name of "redeeming moral value," lets at least one of the characters get off with little more than a guilty conscience.
Writer Jay Dratler had been working in Hollywood since 1940, where he had worked on the script for the film noir classic Laura (1944), which brought him an Oscar® nomination. He also wrote fiction on the side, and producer Samuel Bischoff, then at Columbia Pictures, saw an early draft of Pitfall under the title Husbands Die First. He submitted that to the Production Code Administration in 1945, but they turned the book down. He was more successful with the published version, which he submitted a few years later after creating Regal Films, Inc.
Powell was on the Regal Films Board of Directors, which probably gave him a leg up on the leading role, but Pitfallalso was made at the time he was considered one of the top film noir leading men. After floundering through the early '40s, he had finally made the transition from boy crooner to tough, cynical detective in the noir classic Murder, My Sweet (1944), followed by other hardboiled roles in Cornered (1945) and Johnny O'Clock (1947).
This was the first true film in the genre for Hungarian-born director Andre De Toth, who had come to the U.S. with Alexander Korda during World War II. There were noir-ish elements, however, in his U.S. directing debut, the Lone Wolf mystery Passport to Suez (1943), and his first notable success, the romantic mystery Dark Waters (1944), starring Merle Oberon. De Toth, best known at the time as Veronica Lake's husband, got the job when Bischoff brought him in to re-write the screenplay. The producer was so impressed with his ideas that he kept him on the film, though his writing contributions would go uncredited.
Originally, De Toth wanted to cast Mexican film star Esther Fernandez in the female lead, but instead Bischoff borrowed Scott from independent producer Hal Wallis. Like Powell, Scott was closely associated with the film noir, having made her screen debut as the one truly decent character in Lewis Milestone's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). With her smoldering eyes and husky voice (historian Eddie Muller described it as "soaked in gin and burnished by endless cigarettes, hung over from long nights of laughing or crying too hard" in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir), she could tempt a man to do anything. Although she occasionally played unrepentant criminals, she was also very effective as women who had been bruised by life, as was the case in Pitfall. When Powell shows up to repossess the gifts she had gotten from her crooked boyfriend, she says, "If you were a nice guy, you'd cry a little bit with me and feel sorry for a girl whose first engagement ring was given to her by a man stupid enough to embezzle and stupid enough to get caught."
As if being stuck with an embezzler weren't bad enough, Scott is also being stalked by a crooked private eye (Burr), who tries to manipulate the case to get her all to himself. The role was originally planned for Humphrey Bogart, but De Toth considered Burr, then largely unknown, a better choice. It proved a perfect fit for an actor who had specialized in heavies since rising to prominence in post-war Hollywood. Standing 6' 1 ½" tall and with a husky frame and deep voice, he excelled at menace in films like Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and John Farrow's His Kind of Woman (1951). In Pitfall, his character drives much of the action, trying to work Scott's recently paroled boyfriend into a jealous rage against Powell, all so he can have her to himself. When he thinks he's won and is helping Scott pack for their Reno wedding, the way he fondles her shoes suggests a kinky side distinctly foreign to the stalwart heroes he would play in later years as Perry Mason and Ironside.
Pitfall was just another film noir in the '40s, but has become very popular among fans of the genre. On his Film Noir of the Week web site, Steve Elfert dubbed the film "one of the finest, and most unique, entries in the film noir canon," while also calling it De Toth's best film and hailing it for containing some of Powell's, Scott's and Burr's best work. Muller praises the film for getting at the vulnerable heart behind Scott's femme fatale surface, while Dennis Schwartz of Ozu's World Movie Reviews outlines the ways the picture pokes holes in the postwar ideal of suburban life. Thanks to Telluride, Pitfall, unavailable on DVD until just recently, has found new audiences for its trenchant take on the American dream.
By Frank Miller
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Andre De Toth
Screenplay: Karl Kamb
Based on the novel by Jay Dratler
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Music: Louis Forbes
Cast: Dick Powell (John Forbes), Lizabeth Scott (Mona Stevens), Jane Wyatt (Sue Forbes), Raymond Burr (J.B. MacDonald), John Litel (District Attorney), Byron Barr (Bill Smiley), Ann Doran (Maggie).