Cast & Crew
Insurance agent John Forbes enjoys a comfortable, suburban home life in post World War II, Los Angeles with his wife Sue and son Tommy. He feels, however, that they should have accomplished more and expresses dissatisfaction with his work and social routine. Former policeman turned private investigator J. B. MacDonald has been investigating an embezzler, Bill Smiley, whom Forbes' company, Olympic Mutual Insurance Co., had bonded. MacDonald reports that although the embezzler is in jail, he has traced presents bought with stolen funds to Smiley's girl friend, May Co. model Mona Stevens. MacDonald indicates that he is attracted to Mona and intends to see her again socially. John visits Mona at her apartment and requests a list of presents she has received from Smiley. Mona challenges John's conformity and he responds by inviting her out for a drink, during which they become attracted to each other. Later that evening as he leaves her apartment, he is observed by MacDonald, who has been tailing them. The next day, John finds MacDonald waiting in his office. MacDonald has seen the list of items recovered and asks John about a speed boat that, as a favor to Mona, he has not listed. John then tells Mona he has to take possession of the boat as MacDonald might cause trouble. She thanks him for his help and they begin an affair. When John returns home, he finds MacDonald waiting for him at his garage. MacDonald tells John that he has been following them and emphasizes his continued interest in Mona by beating John up. Meanwhile, Mona discovers that John has left his attache case in her apartment and, in attempting to return it, drives to his house where she discovers he is married. Mona tells John that she wants out, and that he should return to his wife. John does and, for a while, appears more contented. MacDonald continues to bother Mona, even though she tells him that she does not like him and threatens to call the police about him. When he says he will tell John's wife about the affair if she is not "cooperative," Mona seeks help from John, whose response is to beat up MacDonald. In retaliation, MacDonald goes to visit Smiley in prison and tells him about John and Mona. As a result of Mona having returned the misbegotten goods, Smiley is released early from captivity and goes to Mona's apartment. MacDonald has given him a gun and wants him to kill John. Mona then threatens to kill MacDonald should anything happen to either John or Smiley, of whom she is still fond. When Smiley goes to John's house, John shoots him and later claims that it was self-defense against a prowler. When Mona learns of Smiley's death, she shoots MacDonald. John confesses all to Sue and, later, to the district attorney, who tells him that Mona's fate will be determined by whether or not MacDonald survives the shooting. The district attorney lectures John that Smiley's killing, though justified, should have been avoided. After considering divorce, Sue suggests to John that they move to another town and try to rebuild their life together.
Byron [s.] Barr
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 Pitfall also 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).
TCM Remembers Andre de Toth
Born in Mako, Hungary to the son of a civil engineer, De Toth showed an early artistic bent, having his first exhibit of paintings and sculpture at age 14 and seeing his first play produced at age 18. After obtaining his law degree from the University of Budapest, he began acting, writing and working as a cameraman for cinematographer Istvan Eiben. In 1939, he went to England, where he worked as a second unit director for Alexander Korda on The Thief of Bagdad and other films. De Toth immigrated to Hollywood in the early '40s, and worked with Korda on The Jungle Book (1942) and several other films.
He made his Hollywood directing debut with the 1943 feature, Passport to Suez, a propaganda thriller about the Nazis wanting to bomb the Suez Canal.
Impressed with his ability, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, put the director under contract for one film and the result, None Shall Escape (1944), launched his Hollywood career. This tense, sensitive drama about a Nazi officer made to examine his actions was fascinating in its structure: Set after the war's end, the film centers around the trial of a Nazi butcher, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), in Poland and makes excellent use of flashbacks illustrating the prosecution's testimony to form the bulk of the film. In a way, the film predicted the Nuremberg Trials after the war.
de Toth earned considerable critical acclaim with the taut, intense noir thriller Pitfall (1948) which he co-wrote. Starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr, this story of a bored insurance salesman who embarks on an affair because he feels stifled in his picture-perfect home (a devoted wife, son, nice house, successful career, etc.) was striking as one of the first films to examine the American dream gone sour. De Toth followed that with a shared Oscar nomination with William Bowers for Best Original Motion Picture Story for The Gunfighter (1950), a haunting character study of a killer (Gregory Peck) trying to live down his past.
His biggest commercial hit came with House of Wax (1953), the movie that launched Vincent Price's horror film career and is still regarded as the best of all three-dimensional films to be released during that period. Unlike other directors who seemed to be dabbling with a new technique, De Toth emphasized character and plot over the special effects: Price was a sculptor rebuilding his wax figure collection (destroyed by fire) by making statues out of his murder victims. The one-eyed de Toth was an odd choice to helm a 3-D film as he could not experience the stereoscopic process, having lost an eye in his youth, but he persevered and it was the most successful 3-D film of its day.
De Toth followed that hit with some fine films: Crime Wave (1954), a hostage thriller that boasts some fine performances by Sterling Hayden and Gene Nelson and excellent location shooting on the streets of Los Angeles; The Indian Fighter (1955) an exciting Kirk Douglas vehicle about a wagon master leading his train through rough territory that won accolades for depicting the Native Americans with more depth than contemporary directors; and Day of the Outlaw (1959), the stark, stylish, low budget western about an outlaw (Burl Ives) and his gang taking over taking a small town and matching wits with one of its citizens (Robert Ryan). For many, this film best articulated many of the recurring themes in De Toth's work that would be evaluated only decades later by film scholars: survival, betrayal, the capacity for evil and complexities of human relationships.
In the early sixties film work became increasingly scarce for De Toth and he found himself relegated to directing for television: Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and The Westerner. Tired of the limitations he was finding in Hollywood, De Toth headed to Europe in the '60s, where he found work as an uncredited consultant and location scout on David Lean's extravagant Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He directed a few films abroad, the best of which was the World War II action film Play Dirty (1968), starring Michael Caine, and then he more or less retired from active filmmaking. It was not until recently that De Toth began to receive critical recognition for his entertaining body of work. The last few years have seen several retrospectives and he enjoyed a renewed popularity at film festivals from Scotland to San Francisco. His contributions to film were recognized with the 1995 life achievement prize by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the publication of his autobiography, Fragments: Portraits From the Inside, as well as an interview book, De Toth on De Toth, by Anthony Slide. De Toth was married for a time to Veronica Lake (1944-1952) with whom he had two children. He is survived by his wife, Ann Green.
by Michael T. Toole
TCM Remembers Andre de Toth
According to a letter in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, while Samuel Bischoff was a producer at Columbia in 1945, he submitted an early manuscript of Jay Dratler's novel, then entitled "Husbands Die First," for evaluation. He was informed that it could not be approved under the provisions of the Production Code. Regal Films Inc. was an independent company owned by Bischoff that was incorporated in 1947. Dick Powell was on the company's board of directors. A November 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that director Andre de Toth was negotiating for Mexican star Esther Fernández to appear in Pitfall. A radio adaptation of Pitfall, starring Powell, Jane Wyatt and Raymond Burr, and hosted by de Toth, was broadcast on Screen Director's Playhouse on October 17, 1948. Powell and Lizabeth Scott reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the story on November 8, 1948.