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Pitfall (André de Toth, 1948)

Dick Powell plays an eminently dissatisfied insurance agent in André de Toth’s noir melodrama Pitfall. Made in 1948, Pitfall is more relatable than most crime dramas of its era because it starts out with such a minor indiscretion. Powell’s John Forbes visits model Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a woman whose husband is in jail, in hopes of recovering some goods bought with stolen money. Soon the stirrings of a romance are afoot, but a violent intervention by Mac (Raymond Burr), a private eye obsessed with the woman, quickly stops the affair after a one night stand. John’s troubles continue after this, though, as Mac’s rapid trajectory from lovelorn loser to psychotic obsessive gives Pitfall its villain.


What most distinguishes Pitfall is its meshing of crime drama and domestic melodrama. Things begin with an unhappy home, to be sure. The extent to which Powell expresses dissatisfaction with his humdrum life (he sarcastically tells his son not to spend his allowance on women, suggests driving to South America, and calls himself “a wheel within a wheel within a wheel” all by breakfast) sets the stage for the lapse that follows. De Toth’s work here broadly recalls Lang’s The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street in its depiction of a boring professional man’s life gone awry due to involvement with a woman, but the central characters here are strictly sympathetic, at least at first. John and Mona come across as tragically unrequited lovers, which is odd given that John is also presented as happily married. Mona, for her part comes on strong but turns out to be much more scrupulous than the average femme fatale, breaking off the affair with John as soon as she learns of his wife (Jane Wyatt). The sum of these characterizations is a film that initially appears to be less concerned with condemning society than examining heartbreak and retaining its characters’ sad dignity.


De Toth’s sensitive handing of Pitfall stalls out somewhere along the way, though. While it is ultimately a hopeful noir, Pitfall is unafraid to look into the shadowy side of human nature. It culminates, predictably, with murder. What is most irksome about the film is the way that Mona grows strangely distant from us as a point of sympathy as the film wears on. Her fate is certainly the most tragic of anyone in the film, and she seems in many respects to be the most blameless character of all. In a twist that will be potentially alienating to modern audiences (if well in step with the demands of the Production Code) Mona is cast away at the film’s end and Wyatt’s long-suffering wife becomes a replacement focal point for our sympathy. On one hand this move magnifies the tragic nature of Mona’s character, but on the other this move feels decidedly chauvinist, especially since John loses little in the switch. Due to this strange twist, Pitfall ends up feeling somewhat dysfunctional as a melodramatic story. Those who are willing to see Mona sent off to her tragic fate with only a mild shrug might be more accepting of the film as a whole.



Jeremy Heilman