Pitfall

John Forbes (Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet) is a WWII veteran who is now living the American Dream: he has a nice house, a comfortable job at an insurance company, an affectionate wife (Jane Wyatt, Father Knows Best) and a loving son (Jimmy Hunt, Invaders from Mars). Life is good, but John is getting restless. He yearns to travel, to have an adventure, to do something that breaks up his predictable daily routine. “You're the backbone of America,” his wife says encouragingly. “I don't want to be the backbone of America,” he grumbles. “I want somebody else to be the backbone of America and lift me up.”

This agitated disappointment in “the good life” lies at the heart of Pitfall, a nifty little noir drama helmed by Andre De Toth. There's a sense of post-WWII unease in a great deal of film noir – that feeling is arguably what defines a large chunk of the genre – but it's made a good deal more explicit in this case. John's life looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, but he can't stop thinking of greener pastures.

Eventually, he finds one in the form of Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), a woman at the center of an embezzlement case John is working on. It seems Mona's lover Bill Smiley (Byron Barr, Double Indemnity) – who was convicted of embezzlement and is currently serving a short prison sentence - gave Mona some suspiciously expensive gifts, and John has been tasked with collecting those gifts. He does, and ends up collecting a night with Mona in the process (something only accomplished because he neglected to tell her that he was married). He has his adventure, he feels some obligatory pangs of guilt, he goes back to his family and decides that he no longer feels a need to wander. Alas, what he doesn't know is that his act of infidelity has triggered a long string of consequences.

First, there's John's colleague MacDonald (Raymond Burr, Rear Window), a private investigator who does freelance work for the insurance company. He was the one who tracked Mona down during the embezzlement investigation, and he started developing a crush on her. He mentioned this to John, who agreed to put in a good word for MacDonald. Instead, John slept with Mona, and now MacDonald is out for revenge. MacDonald decides that he's going to spill the beans to Smiley, who is scheduled to be released from prison soon. Before long, John has to figure out how to deal with two jealous, potentially violent men and how to prevent either of them from spilling the beans to his family.

This is a particularly strong, tightly-wound performance from Powell, who tones down his usual glib charm a bit and plays a man who often seems to be quietly imploding. The actor's customary hard-boiled wit is on display, but this time around his pithy comments seem like a way of avoiding emotional directness. He feels trapped early on, but by the time we're halfway through the film he's desperate to get back to the relatively comfortable banality of the early scenes. There are some particularly effective moments of ordinary domestic life during some of the film's more tense passages, as John attempts to go through the motions of being a good husband and father – reading bedtime stories, complimenting his wife – while secretly panicking about the fix he's in.

The film's other performances are strong, too. In an interesting twist on noir conventions, Mona is not presented as a seductive femme fatale, but as a woman who is ultimately victimized by John's self-centered behavior. She was just looking for a little comfort in the arms of a decent man. Instead, now she's tasked with dealing with an insanely jealous boyfriend and with a irrationally jealous would-be suitor, both of whom may pose a considerable threat to her. Barr's Smiley is a fairly routine bad guy, but Burr's turn ranks among the actor's most memorably creepy performances: in the film's most unsettling scene, MacDonald pays a visit to the department store where Mona works and forces her to model dresses for him. It has the emotional cruelty of a rape scene, if not the actual content of one. There's also a fine turn from Wyatt, who is presented as a clueless, conventional housewife for much of the film but does terrific, emotionally loaded work during the closing reel.

Pitfall feels a little ahead of its time in the way it thoughtfully examines the way men take women for granted. Everyone who wants Mona feels they deserve to have her, regardless of whatever long-term damage they may be doing to her. John looks down on men like MacDonald and Smiley due to their blatantly criminal behavior, but his motivation isn't much different than theirs: he saw something that appealed to him and he went after it, giving no thought to who else might be harmed. That's why the film's closing scenes – in which Wyatt finally gets to take center stage – have such a sharp impact. The only way to end this cycle of greed and unhappiness is for a woman to take the reins and dictate the terms of what happens next. All that male angst and restlessness, it seems, is just a recipe for trouble.


Pitfall

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Year: 1948