Sunday, December 6, 2015

PITFALL (1948)

Regal Films, 85m 55s

After storming film noir gates with MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), Dick Powell brought his diverse acting talents to other important noir works, including CORNERED (1945), JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947) and CRY DANGER (1951). He also made his directorial debut in the genre with the tense SPLIT SECOND (1953). Roughly in the center of his noir output lies PITFALL, an independent production that recalls plot mechanics of the classic noir DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and the structural framework of the prior year's NORA PRENTISS (1947). That is not to suggest similarities to other noir titles diminish the obvious worth of PITFALL, one of the most realistically dramatic instances of the sometimes surreal genre.

PITFALL opens with the traditional family breakfast, where LA-based insurance man John Forbes (Dick Powell) expresses discontent with the daily rat race. His frustrated train of thought continues at the workplace when he comments he will require a heavy dose of alcohol to make it through yet another weekly bridge game. The new path Forbes seeks is cleared by private investigator J.B. MacDonald (Raymond Burr), who reluctantly points Forbes toward a blonde temptress.

Firmly within the context of film noir conventions, Forbes gets his first look at Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) via flattering glamour pictures and body measurements. When the real Stevens enters the room adorned in short shorts, the potential problem she presents to the married man is beyond debate. Temptations aside, Forbes has justification for being in her apartment. Stevens's embezzling significant other Bill Smiley (Byron Barr, DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944]) was bonded by the firm where Forbes is employed. Especially surprising for any film noir exercise, Stevens is a temptress only in terms of her attractive appearance. She explains Smiley was mistaken when he thought the way to her heart was through the acquisition of ill-gotten material items. The afternoon conversation shared by Forbes and Stevens is convincingly well-written; in effect the two make a silent contract. Each is exactly what the other needs, if only for the moment.

Director André De Toth, Veronica Lake's husband and also the director of the revered film noir CRIME WAVE (1954), brings noir concerns to a suburban atmosphere mostly void of the genre's forbidding urban settings and nightmarish visual setups. Karl Kamb's screenplay, adapted from the novel THE PITFALL by Jay Dratler, stands unwaveringly on the side of the story's major female characters, a fairly unique treatment in respect to noir releases of the late 1940s. The hapless model Stevens is far from the ball-busting femme fatale suggested by the film's theatrical poster. Her only flaw, a tragic one, revolves around the males who are drawn to her, though that magnetic quality is not advanced as her fault. The narrative also sympathizes with the strong wife and mother Sue Forbes (Jane Wyatt, BOOMERANG! [1947], HOUSE BY THE RIVER [1950], THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF [1950]). By virtue of its startlingly frank concluding scene, PITFALL imparts a guardedly optimistic outlook on marital infidelity and its troublesome aftermath.

The dark personality of this film noir is the sexually obsessed detective character portrayed by Burr, a corpulent actor noted for playing film noir heavies, i.e. DESPERATE (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953). His sinister stalker MacDonald is the type of conniving creep any woman would despise. Burr plays MacDonald as a relentless man in a trance, glass-eyed over his lust for a woman who conveys no interest in him. He somehow has it in his head that Stevens will learn to love him. At his most rotten, MacDonald inflames the hot temper and brooding jealousy of the imprisoned man Smiley. As good an example as any of the noir doppelgänger, the shadowy figure MacDonald embodies the repressed desires of the disillusioned veteran Forbes, who, interestingly, saw no action during the course of his service.

The single-layered Blu-ray version of PITFALL recently made available through Kino Lorber was mastered in HD from a 35mm negative preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The result is a noticeable improvement over the various public domain renditions of the film that have accumulated over the years, though contrast is a bit soft and surface scratches intrude at times. The correct original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio with rounded corners is observed, despite Kino's packaging indication of 1.33:1.

The audio commentary track is anchored by the always reliable Eddie Muller, who directs the viewer's eye to the many subtle filmmaking efficiencies of De Toth, as well as the director's occasional shortcomings. Muller sees Stevens as the archetypal noir protagonist whose past events threaten the present, as is the case in OUT OF THE PAST (1947). Working toward a definition of film noir, Muller notes Forbes feels compelled to return to the apartment of Stevens despite knowing full well that is the exact opposite of the right thing to do. In the noir world, knowingly doing the wrong thing is standard behavior.