Pitfall: Captivating Film Noir


Film Noir entered its heyday in the 1940s and 50s with pieces like Murder My Sweet, White Heat, The Big Sleep and Scarlet Street. Pitfall (1948) is a neatly packaged film that doesn’t need rainy nights and gang members to make your skin crawl with anticipation as the main character (Dick Powell) gets himself deeper and deeper into a world he wishes he’d never seen.

Powell plays an insurance man Johnny Forbes who is bored with his job, who goes around with sarcastic remarks when responding to his wife, his young son and his secretary. He complains about how he’s not made of money and he’s just working a treadmill with nothing to look forward to and that life is just a big bore. He epitomizes the American Dream becoming riddled with holes.

Forbes is assigned to recover funds from an embezzler that his company had bonded. Apparently the embezzler, named Smiley, had given extravagant gifts to a girlfriend with the purloined funds insured by Forbes’s company. Forbes visits the young lady in order to recover the items. There he discovers not only furs, jewelry and a motorboat, but a woman of such beauty and sensuality that stopped him cold.

Lisabeth Scott

The girlfriend is Mona Stevens, played by Lisabeth Scott, a lithesome blonde with a sultry and silky voice with an irresistable lisp. She charms poor bored Forbes immediately with her bright manner and regard for Smiley, her benefactor who had gotten himself arrested because he stole for her. She invites Forbes to come see the boat he’d bought for her. Forbes takes a ride with her – more than symbolic – and allows her to keep the boat. He doesn’t get home until very late.

The problem is that Forbes’s partner, a private dick named MacDonald, played superbly by Raymond Burr, was the one who located Mona after considerable investigation. He’d fallen in love with her immediately and had told Forbes this before Forbes met her. But our hero Forbes was also mesmerized by Mona, and it seems she prefers Forbes over MacDonald. Big trouble.

MacDonald beats up Forbes for taking his girl away. Forbes had to stay home due to his injuries, and that’s when Mona learns he’s married. She breaks it off with him. MacDonald continues to stalk Mona and threatens to tell Forbes’s wife of their affair if she doesn’t go out with him.

Mona and Johnny face MacDonald (Raymond Burr)

The lack of fear on Mona’s part leads one to believe she’s been in similar situations before because she doesn’t scare easily. When she meets him sitting on the stairs to her apartment, she calmly asks him for a cigarette then tells him to beat it. MacDonald’s massive size and boring eyes put the fear of God into me as I watched him stalk this young woman.

Finally, it comes down to MacDonald going to the embezzler Smiley in jail and telling him all about the tryst his girlfriend had with Forbes. Smiley is driven crazy with jealousy and is scheduled to get out of jail in a few days, he subsequently grills Mona about her relationship with Forbes.

MacDonald makes things even more interesting by supplying the now furious embezzler with a gun and giving him Forbes’s home address.

Mona calls Forbes and warns him that Smiley is coming with a gun.

Here’s where the Hayes Code came into play. Because the embezzler had done wrong, he gets what he deserves by coming to Powell’s house; on the other hand, Powell is in serious doo-doo with his wife, played admirably by Jane Wyatt, who finally wrenched out of him the whole sordid story of the affair.

Legend has it that the Hays Code board would not let the movie be released unless the adulterer received a more serious punishment. However, the director met with the top two Hayes Code members and told them that he knew they were both married with mistresses. The movie was released with no more argument.

As for Mona, she gets her own comeuppance by taking matters into her own hands. Now she’s wanted for either murder or manslaughter – we’re left hanging on that one. Mona files past Forbes without seeing him in the Hall of Justice – he’s heading home having just explained the mess to the District Attorney, she’s headed to the women’s prison.

That where film noir is so great. It leaves one relieved you’re not in the entanglement that the characters find themselves. You can live their excitement and/or terror, and that’s close enough.

Remakes — Which is D.O.A.?

In my opinion, most film remakes do not measure up to the original, except perhaps in the field of special effects. When dealing with storytelling, most times a modernized story attached to a remake complicates the story to the point of being ridiculous.

Let’s consider the film noir D.O.A. While the original movie from 1949 —starring Edmond O’Brien and Paula Britton — has a very simple storyline, whereas the version from 1988, starring Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Daniel Stern, twisted and turned and had enough plot to sink a ship. I think it sank an otherwise good movie.

The opening scenes of the two versions are similar, both filmed in black and white and, in the case of the Quaid vehicle, more compelling, with the viewer seeing the world as the dying Dennis Quaid is seeing it, blurred, fuzzy and jerky images as he staggers his way into a police station to report his own murder. In the O’Brien vehicle we see him stagger into the station from behind, obviously sick or inebriated.

Both characters had been poisoned by a radioactive substance that had been dropped into their drink and have only a day or two to live.

And that was the end of the similarities between the two films. The 1988 vehicle tells the rest of the story in color; the 1949 film remained black and white, with an ominous atmosphere, with significant shadows haunting Edmond O’Brien as he tries to piece together the moment when he ingested the poisonous “luminous substance,” called radium chloride in the latter film.

Edmond O’Brien was already a mysterious character. He works as an accountant with a girlfriend/secretary, who we suspect he’s stringing along. He books a vacation without her. We don’t know why. Along the way he meets a woman at a convention in the hotel and they seem to hit it off.

The 1988 film was obviously a vehicle for stars Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, married at the time. It’s in color and takes place on a college campus where Quaid teaches English. He’s in the middle of a divorce, which he does not want to go through with. It’s obvious he still loves his wife, but she has moved on with her life. Quaid is living a boring existence, one that has made him jaded and unmotivated to do anything.

Insert here a student, Nick, who is trying to get Quaid to read his manuscript and Quaid brushing him off. Back in his office Quaid just prints a red “A” on the document without reading it. Then he learns the kid has committed suicide. Quaid discusses his guilt about not encouraging the kid with a fellow teacher who’s celebrating his just having made professor. After sharing congratulatory drink, Quaid throws the manuscript in the wastebasket. Later Quaid ends up at a local bar and shares drinks with a another student, Sydney, (Meg Ryan) who has a crush on him.

Both O’Brien and Quaid wake up after drinking and partying not feeling well and see a doctor. There they learn that they have been poisoned and have only a day or two to live, they panic and leave the doctor’s office to find out who poisoned them.

Here’s where Quaid’s storyline goes haywire. His soon-to-be-ex-wife is murdered; Quaid is also suspected of pushing the suicidal student off the roof. It’s gets truly bizarre, all while Quaid is fighting the incredulity of dying from poison.

In the end, both men discover who poisoned them. And while we see O’Brien succumb to the poison, Quaid simply walks into the night and back into the first scene where he staggers into the rainy night.

I believe the O’Brien version is a superior vehicle due to a tighter story line, the suspense and tension never letting up, and unlike Quaid, O’Brien doesn’t let any of his friends know what’s happening to him; he’s stopped trusting anyone. He’s all alone with his terrible secret.

Which one of the two do you appreciate more? Feel free to comment below.

On Dangerous Ground – Saving Robert Ryan

I’ve never known what to make of Robert Ryan. His performances never look like acting. He IS the character on the screen. One thing’s for certain, you can never take your eyes off that rugged face displaying the myriad emotions experienced by the character he’s playing. And, if he’s not on the screen, you want to know where he is and where he’ll show up next.

Ryan has been quoted that he’s played types that are diametrically opposed to everything he stood for – bigotry, intolerance, corruption, greed and brutality. He was the man who had to make the hard decisions as a general in Battle of the Bulge; the man with screaming paranoia when a stranger comes to town asking questions in Bad Day in Black Rock; the western gunslinger with nothing left to lose in The Naked Spur, the bigoted Army sergeant who terrorizes a Jewish man in Crossfire.

I’m going to go into depth on the film On Dangerous Ground, directed by Nicholas Ray and an uncredited Ida Lupino. In it, Ryan plays Detective Jim Wilson whose relentless days of encountering predators, sleazy backroom bosses, gamblers and murderers takes its toll on an otherwise good detective. He resorts to “getting the job done” by beating up his suspects until they confessed, resulting in charges brought against the department for police brutality. He explains his actions saying that no one likes cops, not the good guys or bad guys. You can see he’s begun to hate himself.

His partners on the squad see the writing on the wall and try to get Wilson to calm down, relax, take up activities outside the force so as not to bring the work home with him. The final blow comes when his superior officer, played by Ed Begley Sr., sends him on assignment upstate to help a local sheriff solve the murder of a young girl. Wilson calls it Siberia, a place of exile. And it is.

The Search

This is when you realize we’re not looking at Robert Ryan anymore. It’s Jim Wilson the detective driving out of the city – out of the familiar environment that’s been poisoning him. It’s a long way to his destination. As Wilson’s car travels the long, narrow dark ribbon of road, there’s no sound, no partners, no radio, no sirens or flashing lights. Wilson comes upon some road construction and, as he waits, we see his piercing dark eyes reflecting the lonely and empty life he’s been living. It’s as if Wilson is traveling back in time, out of the city to a rural isolated environment.

A young girl has been stabbed to death and the killer still at large. As Wilson begins to question the victim’s family members, the angry father, played by Ward Bond, adamantly objects. He wants action, not questions; he wants revenge, not justice. Wilson is not welcomed as a savior, but finds himself confronted by the same anger, distrust and hate that he had for the criminals he’d arrested, only now it’s directed at him. He’s treated as an interloper, someone letting the killer get away.

The suspect steals a car and Wilson has no choice but to follow him with the girl’s father. The camera is focused on the road, which is black and wet, then gray and slushy, then pure white with snow, making driving hazardous. The father is beside himself, shouting at Wilson to go faster, waving his loaded shotgun that will “get the job done.” But Wilson is out of his element and crashes the car after skidding on the icy road as the father pounds the dashboard yelling about the killer getting away. The killer had already crashed his stolen car, and they start following the killer’s footprints through the snowy forests and rocky hills.

Mary and Jim Wilson

The tracks lead them to an isolated farmhouse where they find Mary Malden, a blind woman (Ida Lupino) alone in the house. Wilson and the father find men’s clothes upstairs which Mary says belong to her brother who is away for a few days. The father goes back outside to search the outbuildings. Alone with Wilson, Mary says you can tell a lot about a person from his name. Wilson asks her whether she’s lonely and she senses his loneliness, saying one can be lonely in a room full of people.

Wilson becomes protective of Mary, making sure the furniture is where it should be and the fire rebuilt. This emotion is new for him. Mary thanks him, then, in confidence, she tells Wilson that her younger brother has mental issues and is in hiding nearby. She realizes that he’s done something terrible and asks Wilson to promise to protect him from harm and get him the help he needs.

Wilson struggles with this and has a hard time promising such a thing It’s an unfamiliar position for him:  “protecting” the suspect – but because of his feelings for Mary, he willingly changes his modus operandi in order to do the right thing.

Nicholas Ray uses the stark landscape to play another character in this film. Filmed in black and white, the contrasts are even more stark – white snow, black road and black rocky hills. Wilson’s trek through the snow after the suspect contrasts with fast driving through New York in a police car. Speed is not possible here, and Wilson has time to think about what he’ll do when he catches the perpetrator. Meanwhile, Mary’s home, with its comfortable fire and lantern light is a welcome respite from the harsh outdoors.

Wilson finds that the world is not black and white as he’s looked at it in the past. You see this realization on his face. People are not all bad or all good. Even murder victim’s father’s furious anger melts away when he sees the suspect is “just a kid.” And Mary, who was concealing the suspect, cannot be blamed for protecting him.

The contrast is quite obvious when Wilson heads back to New York and the road turns from a snowy ribbon to a rainy highway filled with cars and buildings, people and crime. No wonder he wants to turn the car around.

This gem of a movie is also enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s music score. If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of North By Northwest, scored by Herrmann eight years later.