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.