The oft-ominous vibe of late 1940s noir is typically connected to post-WWII America, where a lingering sense of dread pervaded, whether from atomic-related concerns or lingering Nazis still scuttling about. At the same time, however, post-WWII America is noted for the baby boom, which was a result of the uptick in marriage, both of which begat the 1950s idyll, an idyll that has been challenged in the years since as not necessarily being as idyllic as its surface might show. Andre de Both’s “Pitfall” was released in 1948, when the aforementioned anxiety was still in the air, and yet it almost seems to predict the moralizing that would become rampant during the baby boom in Eisenhower-land, when having and maintaining a picture perfect family was paramount. “Pitfall” feels like a marriage PSA by way of noir, a movie that was made to scare people into settling down and walking the straight and narrow because, mister, if you don’t......
The mister in question is Dick Powell’s John Forbes. Everyone calls him “Johnny” but he sure doesn’t look like a Johnny; he looks like a John, a plain ol’ John. Why even when he wears his fedora at a jaunty angle he still looks as dull as an employee of Olympic Mutual Insurance might. That’s where he works, and he doesn’t seem pleased about it because the movie opens with one of those scenes of domestic terror masquerading as domestic bliss. “Your breakfast’s on the kitchen table,” says his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt). “Where else would it be?” he retorts and you can just feel the frustration in the same ol’, same ol’ seeping out, even if he didn’t then launch into the obligatory soliloquy about how everything’s the same ol’, same ol’, and hey, what if they just hopped a boat and cruised to south America?
This is his doubting the hearth and home, the foundation that sustains America, and by simply questioning it, he must be punished, not merely tempted, and rest assured he is, the latter leading directly to the former, and leaving plain ol’ John Forbes down and out and with his head in his hands for so much as entertaining the possibility of something else. That something else, as one might presume given the genre, is a dame, in this case, Mona Stevens (Lizbeth Scott), who was given gifts by her lover Smiley (Byron Barr), who is now behind bars because he embezzled money to get those gifts, amongst other items. John is tipped off by the firm’s P.I., Mac McDonald (a suitably menacing Raymond Burr), who has eyes for Mona and wants to stay on the case to put the moves on her.
John is entranced by Mona before they even meet, entering her home when she’s not there, as you do, and flipping through her modeling portfolio, where she is all primed and posed and ready to seduce him. That seduction, however, is less of a sexual variety than an emotional one, never more so than in a scene where they take a speedboat for a spin. It’s “Miami Vice-ish”, really, but with the woman at the wheel and turning the controls over to the man. He takes them and his eyes burn not so much with lust for her as lust for anything or anywhere else, wherever this boat can take him.
John never even strays all the way across the line, but to have thoughts of disloyalty to his wedding vows is more than enough in “Pitfall.” Why he even realizes the error of his ways midway through, re-pledging himself to his wife and son, both of whom mostly just exist as symbols of domesticity, but by then it’s too late. Once he simply lets his thoughts roam beyond the bushes of cozy suburbia, his fate is already sealed. And a movie that ostensibly ends happy, with all the right people being dead and all the right people being alive, does not feel happy at all. Sue pledges to give John another chance, but that feels precarious, as if the cracks that have already appeared in their marital foundation have rendered their marriage unsalvageable. A lotta people spout the phrase thou shalt not covet; “Pitfall”, baby, believes it.