Pitfall (Kino Lorber, NR)

dvd pitfallThe film ends with several loose ends dangling, but I like that de Toth leaves the final conclusion open.

Pitfall is a 1948 directed by Andre de Toth that manages to deliver the customary pleasures of a typical film noir, while also delivering a critique of the complacent prosperity of postwar America. Although not one of the great noir films, Pitfall is certainly worth seeing, particularly since Kino Lorber has rereleased it on DVD and Blu-ray, based on a remastered print that comes with an insightful commentary by Eddie Muller.

John Forbes (Dick Powell) seems to be living the American dream, with a good job in the insurance business, a nice house in the suburbs, a wife (Jane Wyatt) eager to fulfill the role of the happy homemaker, and a son (Jimmy Hunt) who adores him. But it’s not enough, a fact that becomes clear when he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) while investigating an embezzlement case.

As with Double Indemnity, in Pitfall you have to believe that insurance companies care about fraud enough to go to some lengths to investigate it, rather than simply counting it as a business loss. In this case, Stevens’ convict boyfriend has been sending her expensive gifts while he’s in the clink for embezzlement, and Forbes rightly concludes that they must have been purchased with stolen money. He convinces Stevens that her boyfriend might get out earlier if some of the goods could be recovered, and she decides to cooperate with him.

Stevens’ charms seem to be irresistible for the men in this film. The first to fall is the hulking tough guy MacDonald (Raymond Burr), also working on the case, who becomes obsessed, Mike Mazurki–style, with Stevens and starts doing threatening things like showing up unbidden on her doorstep. Of course, Forbes also decides before long that he’d like to get some strange, as well, and he and MacDonald trade blows several times over who has the “rights” to Stevens. If you’re familiar with how filmmakers got around the strictures of the Hays Code, you will deduce that at one point Forbes spends the night with her, which is the moral equivalent of crossing the Rubicon for the good suburban husband and dutiful man in a gray flannel suit he is supposed to be.

Things escalate, of course, with guns replacing fists, and Forbes also becomes unable to conceal the sordid affair, in all sense of the word, from his wife. Somewhat unusually for a film of the day, Pitfall ends with several loose ends dangling, but I like that de Toth leaves the final conclusion open to doubt.

Because the interesting way that de Toth delivers a social critique (although one only sympathetic to men; no one is interested in whether Jane Wyman might want more from life than new curtains and the latest appliances) within a genre film, Pitfall is also worth watching for the location shooting in Los Angeles and for de Toth’s efficient and unfussy direction.

The Blu-ray release is mastered in HD from a 35mm dupe negative and looks and sounds great. The principal extra on the disc is a commentary by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, who always has something interesting and insightful to say (and whose enthusiasm is infectious). | Sarah Boslaugh

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