I’m a big classic film fan, and film noir (dark film) is among my favorite genres or styles; hopefully you already love it, as well, or at least you’ll come to appreciate it as we venture down this noir side street together.
There are many conservatives who talk about the “Gramscian damage” of film noir and Hollywood in general; that much of what Hollywood puts out is an attempt to undermine all that’s good in America, making us easy prey for the commies to take us over. But, honestly, that’s a silly argument when you get down to it. Because stories of adultery, obsessive love, and what seethes just under the surface of respectability have been with us since the dawn of literature and theatre. You can’t get any darker on that score than “Oedipus,” folks, which wasn’t written by some blacklisted commie in Hollywood. (BTW, I couldn’t think of the name Oedipus, which prompted my husband to ask me, “What are you writing about?” — He knew I was writing a noir article for the site. Anyway, I read part of this paragraph to him, which prompted him to lecture me once again about commies in Hollywood. Joy!)
For me, noir films serve as a cautionary tale of just how sideways one’s life can go if he or she steps off the straight and narrow path. So in that regard, the effect is really completely contrary to the stated intention of Hollywood’s communist contingent.
Up for discussion today is “Pitfall,” a 1948 film produced by Regal Films and directed by Andre de Toth, starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Jane Wyatt, and featuring Raymond Burr, in one of his pre-“Perry Mason” heavy roles.
Powell plays Johnny Forbes, a very settled insurance company executive who’s bored with his average, humdrum life. He’s not happy or unhappy; he just wishes there was some excitement to spice things up.
You know how they say, “Be careful what you wish for”? Yeah… Johnny should’ve heeded that advice!
As Johnny’s wife (Jane Wyatt) drives him in to work, she asks when he’ll be getting home. And in this bit of dialogue we learn just how settled his routine is. He leaves the office precisely at 5:04, will be picked up by his ride at 5:15, and if the traffic lights go his way, he’ll be kissing her good evening at 5:50 PM. Then at the office, Johnny sees Ed Brawley, who reminds him that they’re getting together at his place for dinner and an evening of bridge with their wives. Like they’ve done every week for as long as either of them can remember.
One of his cases involves an investigation of embezzlement; his insurance company is out to the tune of $10,000, and Johnny has been tasked with recovering as much of that money as he can. The trouble is the embezzler, Bill Smiley, spent the money on his girl, Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), buying her presents. Johnny is given this report by private investigator MacDonald (Raymond Burr), who makes it clear he’s taken a personal interest in Mona. Johnny tells Mac he’ll take the investigation from here and tells him to be on his way.
Johnny tells his secretary to get him a company car and goes off to see Mona about those presents her boyfriend Smiley bought with his ill-gotten gains. But Mona gives him a hard time when he reveals the reason for his visit, telling him he’s pretty heartless to take these things and have no feelings about it. She thinks he should at least spend a little time crying with her for the engagement ring she’s having to give up. He offers to buy her a drink and she casually mentions the boat Smiley had given her.
Boat? What boat? He hadn’t seen mention of a boat in Mac’s report. Johnny leaves his briefcase behind as the two head out to check out her boat.
Johnny takes her to the marina. It turns out the boat’s a little 2-seater speedboat called “Tempest.” (Is that the most appropriately named boat for a noir film or what?) The two tool around the harbor for a while (“Company’s time; your gas.”), and she admits she’d rather have the boat over anything she’s ever owned. He decides he’s going to leave the boat out of his report of recovered property.
They go to a bar for that drink he’d promised her, and she asks if he has to be anywhere. Why, no. No, I don’t. (So much for being home precisely at 5:50PM, huh?)
Later we see Mac sitting in his car outside what turns out to be Mona’s place. And who should come out the front door but Johnny. At 11:30! Busted!
Which brings us to the major plot hole of this film: if Johnny’s life is so routine, why didn’t his wife wig out when he’s nearly six hours late getting home? When he gets home, she’s fast asleep. Why wasn’t she up waiting for him, demanding where he’d been all this time? Why didn’t she mention the dinner they missed with the Brawleys and the explanation she had to give them? Because that doesn’t happen in the film. And why does it take her so long to figure out what he might’ve been up to during that time?
Yeah, it’s a glaring plot hole of epic proportions.
Mac decides he doesn’t like Johnny putting the moves on his girl and tells him so the next day, in Johnny’s office. He also notices Johnny didn’t list the boat among the recovered property. Johnny claims he didn’t know about it, but Mac says he has a bill of sale. So Johnny agrees to have the boat repossessed, because, otherwise he’d be in the same fix poor Smiley’s in, who just wanted to give his girl a few nice things, paid for with someone else’s money. Johnny gives Mac another assignment and off he goes.
Johnny goes to see Mona to explain about the boat, the two start to fall for each other. Mona isn’t your typical noir femme fatale; she’s a decent kid, even Smiley isn’t a bad guy, really.
Johnny heads home, where Mac’s lying in wait for him. Mac gives him a good going over, and suggests, ” Maybe this will keep you home where you belong for a few days.”
It does. The doctor tells Johnny he may need to stay home for a week or two to recover from his injuries while his wife frets about some stranger beating him up in his own garage.
The next morning, Mona awakes, happy as a lark and so in love you just feel sorry for the poor schnook. She notices the briefcase Johnny had left behind previously and decides she’ll take it to him later. She calls his office, only to discover he’s out with a “cold.” Mona, being the sweet thing she is, decides she’s going to drop by his place and nurse him back to health.
That girl’s about to get hit by the Mack truck of Fate…
She drives over to Johnny’s house, where his son Tommy is in the front yard. As the doctor’s leaving, he gives Mrs. Forbes some instructions, and helpfully mentions her by name, just so Mona knows the score. And boy, is she hurt. Mrs. Forbes notices and asks if she’s looking for someone. Mona says she must be on the wrong street and drives away.
Johnny goes back to work once he’s recovered, and when he does, he ends up meeting with Mona. He apologizes to her for letting her think he was a free man, but she’s not mollified. During the course of their conversation, she says, “If I had a nice home like you did, I wouldn’t take a chance with it for anything in the world.” With that, she gives him his briefcase and leaves. Johnny goes home and throws himself into being the bestest husband ever who totally appreciates what he has; even his apparently rather clueless wife notices he’s acting out of character.
And now we reach probably what is the creepiest scene in the film: Mona works at May & Co. department store, and one of her jobs is modeling gowns for high-end clients. Somehow, Mac is there as she’s modeling, and he calls for her to come over. When she realizes it’s him — and she’s already tried to give him the brush off, telling him she has no interest in him — she tries to leave, but is called back. He insists he’s got money and is shopping for his girl who’s “just about your size.” And then he tells her to take off the shawl and turn around slowly, so he can see the back. Once she’s done that, he tells her he wants her to show him a few more gowns.
Mona has had two men who treated her decently in her life — Smiley and Johnny; the rest have been creeps like Mac. And you can tell it grates on her to be treated like a piece of meat by this guy who just won’t take no for an answer.
Later that evening, Mac’s waiting for Mona on the steps of her front porch, and once again, she tells him in no uncertain terms she’s not interested. She threatens to call the police, but he says you don’t want to do that because it might cause problems for Johnny and Mrs. Forbes.
Mona meets with Johnny again, now that Mac is becoming a super-pest. She explains how Mac is showing up at her work and home, which ticks Johnny off. He goes looking for Mac, first at his office, then at his apartment. When Mac opens the door of his place, Johnny sucker punches him and pays him back in kind for this own beat-down. Before leaving he says, “This is just a warning, Mac. Leave the girl alone.”
Well, you know that’s not the end of it, right? Mac’s a clever guy; if he can’t get to Mona directly or through Johnny, he’ll get to her through Smiley. So off to the jail he goes to visit Bill. Now, Smiley isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so he’s a bit slow on the uptake, but he understands enough to realize he should maybe be concerned about just how faithful Mona has been while he was away. And Mac keeps mentioning “Forbes.” Smiley keeps asking who Forbes is. (For a guy named Smiley, this guy doesn’t smile much at all. Just sayin’…)
Because Mona has given all the gifts back, restitution has been made, and Smiley is scheduled to leave jail. She goes to visit her guy, suggesting when he gets out, they should go away somewhere, but he keeps asking her, “Who’s Forbes?” and “Who’s this guy who’s been coming to see me?” Smiley notices Mona isn’t wearing his ring; she admits he’s given back all his presents, which makes him wonder if the stories he’s been hearing about her from Mac aren’t true after all.
Mona contacts Johnny once again, this time warning him that Mac has been riling Smiley up and to be careful. So the next day, Johnny goes to pick up Smiley at jail, only to be told he was already picked up by a “dark fat guy and his name was MacDonald.”
Mona finds Smiley at her place, and they converse. He’s drunk and tells her Mac’s been giving him alcohol and this, as he pulls out a gun. She tells him he can’t have that, he’ll get in trouble. Later she calls Johnny to warn him that Smiley’s probably on his way to kill him, thanks to Mac.
Johnny decides to take his family to the movies, but his wife complains it’s almost 9 and the kid needs to go to bed; so she puts a stop to that idea of discretion being the better part of valor. Johnny’s forced to make a stand at home; so he grabs his gun. He tells her some guy from work will be dropping by; she says, “We’ve got more than one room in the house; you can talk to him downstairs.”
Johnny goes down and turns off all the lights in the living room, setting a proper noir shadowy tone for the final conflict. He soon hears a car pull up; it’s Mac ferrying Smiley to this rendezvous. Johnny goes out a back door and circles around to the front, nudging his gun in Smiley’s back telling him to leave and come back tomorrow when he’s not drunk so they can talk. Smiley seems to leave, so Johnny returns inside, only to have Smiley smash through the front window and into the house. Three shots ring out. Satisfied, Mac drives off, while Sue comes down to see what’s happened.
The police are summoned while Mac goes to Mona’s. He switches on her radio, turning it to the police band so they can listen as the calls come in. And they finally mention Johnny’s address. “What’s a code 3?” she asks him.
Mac, having been on the force at one time tells her, “Homicide.” She wants to go, but Mac tells her, “Somebody’s been shot, but you don’t know if it’s Smiley, Johnny, or Johnny’s wife.” Mac calls a friend on the force and asks what’s going on at Bradna Drive. (Johnny’s home.) He tells Mona Johnny’s told the police he shot a prowler. Then he brags to her how this went better than he even expected it would. As he brags, he starts packing her things to take her on a trip, maybe to Vegas, since he’s such a lucky gambler. She realizes there’s no way out from under his thumb, so as he’s busy packing, she reaches into a side table drawer, pulling out a small revolver, she turns and shoots him three times.
In the meantime, the cops have finished up investigating the death at Johnny’s house, telling him they’ll have more questions for him tomorrow.
Sue wants to know why a business meeting would end up with a dead man on her floor; so Johnny finally comes clean that he knew this guy was coming to kill him and the dead man had a better reason for killing him than he had of killing the guy. He admits to having the affair, and he’s done lying. His wife tells him to lie to the police or she’ll never forgive him.
The next day, when two men from the DA’s office show up at his insurance company, Johnny admits there was more going on than he told the cops the night before; they take him in and the DA questions him. The DA asks, “Why didn’t you call the police” instead of taking matters into his own hands? A man would still be alive if you’d only done that. And this is the tragedy Johnny will have to live with, that even if the killing was justifiable in the eyes of the law, he’s still taken a life, and that’s not a pleasant thing to live with. During their conversation, he mentions Mona is in a cell upstairs, and her fate depends on whether Mac lives or dies. He adds, “I think we’ve got the wrong person in that cell upstairs,” but lets Johnny go.
Johnny freshens himself up in a bathroom at The Hall of Justice; just before he comes out, Mona is led by a matron past the bathroom door and down a hall. Johnny sees her from the back but can do nothing to attract her attention. The star-crossed lovers don’t even get a final look at one another.
As he leaves the Hall of Justice, Sue drives up in the family car. Johnny’s surprised to see her and asks if she wants a divorce. She admits she thought about it a lot, but that they’ve weathered storms before in their marriage, and maybe they can get past this, too. But there’s a grim determination in her demeanor that conveys if she can ever forgive him, it will take a lot of time, and they may never get back to what they once had.
As far as the story goes, Mona is the most noir character in it, as she’s truly a victim of the will of others and faces the worst fate as a result. (If the story was made today, Mona would clearly be the central character.) Johnny skates, though it’s questionable whether or not he and his wife can work out their differences in the end or whether this will lead to divorce.
Though I haven’t read the novel, the film diverges from it in one significant way: the novel is set in Hollywood and Mona is a victim of the casting couch. The producers decided to change it from that to making Johnny an average American guy, making the story more accessible to a larger audience. That seems like it was a really good choice.
Thus ends our first trip down a noir side street. If you enjoyed this and want more, let me know in the comments below. And, in case you’re wondering, next week’s scheduled film on TCM is “Bob le Flambeur,” which is a French film recognized today as a bridge between classic noir and the French New Wave, but a part of neither. Unless you have TCM (it’s a premiere for the channel; so even I haven’t seen it yet), I don’t know how available the film will be to you; so we might need to pick something else you can watch on YouTube, Amazon, or wherever.