8 August 2004 | bmacv
De Toth's subversive look at the organization man gone astray
Andre De Toth's Pitfall opens in the shaky sanctuary of post-war domestic bliss. Jane Wyatt cracks eggs into a cast-iron skillet, to be served to her insurance-claims adjuster husband Dick Powell and their tousle-haired young son; the cozy breakfast nook where they exchange morning what-if banter looks out upon a vista of the New California of subdivisions and revolving credit and sunny possibilities yet to be realized. But, as Wyatt drives Powell into downtown Los Angeles (two-car families still being around the corner), he grouses absently about his routine job and clockwork schedule before giving her a perfunctory peck on the cheek. The canker has invaded the rose. As he later confesses, he feels he's in a rut `six feet deep,' and yearns for freedom adventure. He gets more than he bargained for.
Waiting for him in his office is `Gruesome,' private investigator Raymond Burr, who's done some legwork concerning a convicted felon who has defrauded the company. The felon (Byron Barr) squandered most of his ill-gained money showering his girlfriend (Lizabeth Scott) with furs, an engagement ring and even a little speedboat. Burr, in the course of his sleazy sleuthing, has taken quite an obsessive fancy to her, but Powell warns him off, saying he'll wrap the case up himself.
At first Scott dismisses Powell as just `a little man with a briefcase,' an assessment that tallies too well with his own worst self-image. But to no one's surprise, in this climate of Pacific air and marital dissatisfaction, he ends up taking his own fancy to her, one that turns out to be mutual. They tear around the harbor in her boat, then fritter away the rest of the afternoon in a dim cocktail lounge. He doesn't get back to hearth and home till the wee small hours.
One night when his son is awakened by nightmares, Powell lectures him: `Take only good pictures and have only good dreams.' It's a case of do what I say, not what I do. By veering off from the straight and narrow, Powell has set into motion a chain of baleful events. The vindictive Burr assaults him outside his garage. Scott discovers that Powell's been hiding his life as a married father. Ex-cop Burr starts visiting Barr in stir, sowing seeds of jealousy and plans for revenge. Events converge one dreadful night with an unplanned pair of killings that leave the quick, arguably, worse off than the dead....
Jay Dratler's script (from his own novel) shows a progressive streak in dealing with the short and unpredictable fuses of controlling, potentially violent males stalkers. The script also serves the assembled cast well. True, there's not much to be done with Wyatt, with her cap-sleeved house-dresses and finishing-school elocution, but she's more plausible than she would be two years later as a highly unlikely femme fatale in The Man Who Cheated Himself. Here, she's the distaff side of those male dictators, a wife whose ideals of suburban decorum are chiseled into cold marble (she's a faint forerunner of Joan Crawford's Harriet Craig).
But Powell gets to tap deeply into his key emotion, snappish discontent, and lets it deepen into something close to small-time tragedy. Scott, always an iconic presence but an actress with limits, finds a comfortable part as a bewildered and vulnerable victim of the men who come into her life, bidden and unbidden. Burr, billed fourth (after Wyatt!), possibly fares best. Much in demand in the late 40s as one of the creepiest heavies, he earned that demand by providing extra (and maybe unasked-for) dimensions to the thugs he played. Like the giant Fafner in Das Rheingold, he lets a bit of yearning, of desperation, show under all his intimidating bulk (and in sheer avoirdupois, it's one of his biggest roles).
De Toth, better remembered for his westerns and 3-D horror pix like House of Wax, made, in Pitfall, one of the more distinctive titles of the noir cycle. Not often mentioned in top-ten lists, even those of black-and-white crime films of the post-war era, it has the effrontery to situate deceit and duplicity and betrayal where it surely ought not to belong not in road houses or tenement flats but right at the heart of a storybook American family (it's one of the more subversive films of the era).. Yes, there are lapses, chief among which is a score that keeps trying to crack corny little jokes. But in the denouement far from unleashing a hideous storm of terror, De Toth opts for cold detachment he casts a chill that lingers still.