Pitfall, 1948

Pretty good crime mystery, a sort of ‘suburban’ noir. Raymond Burr is great as Mac, a loose-cannon blowing things up amongst Mona (Lizabeth Scott), Bill (Byron Barr), Sue (Jane Wyman), and John (Dick Powell). Mac and Mona are dominant presences in Pitfall, quickly building the plot’s tension. John, though nominally the protagonist, spends most all of his scenes with the same gruff persona, spiced with some flip, laconic comments here and there.

Mona is much more interesting–she’s as much a victim as anyone. What seems a cut-and-dry melodrama of veering from the suburban tranquillity exemplified by John and Sue, can also be seen as an implicit critique of the dominant culture, intolerant of Mona’s less respectable lifestyle. It is unfair that Mona is castigated for doing what John is absolved of: killing. The fact that the District Attorney says as much shows what the film’s thematic intent. You could split hairs by saying that Bill Smiley’s intent to do harm was more immediate than Mac’s, but either antagonist would’ve killed his prey if they weren’t stopped.

The other set of lapses, John’s unwillingness to ‘square’ things by calling the police to take care of Mac (more than one opportunity is passed up), also points to John’s character flaw. The D.A. reams him out for not alerting them; instead John’s single-mindedness leads indirectly to all the mayhem. John is hardly a sympathetic character. He treats his wife as though she were room service, and, although the scenes with his son are slightly less impersonal, he acts vaguely bored whenever he’s with his family. The ending, as has been said, restores his domestic lifestyle; not only is he off the hook legally, but also morally.

John unreliable, literally unfaithful to his own values, while expecting to get away with his walk-on-the-wild-side. By opening the Pandora’s Box of the underworld, however, jokers like Mac emerge, and Bill, a sort of dark alter-ego of John. Again, it’s Mona who suffers; she inhabits a sort of Twilight Zone between the decent and ugly worlds. It’s as though the more she tries to help (by pleading with both John and Bill to get their acts together) the further she sinks back into misfortune.

Pitfall is more character-driven than a film-noir, but succeeds by giving us some strong performances. Mona complex and tragic, Mac and John are relentless and two-dimensional, but in intriguingly divergent ways. Sue is steady, projecting warmth and security. What makes it all work is the interplay of betrayal and loyalty shown by the characters’ actions and personalities. 7/10.

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