Pitfall (1948) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

In this film noir Dick Powell is John Forbes, a married man who works as an adjuster for an insurance company.  He lives in the suburbs with his pretty wife Sue, played by Jane Wyatt and his young son Tommy.  Based on the domestic scenes, we see that Forbes is bored with his humdrum existence of work and tame suburban monotony.

One day an insurance investigator, J.B. MacDonald (played by truly creepy Raymond Burr) comes to Forbes with a case that requires him to interview a woman, Mona Stevens played by frequent femme fatale actress, Lizabeth Scott.  Her fiancé, Bill Smiley, has passed along to her gifts paid for with money he fraudulently obtained against his insurance.  During his meeting with Forbes MacDonald indicates that he is lusting after Stevens and will be making a play for her while her boyfriend is in jail.  We can tell that Forbes despises MacDonald but in order to maintain a working relationship with the investigator ignores the crudity of MacDonald’s plan.

When Forbes meets Mona Stevens at her apartment he blandly and uncaringly requires her to surrender her engagement ring and other gifts given by Smiley.  She upbraids him for his callousness and just to show her disdain for his power she tells him about an asset he didn’t know about, a small speed boat that she loves more than anything else.  Now Forbes feels remorse for being such a heel and while going out to see the boat he apologizes and tells her he’ll buy her a drink to show her that he has nothing against her.  The couple go to the dock and at her invitation they go out on the boat and she even allows him to drive it.  They both enjoy the ride and each other’s company.  Afterwards they go to a bar and have some drinks and Forbes tells Mona that he won’t include the boat in his report.  During the scene sexual attraction is on display on both sides and afterwards they head back to Mona’s apartment.  Meanwhile we are shown MacDonald skulking around watching them.  In the next scene Forbes is shown arriving at his home very late in the night and he sneaks into his bedroom where his wife is asleep.  His guilt over betraying her is plain to see on his face.

The next day MacDonald shows up in Forbes’ office and tells him he doesn’t want Forbes interfering with his play for Mona.  Also, he informs Forbes that he has added the speed boat to the list of assets that Mona must relinquish.  Forbes tells MacDonald to stop annoying Mona and not to interfere with his actions either professionally or personally.  Forbes meets with Mona and tells her about the speed boat and MacDonald’s part in it.  Mona volunteers that MacDonald has been annoying her.  When Forbes gets home that night MacDonald is waiting for him in front of his garage and administers a serious beat down on Forbes.  Forbes tells his wife and the police that he had been robbed by strangers.  His doctor tells him he’ll have to stay in bed for a couple of weeks and Forbes tells his job that he has a bad cold.

When Forbes doesn’t show up for a few days Mona calls his office and is informed that he is home sick.  She drives to his house with some soup and there discovers that Forbes is a married man.  She actually speaks to his wife in front of the house claiming that she is looking for a house on a different street.  When Forbes finally gets well, he goes to speak to Mona and she tells him she has discovered his secret.  Forbes admits his deception and apologizes.  Now Mona tells him that Macdonald is pressing his demands for a relationship, hounding her at work and is threatening to tell her fiancé in prison that she is having an affair with Forbes.  Apparently, MacDonald who is a former policeman has connections in the prison.  Forbes promises to fix the situation.

Forbes goes to MacDonald’s apartment and administers a beating that at least matches the one he got from MacDonald.  And he warns him to stay away from Mona and Forbes’ family.  Time passes and Smiley will be getting out of jail.  MacDonald has been visiting him in jail and filling his mind with stories that Mona is having an affair with Forbes.  Smiley shows up at Mona’s apartment drunk and armed with a pistol that MacDonald gave him.  He accuses her of infidelity with Forbes and says he’s going over to his house to settle things.  Mona phones Forbes and warns him.  Forbes arms himself and when Smiley arrives, he pulls the gun on him and tells him to leave or be shot.  Smiley leaves but as soon as Forbes goes back in his house Smiley smashes through a large window in the living room and enters the house.  As soon as he steps foot in the house Forbes shoots him several times.  Forbes pretends that the man is a prowler in his statement to the police.

Meanwhile MacDonald is at Mona’s apartment and listens on her radio to the police channel where they hear about the shooting at Forbes’ address.  When the radio reports add homicide to the message MacDonald calls a friend at the precinct and learns that Forbes has killed Smiley.  MacDonald then informs Mona that with Smiley dead and Forbes entangled with his death and Macdonald’s connections with the police, Mona will have no choice but to go away with MacDonald and be his girlfriend.  As he starts packing her clothes her face becomes bleak and she reaches into a drawer, pulls out a pistol and puts several bullets into MacDonald.

Back at Forbes’ home he is racked with guilt and confesses to his wife his relationship with Smiley’s fiancé and the reason for the break in.  He then wanders off into the night preparing himself for the consequences of his actions.  He ends up at police headquarters and makes his statement to the district attorney and there learns that Mona has shot MacDonald and depending on whether he lives will be indicted for either murder or attempted murder.  No charges will be brought against Forbes but the DA rebukes him.  He says that Forbes’ attempt to conceal his infidelity is responsible for the shootings.  Otherwise he could have called the police and prevented the incidents.  As Forbes is leaving the building, he sees Mona being led away by the police.

As he leaves the building, he sees his wife Sue waiting for him in their family car.  He gets in and as she is driving him home, they discuss their situation.  Forbes is contrite and assumes she will want a divorce.  Sue admits that she has considered it but isn’t sure that is what she wants.  She does think they will have to move to another town and suggests that he asks for a transfer from his company.  When he asks her how she will take up her life with him after the betrayal she admits that things will not be the same but says she is willing to give it a chance.

I find this movie interesting for a number of reasons.  The fact that the adulterous husband avoided all legal consequences and might not even lose his wife was a very atypical ending in 1948.  The Hays Code required that the guilty be punished and that included moral offenses that might not have a jail sentence specified.  Also, the reality of a pillar of the community being bored with his “American Dream” existence was sort of heretical.  But the reality of post-war America is a fitting subject for a realistic appraisal of how men would adapt to a world that no longer needed war heroes but rather expected a boring but dependable “Father Knows Best” husband and dad.  Interestingly, Jane Wyatt who played the wife is best known for her part as the loyal, dependable wife in that show Father Knows Best.  The crisis and resolution of John Forbes’ transgression is handled in a more realistic and nuanced way than what would have been seen in the 1930s and early 40s.  Forbes breaks the accepted boundaries of morality but instead of paying with his life or his freedom he is stuck with his conscience and the knowledge that his wife can no longer believe in him.  One man is dead because of him and an innocent woman will go to jail.  This is much more like what life is really like.  Lots of gray, not so much black and white.  Flawed people living with the consequences of their mistakes and hopefully learning from them.

And on a personal basis, I find the fact that Mona filled Raymond Burr full of lead very satisfying and admirable.  It shows the right attitude.  Interesting movie with nuanced characters and lots of things to think about.  Highly recommended.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 Version) – A Classic Monster Movie Review

This is not part of the Universal Monster series.  Paramount made this film and Frederic March was a pretty big star at the time so this movie was made as a serious literary drama.  That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t contain scenes and effects taking advantage of the hedonistic exploits of Mr. Hyde.  It does and to a degree that shows that this is during the pre-code period.

The plot follows the usual story line and we witness the happy, virtuous and talented Dr. Henry Jekyll metamorphose into the bestial sadistic Mr. Hyde.  And we follow as Jekyll’s life and fortunes come crashing down.  And of course, everyone around him is destroyed in the catastrophe.

The story by Robert Louis Stevenson was supposed to be about the duality of the human soul.  The theory holds that the evil side of the human psyche is also the active/vital part and the good is the passive/weaker part.  And in a sense there is truth in that.  Our basest instincts are thoroughly hard-wired and are inseparable from the rest of our selves.  Bottling up those instincts eventually leads to them bursting out in a destructive explosion.  The saner course is to train and channel the energies of the brute and tame them to our better nature.  So that’s the philosophy.

Now about the movie.  Well it’s kind of fun.  There are all kinds of outdated special effects and some hammy acting on display.  But it’s a pretty well-done production.  I think it’s an entertaining old monster movie.  And I like it better than the later version with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman.  I recommend it to fans of old monster movies.

 

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OCF Classic Movie Reviews: The Caine Mutiny

As our first official classic movie review, I’ve picked a beaut.  “The Caine Mutiny” is a World War Two movie made nine years after the war had ended.  It is an adaption of Herman Wouk’s novel and stage play.  This movie has a cast that included star, Humphrey Bogart, veteran actors like Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Jose Ferrer along with character actors like Lee Marvin and Claude Akins.  It follows the crew of the USS Caine, a minesweeper under the command of a very difficult captain, Philip Francis Queeg played by Bogart.  A series of incidents convinces the officers that Queeg is a dangerously paranoid lunatic.  It all comes to a head during a typhoon when the officers relieve Queeg of command.  This sets up the finale of the movie, a court martial of the officers who mutinied against their captain.  Jose Ferrer portrays the defense counsel and his part is a tour de force.  He dominates the end of the movie and resolves the conflicting faults of the main characters by identifying “the true author of the Caine Mutiny” and placing blame where it was deserved.  All of the veteran actors perform admirably with Fred MacMurray being especially notable for his character portrayal against type.  There is one weak aspect to the movie.  One of the primary strands of the plot is the story of young Ensign Willis Seward “Willie” Keith played by neophyte actor Robert Francis.  A love story between Keith and his girl at home, May Wynn, is woven into the plot.  In my opinion it is a weak element and a distraction.  Some of the stronger elements involve humor stemming from the crew’s experience of Queeg’s erratic behavior.  But for all of his extreme behavior, Bogart comes off as a strangely sympathetic character and the lack of a truly heroic character seems fitting and realistic.  I think Wouk was capturing the actual experience of war.  The fear and uncertainty that even the sane individuals felt humanizes the behavior of someone like Queeg.  I think it will strike a chord for many people who have had to work together under crisis conditions.

Who will like this movie?  I guess folks who like court room dramas are likely candidates.  Even though it’s a WW II movie and mostly takes place on a war ship it’s not really a war movie.  But it is about navy men and it does reflect the time when it took place.  One interesting historical detail is the social reality of the place of black sailors in the US Navy of the time.  The mess-boys are the cooks and all of them are young black men.  They have an important plot element and I’m sure if Alec Baldwin and Dave Letterman ever review this movie on TCM they’ll denounce the rabid racism of the United States and the military then, now and forever.  Luckily for all of you I just think it’s an interesting footnote on a different time.

In conclusion, to quote from Captain Queeg, the Caine Mutiny can be counted among “the greatest, I kid you not.”