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.

In a Lonely Place (1950) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“In a Lonely Place” is a less well-known film in Humphrey Bogart’s catalog but the plot and character combine to play very well to Bogart’s strengths.  In the story Bogart is a Hollywood screen writer named Dixon “Dix” Steele who has been down on his luck of late.  And in the first scene we also discover that he has an explosive temper that easily leads him into physical altercations.  Steele is at a restaurant where he meets up with some colleagues and other movie making types, producers, agents and actors.  A producer who is somewhat obnoxious makes a crack about an alcoholic actor that happens to be Steele’s friend and Dix physically assaults him and has to be restrained.  During the evening we learn that Dix ix supposed to read a novel for his agent to see if it is suitable for a movie treatment.  Because he is too tired and hung over, he asks the hat check girl, Mildred Atkinson, who has read the book to accompany him back to his apartment and recite a summary of the book for him.  She agrees and we see her enthusiastically summarize the book to Dix who is obviously unimpressed with the plot.  When she finishes, he explains that he is too tired to drive her home and gives her a generous amount of cash to catch a cab around the block on her own.  At one point in the scene Dix is looking out the apartment window and he sees a woman standing on her balcony.  The two of them stare at each other for an extended moment and Dix is obviously interested.  The scene ends with Dix sending Mildred on her way and catching another look at the neighbor woman who is in the apartment courtyard.

The next morning Dix is awakened by a ring at his doorbell.  An old army pal of his Brub Nicolai is calling.  Brub is now a police detective and his boss, Capt. Lochner, wants to talk to Dix.  Dix had been Nicolai’s commanding officer in WW II and their relationship is presented as casually friendly.  At the police station Dix is unemotional and seemingly unconcerned to hear that Mildred was strangled to death after leaving his home the night before.  Lochner is noticeably suspicious of Steele’s seemingly callous disregard for the girl’s murder but when the neighbor woman who had shared the glances with Dix the night before, Laurel Gray, comes into the police station and in front of Dix confirms the fact that Mildred left Steele’s apartment alone, the police let Dix go home.  Interestingly on his way home Dix pays a florist to have two dozen white roses sent to Mildred Atkinson’s home.

The setup after this is two tracks.  Dix and Laurel fall in love and we see the relationship vitalize Dix.  Notably his screen writing work benefits enormously.  He is happier than he has been in years.  The other track is Capt. Lochner pursuing evidence of Steele’s guilt in the Atkinson murder.  He instructs Nicolai to socialize with Dix and Laurel.  Nicolai and his wife invite them to dinner and go out on the town with the couple.  These get togethers serve to only increase suspicion of Dix.  He really does have a violent and slightly disturbed personality.  And finally, Capt. Lochner calls Laurel in to discuss Steele’s long and troubled history of violence.  This plants the seeds of doubt about Dix deep into her mind.  And it is the catalyst that eventually destroys her trust in him.  When Dix and Laurel are at the Nicolais’ home one night it comes out that Laurel had met with Capt. Lochner without telling Dix.  Dix flies into a rage and storms away and Laurel barely catches up with him before he drives off into the night like a madman.  Driving at seventy miles an hour around winding mountain roads he barely avoids numerous accidents but finally sideswipes a car at an intersection.  The driver angrily insults him for damaging his car and Dix pummels him into unconsciousness on the side of the road.  But when he is about to brain the helpless man with a large rock Laurel screams at him and brings him back to his senses.  They drive off and Dix relates how he’s been in a hundred fights like this.  Laurel asks if that makes it better.  He tries to justify himself based on the verbal taunt the other driver made.  She reminds him that all the guy called him was a “blind knuckle-headed squirrel.”  He becomes slightly contrite and lets her drive them home from there.  The next day after reading of the attack in the newspaper Dix goes to the post office and sends three hundred dollars to his victim in the name of Joe Squirrel.

But now Laurel is so shaken by the knowledge of Steele’s murderous temper that she even doubts whether he is innocent of Mildred’s murder.  She cannot sleep and begins taking sleeping pills.  Sensing that things are slipping away Dix tells Laurel that they are going to get engaged that day and married that night in Las Vegas.  Too afraid to refuse him she agrees but secretly makes plans to run off on a flight to New York City.  She confesses to Steele’s agent Mel that she is leaving him.  Mel tells her it will crush Dix and counsels her to give Dix a consolation victory by allowing Mel to have the script approved by the studio before she leaves him as this will soften the blow to his ego.  This sets up a scene at the “engagement party” at their favorite restaurant where a call comes in from the studio revealing that Mel gave the script to the studio without Dix’s permission.  Dix slaps Mel viciously in the face breaking his glasses.  Dix goes into the bathroom to apologize to Mel but by the time he returns to the table Laurel has fled.

Dix confronts Laurel in her apartment and all his suspicions that she is leaving him are on display.  She has taken off his engagement ring and is hiding her preparations to flee the state.  Finally, a call from the travel agent reveals all and as she tries to placate him Dix grabs Laurel and starts to strangle her.  But before it’s too late he comes to his senses, lets her go and starts walking away.  The phone rings again and it is Nicolai and Lochner calling to apologize to Dix and Laurel.  Mildred Atkinson’s boyfriend has confessed to her murder.  Dix lifelessly passes the phone to a still visibly choked and groggy Laurel who listens to Lochner’s apology with vacant eyes.  She mentions before she hangs up that a day earlier this news would have meant a great deal more.  The movie ends with Laurel watching from her open door as Dix walks dazedly away to his apartment.

This movie comes at an interesting point in the transition from the studio system of the golden age of Hollywood to the aftermath with independent production companies struggling to get movies financed and made.  Bogart’s production company was able to capitalize on the talents of the actors, directors and production people available at that point to give the film the polished Hollywood look but he was stepping way from the safe plot devices and social conventions that wouldn’t have allowed a big star like Bogart to steer so far onto the dark side.  But this is what Bogart was looking for.  Earlier in his career he could be the psychotic gangster but after Casablanca and The Big Sleep he would have to be at least nominally a good guy.  This restriction to his choices was against his interests and so he sought out a film noir like this that gave the audience what they wanted.

And it is very effective.  Gloria Grahame as Laurel is very interesting to watch.  She performs the varying stages of her relationship with Dix in a convincing and entertaining way.  The supporting cast is good.  But it is Bogart who performs the tour de force.  He is given a very good script and he plays it to the hilt.  There are nice little touches throughout the movie that actually endear Dix to the audience.  He really is a very personable madman.  All his friends really do like him even after he beats them up.  Bogart’s work in this film compares very favorably to any of his better known and critically praised roles.  And the ending is wonderfully dissatisfying.  If Bogart had been cleared a day earlier none of his crazed actions would have happened and Laurel never would have doubted his innocence or his sanity.  At the same time we see that Steele is a dangerously violent man with the potential to kill in the heat of the moment.  A very nice dilemma for the audience to digest.

Highly recommended.

Blade Runner 2049 – A Science Fiction Movie Review

I saw Blade Runner in 1982.  It was a dystopic sci-fi story based on a Philip K Dick story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”  Harrison Ford is a cop named Rick Deckard whose job is to terminate runaway androids (replicants), he’s called a blade runner.  The movie was constructed as a film noir with Deckard in love with a woman that he knows to be a replicant.  The movie is full of dark violent imagery.  And the story has at its core the concept of the inherent dignity of all human life and the injustice of denying anyone freedom.  And Rutger Hauer was a lot of fun running amok as a brilliant homicidal replicant named Roy Batty.

Since this is Orion’s Cold Fire, I feel it is necessary to record here Roy’s final speech before dying:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain. Time to die.”  It’s effective, both dramatically and emotionally.  In point of fact it’s the best thing in the movie.

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to this movie.  It’s about thirty years after the first movie and K (played by Ryan Gosling) is a replicant who works for the Los Angeles police department as a blade runner.  While terminating a rogue replicant he detects a body buried under a tree on the replicant’s farm.  Forensic evidence points to the body belonging to the replicant that Deckard ran away with at the end of the first movie.  And the forensics shows that she gave birth to a child.  This is supposed to be impossible and so frightens the law enforcement establishment that they order K to find the child and terminate it and destroy all evidence of its existence.

But based on evidence associated with the child in K’s search he begins to believe that he is that child.  Because of the usefulness and efficiency of having replicants fertile, Niander Wallace, the wealthy, brilliant and evil CEO of the replicant manufacturing corporation wants to find the child in order to learn the secret of its ability.

This scenario sparks all manner of fights and chases and clues are found and people are hunted down.  Eventually K finds the woman who delivers the child and learns he is not the child.  He finds Deckard (reprised by Ford) and reunites him with his daughter.

I thought it was an awful movie.  It was full of off-putting action, boring and confusing dialog and unsympathetic characters.  Even as science fiction it didn’t make any sense.  We can currently read the entire genome of any human being.  How could it be possible for a future world that could produce synthetic humans not be able to make them fertile.  Also, since as we learned in the first movie, these replicants were born adult and only lived a few short years, how could having them gestate other replicants make any sense?  They would be born infants and take twenty years to mature.  Or even if in the meantime replicants now lived longer why were humanoid slaves needed at all?  The advances in artificial intelligence showcased in the movie made the need for android slaves nonsensical.

But honestly, all that is beside the point.  The movie was terrible.