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.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 2 – Rear Window – A Classic Movie Review

Rear Window is not Hitchcock’s best film.  There are any number of things to complain about.  But it’s my favorite summer Hitchcock film.  It’s possible to actually feel the heat and humidity even if you’re watching it in New England February.  But watching it in July or August just after the sun goes down on a sweltering humid day is absolutely perfect.  The mid-century middle-class New York City apartment with all the adjoining backyards spread out in front of the panoramic rear windows of the protagonist Jimmy Stewart who sits in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast provides the correct claustrophobic and uncomfortably hot environment for an irritable murderer and the amateur sleuth stalking him.  Sweat drips off the actors and overheated residents try to beat the heat by sleeping on fire escapes or drinking cold drinks.  Even the torrential rain doesn’t “cool things off it just makes the heat wet.”

The set-up is Jimmy Stewart as L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies, a famous magazine photographer who is convalescing with a broken leg that he earned by stepping in front of a racing car crash to get a great photo.  Thelma Ritter is Stella, the nurse sent by his insurance company to watch over him.  Grace Kelly is Jeff’s upper class, Upper East Side girlfriend Lisa Fremont who wants Jeff to settle down to a sedentary existence with her.  Jeff also has an old Air Force buddy, Police Detective Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) who comes in really handy once murder is suspected.  And finally there is the murder suspect and neighbor across the yard, Lars Thorwald  played with a minimum of spoken lines by Raymond Burr.

The movie resembles a stage play with well-defined scenes and breaks.  Each character is added to the mix in sequence and even the various parading neighbors are introduced and given their little scenes and acknowledgements.  There’s the newlywed couple, the married couple with the little dog who sleep on the fire escape, the dancer “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonely Hearts,” the composer, and the slightly crazy old sculptress.  We even briefly meet Mrs. Thorwald early on in the show, but that doesn’t last.  She’s the alleged victim.

The two plot elements that get twisted into a knot are Lisa attempting to solve the riddle of tying down Jeff and Jeff trying to prove that Thorwald killed his wife.  In both of these endeavors Stella acts as a helper and Doyle seems to be a hindrance.  Whenever the amateurs try to coax the real detective to bust in on Thorwald and gather up the evidence that they are sure must be “knee deep,” he reminds them of a silly house rule known as “due process” and of the New York State penal code in all eleven volumes that a judge would throw at him if he attempted to get a search warrant based on Jeff’s suspicions and Lisa’ feminine intuition.

I won’t spoil the story because it’s worth watching but I’ll just comment that the story moves along in a pleasant fantasy of mid-century New York City life filled with urban stereotypes and tropes even while the main characters perform the Hitchcock detective pantomime.  It’s a lot of fun.  And the actors are a pleasure to watch and listen to.  I always especially enjoy Thelma Ritter’s quintessential working-class New York City accent and attitude.

Now for the down side.  Biggest problem with the movie is trying to pretend that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are close in age.  At one point, Jimmy Stewart takes off his shirt for an alcohol rubdown from his nurse and destroys any illusion that he is a young man, whereas Grace Kelly was a remarkably beautiful twenty-five-year-old at that time.  I guess if they’d owned up to it in the story it wouldn’t be so jarring but at one point, Stella actually calls him a young man and that just explodes the suspension of disbelief for me with a snide snort.  The other story element that jars for me is the subplot with Miss Lonely Hearts.  I won’t go into the details but the whole subplot is a little too affected for my taste.  And finally, there’s a song that becomes kind of the background theme for the romance aspect of the film and is finally played over the end of the last scene.  I think it’s terrible.  It’s so saccharine sweet that it almost turns my stomach when it plays us out.  But those are the only faults.  And they don’t amount to much compared to the fun that this movie provides.

See Rear Window the first time on a hot summer night.  That should be like some kind of multi-sense version of surround sound.  Highly recommended.