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Pitfall (Blu-ray Review)

16 Nov, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Street 11/17/15
Kino Lorber
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott, Jane Wyatt, Raymond Burr.

After completely inverting his career for the better by playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell took a four-year breather from tough-guy roles to play a somewhat browbeaten insurance agent with a wife and kid in the L.A. suburbs — making Pitfall one of the relatively rare noirs to feature a heavy family angle. This much admired but underseen Andre de Toth jewel frequently undermines expectations, and the first time we see Lizabeth Scott (who is not the wife) wearing shorts that it’d be fun to see fall off, our “uh oh” assumptions are dashed when it turns out that she’s a decent person.

Of course, one can be a decent person and still have a way of attracting the wrong kind of man. Scott, as it turns out, has two creeps sinking her like matching anvils: a jailed boyfriend (Byron Barr) who used insurance funds to buy her all kinds of goodies he couldn’t otherwise afford — plus a repulsive private eye employed by Powell’s company (Raymond Burr, back when he looked as if he’d had too many viewings of the Chris Christie Workout Video). Burr is obsessed with Scott, who has given her a bad case of crawling skin, and when Powell momentarily strays from his so-called domestic bliss with drinks and then much worse with this initially professional acquaintance, Burr always seems to be in a parked car across the street observing when he’s not assaulting Powell in the driveway of the latter’s home.

In spectacular casting that the movie could not possibly have anticipated, Jane Wyatt plays Powell’s wife — offering a lot of twisted “Father Knows Best” subtext a full six years before that TV series began and put the actress on the road to three Emmys. I always loved the show, but Wyatt is even more interesting here: from the way a hair-curl sits on her forehead while cooking morning eggs in PJs during her screen intro, she looks as if she might not mind a breakfast quickie. But with Wyatt also ruling the roost, hubby Powell feels dullish and maybe even a tad emasculated while also having to put up with a pest of a young son (Jimmy Hunt) whose mind is forever mired in comic books. Amid this warped take on the American Dream, Powell is probably ripe to stray with surprisingly lonely Scott (fashion model or not), even if he does quickly recapture his bearings after one of ’40s filmdom’s most blatant representations of morning afterglow (Scott’s, not his; he’s out of the frame). Unfortunately, Powell’s return to the straight-and-narrow still comes too late to stave off big trouble from dual fronts.

Mr. Noir himself Eddie Muller offers the spicy commentary, noting that Pitfall’s status as an independent production released through United Artists likely kept it from being watered down or compromised in, say, a Louis B. Mayer kind of way — this despite putting married Powell and Wyatt in a pair of those Code-mandated teensy twin beds that couldn’t comfortably hold E.T. (But Muller is also observant enough to note that this is a rare case where the separate-beds nonsense actually works for the film, emphasizing the tension in the marriage.) Unfortunately, the movie’s status as an indie of the day also contributed to its falling through the cracks. Despite a VHS and even laserdisc release a million years ago, Pitfall has mostly fallen off the radar except among those film fanciers who hit major league pitching — which would include the fine folks at UCLA’s Film and Television Archive, who restored it.

Director de Toth was known for a couple things: his marriage to Veronica Lake when she was still in the prime of what that represented and also his status as one of two one-eyed directors of 3-D movies (Raoul Walsh was the other), which meant he was unable to see the actual effects of the process when he memorably filmed House of Wax. But he was and is an underrated director despite Crime Wave’s increased cachet, and when he got around to penning an autobiography, Martin Scorsese wrote the introduction. Pitfall is so good that I want to revisit some of its maker’s other movies, including 1971’s late-career Play Dirty, which I have on a Region B Blu-ray import and 1959’s Day of the Outlaw, which is due out in a couple weeks on a presumably whoop-di-dooish Masters of Cinema Blu-ray from Eureka! (also Region B). Nice tie-in timing on the latter.

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