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Remembering Pitfall

Powell (right) in De Toth's dark and stormy L.A. noir

Powell (right) in De Toth's dark and stormy L.A. noir

In his excellent memoir, Fragments, André De Toth says too little about his Los Angeles–set film noir, Pitfall(1948), about a married insurance adjuster (Dick Powell) who betrays his wife (Jane Wyatt) with a seductive department-store model (Lizabeth Scott) and gets pulled deep into the L.A. underworld by a corrupt private eye (Raymond Burr). He focuses on his battle with the Hays Code censors, and on the typically De Tothian way by which he succeeded at keeping his desired ending. That ending, it must be said, is one of the strongest, the iciest and the least complacent in movies of the era. One of the most realistic too, in its willingness to leave things open-ended. As the critic Philippe Garnier noted in his excellent essay on De Toth, “It’s on the defeated face of Jane Wyatt that we remain, finally. This pretty face, always so solid and spiritual, suddenly exhausted with pain, humiliation, incomprehension. It’s this face that we see in the final scene, her eyes fixed on the windshield of the car so as not to see her husband, while she announces, in a faint voice, a kind of forgiveness that has nothing to do with happy endings.”

Pitfall is a film that prefigures all those works of the 1960s and ’70s devoted to the alienation of a couple, or of the American hero torn between his dreams, his family and his reality. It is a film to rank among the best, the sharpest and the most original of noirs, with consistently delightful staccato dialogue by De Toth and the talented William Bowers (both uncredited, as they were on Slattery’s Hurricane [1949]). It also neatly dissociates itself from all the most awkward conventions of the noir genre, beginning with misogyny. The two female characters, written in a very modern style, at once drive the action and serve as its principal victims. Devoid of all duplicity and selfish feelings — the one (Scott, playing against her usual typecasting as a bitch or a vamp) a thousand miles from diabolical temptation, the other (Wyatt) equally far from the iconography of domestic virtue — they move us with their painful fragility. A fragility, however, that isn’t synonymous with submissiveness. Quite the contrary.

Recently, Scott told me that De Toth was the best director she ever worked with and the most attentive to actors, knowing full well to put his trust in them. It is, in any case, her best role outside of Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living. De Toth also gave Burr one of his most terrifying roles: The briefest of his appearances turns your blood cold, exuding menace and inescapable catastrophe, all achieved with a minimum of actual violence. There is nothing clinical about this description. For to watch Pitfallis to be touched by horror in an intimate way, and it is this intimacy that makes the film a truly singular work.

Pitfall screens on Sat., July 1, 4:30 p.m., at the UCLA James Bridges Theater, preceded at 2 p.m. by the discussion “L.A. Noir: The City as Character,” featuring authors Alain Silver and James Ursini.

Bertrand Tavernier is the award-winning director of Coup de Torchon (1981), ’Round Midnight (1986) and Holy Lola (2004).