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Pitfall (1948)


Written by Tim Dirks

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Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Pitfall (1948)

This domestic noirish tale by director Andre de Toth regarding the archetypal American Dream was a cautionary treatise on domestic entrapment and the urge of temptations for a philandering husband outside of marriage. It involved an unfulfilled and discontented married insurance man's deadly affair with a doomed and imperiled blonde (while her spiteful boyfriend was in jail) that led to deceit, guilt, recriminations, and multiple murders.

In post WWII Los Angeles, Olympic Mutual Insurance salesman John "Johnny" Forbes (Dick Powell), a suburban middle-class married man (to his high-school girlfriend Sue (Jane Wyatt)), had an idyllic life: ("You were voted the prettiest girl in the class. I was voted the boy most likely to succeed"). But he found his "old man routine" suburban life was stuck in a 9-5 rut that was "six feet deep." He complained: "Sometimes I get to feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel." He was dissatisfied with his American dream: "I don't want to be an average American, backbone of the country."

His mid-life crisis intensified when he took an insurance embezzlement case that had been uncovered by the insurance company's suspicious and seedy private investigator and ex-cop J.B. 'Mac' MacDonald (Raymond Burr), working for a detective agency. The embezzlement case involved a major department store insured by Forbes' company. There was an effort to reclaim the ill-gotten gifts purchased by an embezzler for his girlfriend using about $10,000 in stolen funds. Only $4,000 worth of merchandise had been recovered.

The embezzler was Bill Smiley (Byron Barr), a convicted bank-robber. He was spending lavishly for his girlfriend - sultry 23 year-old blonde Mays Dept. Store fashion model Miss Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) in Santa Monica, CA. While investigating, MacDonald had already set his eyes on Mona's appeal: "I don't blame him for robbing his company. She's worth it." Smiley had bought her numerous items with the money: ("A lot of little pretties, fur coat, little things like that"). Smiley was sentenced to a year in jail, and had already been jailed for four months, and was about to be paroled in two months. Forbes dismissed MacDonald from the case, knowing his only interest was in Mona: "Your part of the job is finished, Mac. The company will handle it from here....You'd string it along just see the girl again."

That afternoon, the case brought Forbes into direct contact with the embezzler's girl Mona - he went to Mona's apartment to reclaim the gifts. Before he saw her, he glanced through "samples" of her modeling agency swimsuit photos in a notebook. When questioned about the gifts, she vowed her innocence: "I didn't ask him for any of those things....You'd have a hard time proving that any of those gifts were bought with stolen money." She confessed that some of the items were in her possession: "I've got a fur coat, a car he made the down payment. I got a few dresses and an engagement ring." She initially denounced the cold-hearted agent as a 'strictly-business' conformist: "You're a little man with a briefcase. You go to work every morning and you do as you're told." To gain sympathy from him, she attempted to soften him up: "If you are a nice guy, you'd cry a little bit with me....You'd act a little human."

He spent a day on the femme fatale's Tempest speedboat and enjoyed afternoon cocktails and a late dinner with her as their implied adulterous romance started to develop. The speedboat, named after Mona (the Tempest herself), was one of her expensive embezzled gifts that she prized the most.

Insurance Agent Johnny Spending the Day with Mona - Speedboat Ride, Cocktails, Dinner and More

Once he had fallen for Mona, Forbes ignored and falsified his report, and the next afternoon, it was noted that he purposely failed to list the speedboat as one of the items to be re-possessed. The seedy MacDonald had stalked and followed them the night before - lurking and keeping tabs on their relationship and Forbes' lack of thoroughness with reporting all gifts. Mac noted that the speedboat wasn't listed in the items, although he had its bill of sale. He also told Forbes about his obsession with Mona: ("But for me she's got everything").

After work, Forbes returned to Mona to personally and kindly inform her that the speedboat was repossessed earlier in the afternoon. He blamed its return on MacDonald who would have caused trouble if he didn't. She complimented him on his improved personality: "You're not at all like the man who walked in here yesterday." She spontaneously kissed him.

Jealous of Johnny's romantic success with Mona, the sadistic MacDonald was prowling around outside Johnny's garage when he returned home that night. He admitted his determined obsession for Mona ("I told you I like that girl"), and then brutally beat Forbes up. He also threatened to disclose the secret affair between Johnny and Mona: ("Maybe this will keep you home where you belong for a few days"). And then knowing he'd be fired, Mac abruptly quit.

The next day, Mona was shocked to learn that Forbes was married when she drove to his home to deliver his left-behind attache-briefcase in her apartment, and some good cheer and chicken soup. (He had remained home from work, reporting in ill after his brutal beating and claiming he had been robbed). After recovering, he met with Mona in the bar where they earlier had cocktails, and revealed that she knew he was in a happy marriage with a loving wife and son Tommy (Jimmy Hunt). She sensibly broke off their affair and sent him back home, telling him that she didn't want to compete with a wife and child, and that she wasn't going to cause a "nasty" breakup:

"What happens to men like you, Johnny? If I had a nice home like you did, I wouldn't take a chance with it for anything in the world."

The stubborn-minded Mac continued to pester Mona at her work and at her apartment, demanding her attention. She refused interest in him: ("Don't waste your time. I'm simply not interested...I don't like you. I don't want you around"). When he ignored her, she threatened to call the police, but he retorted: "You wouldn't want to cause Johnny and Mrs. Forbes any trouble, would you?" Mona told Forbes about Mac's intrusiveness: ("He just won't leave me alone"). Johnny was prompted to retaliate by beating up Mac and offering him an ultimatum: ("It's just a warning, Mac....Leave the girl alone. Stay away from her. And if I ever hear that you've threatened to do anything about my family again, I'll kill you, Mac").

Mac concocted a devious plan to provoke a confrontation - he would let Smiley know before his parole release (with help to bail him out early) that Mona was involved in an affair with Forbes - an insurance man: ("I guess your girl kind of took a fancy to him"). Prior to Smiley's discharge or release, MacDonald visited him and filled him with suspicions about Mona's affairs, and even Smiley began to doubt Mona. And then on the day of his release, 'Mac' incited the increasingly-agitated Smiley to commit violence by getting him hopped up on booze, and by providing him with a gun, in order to confront Johnny at his home.

When Smiley met up with Mona in her apartment the day of his release, he asked her about Mac's intentions: "Why does he want me to kill Forbes?" She responded that due to her affair with Forbes: "He's jealous of him." Even though Mona apologized for her indiscretion with Forbes and told him: "We all make mistakes," her response enraged Smiley even further to become belligerent and seek retribution. Mona was able to warn Johnny about the threat: "I don't want him hurt, Johnny. I don't want him thrown back in jail."

The film ended with Johnny awaiting Smiley's late night arrival in his darkened living room. He gunned down the persistent ex-con (driven to the home by Mac) after he was warned to leave and then broke into the Forbes home through a window. Johnny admitted to Sue: "I just killed a man" and claimed it was a "prowler."

Mac returned to Mona's apartment. Now believing that his path had been cleared by eliminating his two rivals: ("Was a thousand to one shot I'd get rid of both of them at once"), Mac attempted to force Mona to run away with him to San Francisco and Reno ("So it's me you end up with"). She adamantly refused and after he told her: "I really love you," she shot him twice and seriously wounded him.

To Sue, Johnny confessed his cover-up of lies and his poor judgment in engaging in a brief affair with Smiley's girlfriend, and that he deserved what had happened. He told his long-suffering, dutiful and devastated wife that the "prowler" was in fact the vengeful, just-released boyfriend of his illicit lover: ("He had good reasons for wanting to kill me, Sue....This man Smiley just got out of jail today and somebody told him a lot of things about her and me"). To protect the family and maintain the illusion of their perfect family, Sue urged Johnny to deceitfully plead that Smiley's murder was self-defense: "If you drag this family through the dirt, I'll never forgive you."

After a night of walking the street alone, John confessed to the killing of Smiley to the District Attorney (John Litel) in the Hall of Justice. He was exonerated with the rationale of 'justifiable homicide': ("It so happens the homicide you committed was justifiable. Bill Smiley was coming to kill you"). In contrast to Forbes' lack of charges, Mona was charged with a possible homicidal act: ("If he dies, it's one thing. If he doesn't, it's another") - even the DA admitted it was a double standard of punishment.

Sue Listening to Johnny's Confession of His Cover-Up of Lies After His Murder of Smiley
Sue's Forgiveness of Johnny in the Final Sequence

Outside the Hall, Sue picked up Johnny and discussed how divorce was a serious consideration, but then dismissed the idea and was willing to forgive, as she explained to her husband: "If a man has always been a good husband except for 24 hours, how long should he be expected to pay for it?" She suggested that Johnny ask for a job transfer, to move to another town to begin anew. Their relationship was damaged and forever marred by his unfaithfulness, but they were both willing to try again:

Sue: "I'm not sure it will ever be the same, not for a long time anyway. But we've weathered other things. Maybe we can handle this. That's of course, if you want to try."
Johnny: "Of course I do."
Sue: "All right. That's what we'll do then, we'll try."

Mona's fate, however, was much more uncertain.

The 'Perfect' Family: Sue (Jane Wyatt) and Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell)

J.B. "Mac' MacDonald (Raymond Burr)

Mona's Swimsuit Photo

Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) with Forbes

Mona's Break-up With Married Man Johnny

Mona Reporting Mac's Intrusiveness to Johnny

Smiley Before His Jail Release

Mona With Johnny a Day Before Smiley's Release

Sue with Johnny - Realizing He Was Troubled

With Mona, Smiley Vowing Retribution on Forbes

Mona's Stunned Reaction to Smiley's Death - She Shot Mac Twice


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