“Pitfall” (1948)

André De Toth’s Pitfall takes such a dismal, septic view of suburban life that it might’ve been written by Henry Miller. Dick Powell plays John Forbes, an insurance claims investigator and prime example of Bill Clinton’s citizen “who plays by the rules”. But his happy-face marriage to pert-titted Jane Wyatt is imperiled by his feeling of being trapped, and when a case brings him into contact with Venus man-trap Lizabeth Scott, he’s only one rear-projected speedboat ride away from hitting the sheets with her. But somebody else has a yen for Scott: the silky, hulking, unbalanced private investigator named MacDonald, who begins fucking around something fierce with the couple. It was impossible to tell from Perry Mason that Raymond Burr could be as good as he is here, especially when “Mac” drops in on Scott after wrecking her life to lightly ask how things are going. (In Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia, Burr—a gay man who remained successfully closeted throughout his long career—was just as good playing the marvelously named Harry Prebble, a natty Lothario who wasn’t above committing a little date-rape whenever the situation shook out that way.)

Pitfall came out in ’48, fairly hot on the heels of World War II, yet American audiences were already expected to comprehend, and maybe approve of, its trenchant take on middle-class life. Whether it’s Powell playing the emotionally absent mini-king at the breakfast table, his small son suffering from nightmares, or the no-contest mismatch between the wholesome Wyatt and the party-girl Scott, the recognition that a wrinkle-free existence can generate malaise instead of security cuts against the grain of its time as that’s been handed down to us—it’s a side of The Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw neglected to tell us much about. In 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives ended with Dana Andrews on the brink of suicide because he couldn’t find a toehold amongst America’s postwar bounty; in Pitfall, just two short years later, even that toehold looked like a bear-trap.

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