By Chuck Ross
For someone like me, whose favorite genre of motion picture is film noir, and who also has a huge interest in TV, a movie such as 1948’s “Pitfall” is irresistible.
Here’s the most basic of descriptions about “Pitfall.” Dick Powell plays the protagonist, an insurance agent. He’s married to a character played by Jane Wyatt. Their little boy is played by Jimmy Hunt, who, a few years later, would play the little boy in the original “Invaders from Mars.”
The femme fatale is played by the sultry, smokey-voiced Lizabeth Scott. The villain in the piece is Raymond Burr.
More about “Pitfall” in a moment. It’s one of my favorite film noirs and I highly recommend it. You can catch it in a few hours on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), at 1:15 Pacific time this afternoon, Labor Day, Sept. 2, 2013 (4:15 p.m. Eastern time). Since the end of last year it’s finally on DVD, and you can stream it on Amazon (though you cannot stream it on Netflix).
The actor Powell most associated with the silver screen is William Powell, best remembered as Godfrey in “My Man Godfrey,” and for playing Nick Charles in the “Thin Man” series of sophisticated comedy dramas.
The other acting Powell — Dick — started his career in the 1930s playing the lightweight crooner in any number of Warner Bros. musicals. As that genre started to become less popular, Powell was desperate to change his image. According to Bruce Crowther in his book “Film Noir,” in 1944 Powell made a major effort to land the part of Walter Neff, the insurance agent in “Double Indemnity” whose life is turned topsy-turvy once he meets a potential client played by Barbara Stanwyck. Instead, that part went to Fred MacMurray, who heretofore had primarily been known for light romantic leads.
Meanwhile, that same year, Powell was hired to play detective Philip Marlowe in a movie version of Raymond Chandler’s “Farewell, My Lovely." According to Crowther in “Film Noir,” Powell’s image at the time was so strong as a frothy song-and-dance man that RKO, the studio which was making the movie, was afraid if the movie went out with the title “Farewell, My Lovely,” starring Dick Powell, that the public would think it was another of his lightweight musicals. So the title was changed to “Murder, My Sweet.” And to be doubly sure that the public would get it, the posters included on them this line: “Meet the New Dick Powell!”
With “Murder, My Sweet,” and two noir’s that immediately followed it, “Cornered” and “Johnny O’Clock,” Powell had successfully transitioned his image to one of a tough guy. He never sang in movies again.
The lead in “Pitfall” was a chance for Powell to actually play that insurance agent he wasn’t able to play in “Double Indemnity,” and to actually now soften his image by playing a nice, family man who finds himself overwhelmed by the circumstances of his life.
Six years later, by the way, after Powell was part of the stellar ensemble cast of “The Bad and the Beautiful,” he essentially retired from films, and became a key producer in TV, bringing us shows ranging from “Wanted: Dead or Alive” to “The Rifleman ” to “Burke’s Law.”
Once Powell was signed for the lead role in “Pitfall,” the pivotal role of the villain had to be cast. Director Andre de Toth had been asked to rewrite the script. He hired a friend, William Bowers, a screenwriter who was under contract with Universal, and the two re-wrote the script in four weekends, de Toth claims in an interview in “Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period,” edited by Robert Portirio, Alain Silver and James Ursini. Because Bowers had worked on the picture on the QT, neither he nor de Toth asked for screen credit, de Toth said.
The producers of the film wanted Humphrey Bogart to play the heavy in “Pitfall,” de Toth says. The interview continues, “I said, ‘No,’ and they all thought I was crazy. I was not looking for a Bogart picture. At times like that, a strong actor playing a character overshadows the whole picture. And I don’t want to make pictures. I wanted to photograph life, real characters, not movie stars who overshadow everything, because that can never be a true picture of life.
“But they could not find someone to play [the villain] that both they and I would approve. We went through all the standard heavies. So then the rumor was that I couldn’t make up my mind, that I was stalling because I wasn’t satisfied with the script. Finally, one afternoon, the casting agent we were using came to my office. He was a little follow carrying a satchel full of photographs, so many that I’m surprised he didn’t get a hernia carrying it around. He opened up this satchel, and he couldn’t hold it upright, so pictures started to fall out all over the desk and floor. It was a waterfall of black-and-white glossies. And as he gathered them up, I noticed one on the floor right next to my foot. That was Raymond Burr. And I said, ‘That’s him. That’s the one.’ And he got the part.’ ”
Burr had been discovered by Anthony Mann the year before, and had played the heavy in Mann’s “Desperate.” But de Toth says he had never seen that film.
De Toth continues, “You know, when it comes to actors, nobody is all good, nobody is all bad. Burr…he had the right look, a big guy, kind of handsome, but a little scary. I couldn’t tell from the picture that he was a very nice guy – which, of course, did not matter—and very soft spoken, which was perfect. With a picture like ‘Pitfall,’ if your villain is correctly cast, then you avoid a lot of trouble. Whatever your villain is supposed to do…if the audience cannot completely accept that the actor they are seeing could do that, then your picture goes out the window. But you cannot go too far either. The villain cannot be too much. It has to be just enough.”
Burr is disgustingly brilliant in “Pitfall,” as he was in dozens of parts playing a heavy. Have you ever seen “Rear Window”? Miraculously, though the public had become very comfortable seeing him as a heavy, they completely bought it, nine years later, when Burr made the switch to become a good guy on the small screen, in the long-running “Perry Mason” and then “Ironside.”
De Toth also says he had to fight to get Lizabeth Scott in the movie. He said the studio wanted someone who was more a looker, more a ‘Marilyn Monroe” type. He said he liked Scott’s performance very much because “She lived the character” and thus was “real” and “believable” in the role.
The film opens with Jane Wyatt as Powell’s wife in a scene that seems as if it could be an outtake from her role in TV’s “Father Knows Best” in the 1950s. But by the end of the film Wyatt’s character is as far from her Margaret Anderson as one could imagine.
One of the other joys of watching “Pitfall” is seeing all the locales in Los Angeles at the time.
One last footnote about “Pitfall.” If, after watching it, you’re surprised that the PC police of Hollywood at the time – known as the Hays office –allowed the film to be released as it was, you’d be right.
Again, here’s De Toth, in “Film Noir Reader 3”: “In ‘Pitfall’ we did have problems with the ending [from] the Hays office….Like I told you, I like to photograph life. Film noir. Westerns. What’s coming through the clothes is what counts. I like to show people naked [no
t literally] in front of the camera.
“[So] when the Hays office looked at the script, they said no, no Code Seal of Approval. Now, of the five honchos at the Hays Office, there were two whom I knew had ‘lady friends.’ So I called [the two men] and said, ‘I would like to take you to lunch, just to thank you for trying to get us approved. We’ll go ahead and shoot it and try again when you see the final picture.’ Both of them were cowards and did not want to promise anything later; but a free lunch is a free lunch. But at that lunch I also invited the two lovely lady friends whom they knew, and two jaws dropped on the table. Later on, when the picture was done, I didn’t hear any argument.”
Interviewer: And that’s how you got your Code Seal?
De Toth: My lips are sealed.