(director: André de Toth; screenwriter: from book by JayDratler/Karl Kamb; cinematographer: Harry J. Wild; editor: Walter Thompson; cast: Dick Powell (John Forbes), Jane Wyatt (Sue Forbes), Lizabeth Scott (Mona Stevens), Raymond Burr (Mack MacDonald), John Litel (District Attorney), Byron Barr (Bill Smiley), Ann Doran (Maggie), Jimmy Hunt (Tommy Forbes), Selmar Jackson (Ed Brawley); Runtime: 85; United Artists; 1948)

“A slight melodramatic story, but an efficiently made moral tale with noir overtures.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A slight melodramatic story, but an efficiently made moral tale with noir overtures. It is filmed in B&W and is set in Los Angeles, and exposes holes in the security of the middle classes’ American Dream of suburban life.

John Forbes (Dick Powell) is a suburban home dweller, successful insurance claims adjuster and a happily married man with a small son, Tommy. But he’s bored with life, feeling he has gotten into a rut. He’s grouchy over breakfast, snapping in a sarcastic tone at his high school sweetheart he married, Sue (Wyatt). He feels they had so much potential to do something with their life, but their plans never materialized.

In his office he is greeted by the revolting private detective, who is an ex-cop, the hulking Mack MacDonald (Burr). He has been hired by the agency to track down where the money is that an embezzler currently serving time had stolen, whom the agency posted a $10,000 bond for the recovery of the stolen money; but, it is learned that the thief instead used the stolen money to buy his girlfriend gifts.

Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) is a husky voiced siren, who works as a fashion model for Mays Department Store and is the thief’s girlfriend. Mack pathetically tells Forbes that he craves for the attractive woman and urges Forbes to put in a good word for him when he sees her. When Forbes goes over to her house to make a list of the gifts that Smiley (Barr) gave her that have to be returned, she tells him that Smiley gave her the gifts because he was so in love with her and that he thought this was the only way of keeping her. She also tells him the gift she enjoys most, is the small motorboat that is moored in the nearby marina. They spend the afternoon going for a boat ride and Forbes breaks his routine by staying in her house until late at night. He has a one night stand with the grasping woman, who was unaware at this point that he’s a married man.

Mack watches Mona’s house and spots Forbes leaving at night. Later Mack severely beats Forbes up, telling him to leave the woman he is infatuated with alone or else he’ll tell his wife. Forbes refuses to tell his wife the truth about the incident, insisting he’ll be all right in a few days and does not report the incident to the police.

Mona upon learning of his marital status sends him back to his wife, ending the affair by telling him: “Why would you want to mess up something that you have that is so good?”

Mack continues to pester Mona at home and at her workplace and refuses to take no for an answer, despite her revulsion for him. She asks Forbes to do something about Mack, and he responds by beating him up while warning him to stay away from Mona. But Mack ignores the warning and visits Smiley in prison and riles him up with jealousy, telling him that Mona is having an affair with Forbes.

When Smiley’s prison sentence is cut short because the money is returned through the gifts recovered from Mona, Mack bails him out and gets him drunk continuing to poison his mind about Forbes. He also gives him a gun.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Mona warns Forbes that Smiley is gunning for him, but he decides not to call the police. He manages to get his family to bed while he waits in the darkened basement with a gun. Smiley breaks his window and is killed by Forbes, who tells the police it was a prowler. Meanwhile, Mack enters Mona’s house and forces her to run off with him, but she shoots him.

Forbes, at last, confesses to his wife and to the police what he did, and is exonerated. Sue is deeply hurt by her husband’s indiscretion but decides to forgive him for his one night of infidelity, but only on the condition that they move to another town so that Tommy doesn’t learn of the dirty incident.

But there’s a double standard at work, as Mona is charged with a possible homicide in the shooting.

Powell is the archetypal average American man living out the American Dream in the suburbs, where his type is viewed as the backbone of the country. This film does a good job of poking holes at that dream, showing underneath the surface all is not well. The wayward husband has fallen from his perch of bourgeois respectability in the eyes of his wife, and the materialism needed to maintain such a middle-class lifestyle is shown to be just as superfluous in attaining love as the gifts Smiley tried to bribe his girlfriend with to get her to love him. There was also one scene where Tommy had a nightmare and Powell glibly explains this away because he read a comic book with an alien story before going to sleep. But the nightmare indicates more than that, as it indicates there is something troubling even the youngsters brought up in this so-called ideal materialistic environment.

Raymond Burr, Dick Powell, and Lizabeth Scott in Pitfall (1948)