Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Great Villain Blogathon: Raymond Burr in "Pitfall" (1948)



The Great Villain Blogathon of 2015 runs from April 13th to 17th.  It is hosted by the terrific trio of Kristina of Speakeasy, Karen of Shadows and Satin and Ruth of Silver Screenings.  It is a do-not-miss internet event.

What motivates our great villains?  Greed?  The lust for power?  Love?  Hate?  Are they born bullies or were they once the bullied?  Did they just get up on the wrong side of the bed?  Villains - no matter where or how they are spawned - are all around us in fact and fiction.  Sometimes their viciousness is on a global scale and sometimes it is up close and personal.  In the case of J.B. MacDonald "Mac" as played by Raymond Burr in 1948s Pitfall, his wrongdoing is extremely personal.  Mac's single-minded purpose will lead him to cross boundaries, callously invading the physical and emotional homes of his victims.


Raymond Burr as J.B. "Mac" MacDonald

Andre de Toth directed the film based on the novel The Pitfall by Jay Dratler.  Among de Toth's dark-tinged dramas and westerns are None Shall Escape, Dark Waters, Ramrod, Man in the Saddle, Crime Wave and Day of the Outlaw.  Dratler's noir credits include an Oscar nomination for the Laura screenplay, a Poe Award for Call Northside 777 and the screenplays for Impact and The Dark CornerPitfall's screenplay is by Karl Kamb (Whispering Smith) with uncredited William Bowers (Support Your Local Sheriff!) and Andre de Toth.  Cinematographer Harry J. Wild was behind the look for such crime features as Murder, My Sweet, His Kind of Woman and The Big Steal.


Jane Wyatt, Dick Powell

Johnny:  "Whatever happened to those two people who were going to build a boat and sail around the world?"
Sue:  "Well, I had a baby.  I never did hear what happened to you."

When a fellow meets an attractive girl who shows an interest, it is really incumbent upon the fellow to let the girl know that he is married.  It is no excuse that he's been having one of those days when life has been wearing him down with its sameness.  If you start acting like you are single things are bound to get complicated.  The complications will treble when that girl is also the object of another's affection and you are aware of the same.  

In our movie the fellow is Johnny Forbes, an insurance agent with personal and professional obligations.  Dick Powell plays Johnny who uses wry humour to barely disguise his bitterness.  Sue, Johnny's wife, is played by Jane Wyatt.  She is good-natured and pragmatic.  She may sometimes feel the stifling effects of house-wifery, but she doesn't let it get her down.  Jimmy Hunt plays their son Tommy, a freckled faced kid with the right mix of spunk and adoration for his dad.


Lizabeth Scott as Mona Stevens

Mona:  "I liked him mostly because he was nice to me.  Very few men are.  That means a lot."

The girl in the case is one Mona Stevens played by Lizabeth Scott.  She's the sort of girl men make assumptions about, and they are way off base.  A department store and photographers model, Mona's ex-boyfriend Bill Smiley played by Byron Barr is serving an embezzlement sentence.  He foolishly stole money to buy Mona's affection.  Johnny must repossess the gifts given to Mona as his company had bonded Smiley.


Dick Powell, Raymond Burr

Mac:  "I bet you never thought of me as a man who could fall in love."
Johnny:  "You'd be surprised how little time I have to think about you at all, Mac."

Mona was tracked down for the insurance company by a freelance private eye and former cop named J.B. MacDonald.  Johnny's secretary Maggie, played by Ann Doran, has a nickname for Mac, it is "Gruesome".  The bulky Burr in this film looks slightly unkempt when we first meet him and he uses his size as a form of intimidation.  Reporting on Mona to Johnny, Mac confesses that one look and he was hooked.  Mona's impression of Mac is slightly different.  As she tells Johnny, "That was quite a bull you sent to see me yesterday.  I've met some weird ones in my life, but that one nearly scared me to death."

Johnny and Mona get acquainted on the open sea in her motorboat (a gift from Smiley) and in a darkened cocktail bar.  They don't realize that all the time they are under the watchful eyes of MacDonald.  The jealous Mac switches tactics from implied intimidation to brute force.  Confronting Johnny outside his home Mac gives him a beating which lays Johnny up for a couple of weeks.  By this time Mona discovers Johnny has a family and she breaks things off with no hard feelings.  Johnny sheepishly apologizes.


Dick Powell

Johnny:  "It's just a warning, Mac.  If you're real smart you'll take it seriously.  Leave the girl alone.  Stay way from her.  And if I ever hear that you've threatened to do anything about my family again I'll kill you, Mac.  I mean that."

For Mona and Johnny the incident is closed.  For Mac things are not that simple.  He harasses Mona at work and follows her home at night.  She tries to let him down easy then threatens him with the police.  Mac, who feels he knows Mona better than she knows herself, plays the ace of threatening to hurt Johnny if she doesn't see things the MacDonald way.  There is nowhere else to turn when Mona shares her troubles with Johnny.  Johnny, a former boxer in college who had been taken by surprise by Mac earlier, returns the beating and, once again, walks away thinking the problem has been solved. 


Raymond Burr

Mac:  "I just don't like to see a guy getting a bad deal."

Now Mac ups the ante in his battle for Mona and against Johnny.  He has tried scare tactics and drubbings, but now it is time for manipulation.  Mac visits Smiley in prison and plants seeds of doubt about Mona.  He mentions Forbes and needles the nervous Smiley who has been sweating out his time.  On the day of his release Mac offers solicitude and friendship to Smiley in the form of copious liquor and a gun, setting the crazed ex-con on the Forbes family.  Spoiler ahead.


Lizabeth Scott, Raymond Burr

Mac:  "You haven't thought about it yet, but when you do you'll realize the only reason I did all this was because I  - I really love you."

Backed into a corner, Johnny has no choice but to defend his home and a shootout in the dark leaves Smiley dead.  Mac later brags to Mona that he is a lucky gambler, but didn't expect such a strong payoff.  He claims he expected Smiley and Johnny to frighten each other off, that he didn't expect actual gun play with murder.  Mac also didn't expect the frustrated, angry and frightened Mona to shoot him.  Villains, no matter how many arrows they have in their quiver, somehow never expect their victims to reach the point where they can't take it any more.

Pitfall ends - well, not really.  Johnny comes clean about every nasty detail in the whole affair to his wife and the District Attorney and is spared criminal charges since Smiley was an intruder.  Sue seriously considers divorce, but decides she is willing to work to salvage their marriage.  Will Sue and Johnny be able to make it work?  There is resignation in Sue's face along with the determination.  Mona's fate is up in the air.  If Mac dies, she will be charged with murder.  Mac didn't know Mona as well as he thought.  All this mayhem because a wrong guy fell for a right gal.
   

34 comments:

  1. Great review! I've seen this movie only once and it was a few years ago, but your vivid descriptions of the scenes brought it all back for me. This is a great film, made even better by the cast. Raymond Burr makes for a great villain partly because his large frame makes him intimidating, as you pointed out. I'm glad you featured it in the blogathon -– it deserves to be better known.

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    1. Thank you. (I'm already thinking of next year's villain!)

      I think "Pitfall" has an interesting perspective on its female characters that gives it that something extra. A character like "Mac" is so determined that he is unstoppable.

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  2. Paddy, I watched PITFALL recently, and it was a great film for the VILLAIN Blogathon! It was a great, moody film, with the late Lizabeth Scott and Dick Powell. Alas, sometimes helping others turn becomes more trouble than it's worth! Brava to you for this great post, my friend! :-D

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    1. Thanks, Dorian. Like Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", "Pitfall" brings the terror right into the home.

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  3. Well, if you saw what I wrote over at Dorian's blog, you know my feelings about Raymond Burr, so I'll just reiterate that I'll try to give him a second chance at some point in the near future. In any event, I might watch this for Lizabeth Scott. This definitely sounds like her kind of role.

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    1. For someone like me, who grew up watching a fellow Canuck as a TV/movie star, Raymond Burr will always have a special place in my heart. I even saw him in a play once!!

      I never thought of comparing him to Welles, as you mentioned. Are you familiar with the work of Laird Cregar. He, like Burr, was an actor of a certain size who specialized in "heavies" (no pun intended). It was after Cregar that Raymond Burr fashioned his early career and "Pitfall", I think, provides some flashes of that inspiration.

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    2. Yeah, I remember reading about him on somebody's blog once. I think he was in HEAVEN CAN WAIT. Not familiar enough with him to judge his talent, though.

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    3. Cregar's best noir role is in "I Wake Up Screaming" - highly recommended.

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  4. Villain motivation never ceases to interest me - the desire to understand why is such an intrinsic human need. Mac sounds like he has all my favourite villain elements - callous, and single-minded.
    Thanks for highlighting this film - I look forward to watching it!

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    1. It is a very well-written and directed feature. So much so, that I'm sure my spoilers won't ruin your enjoyment.

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  5. CW, you are truly a gal after my own heart. I LOVE Raymond Burr in this movie -- or should I say I love to HATE him! His character is so oily I could mix him with some vinegar and put him on my salad. I really enjoyed your post -- the writing was first-rate, and I loved the way you interspersed those great lines throughout (the one about Johnny not thinking about Mac actually made me laugh out loud). Thanks for offering up this great post for the blogathon!

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    1. Thanks. It was a pleasure to contribute to the blogathon. Mac could be any guy working a 9 to 5, but he's got a layer of creepy that goes on for miles.

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  6. I love Burr in anything he does, and I like this, too: "Villains, no matter how many arrows they have in their quiver, somehow never expect their victims to reach the point where they can't take it any more." Great post.

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    1. The arrogance of our villains know no bounds making their downfall sweet.

      PS: Raymond Burr gets a lot of play in this house. The first time Janet saw him as a villain she asked "Are you sure that's the Chief?"

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  7. I enjoyed reading your post about this villain. I can see why he would make a great one after recently seeing him in Rear Window. He was very disturbing in that and you never even hear him speak. In this movie, it sounds like every time you think he is going to go away, he shows up again, causing more trouble. That's the worst kind of villain! Thanks for a great review!

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    1. I'm so pleased you enjoyed this look at Mac and "Pitfall". Burr is indeed disturbing in "Rear Window", and even a little pathetic.

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  8. Ooh, great selection! I've actually never seen this one, but now I'm convinced I must! I love your point about the big vs. small scale villains... sometimes the ones who set out to hurt just a few select people are the scariest ones of all!

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    1. Another aspect of the movie I enjoy is the peek into life at the time provided by the settings which are not overdone. We're with folks we can relate to.

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  9. Ooh, great selection! I've actually never seen this one. i must now. very great insight and review. loved it

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    1. It is an interesting movie whose characters make a long-lasting impression and leave you with much to consider.

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  10. Waa! Another Cw film for me to see. It sounds like a devishly good time. Thanks for the recommendation. I think I am going to have to star a list - CW films to watch.

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    1. My own category and now my own list! It's a rarefied atmosphere I'm living in these days! (I feel like I should have minions to do my laundry!)

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  11. I haven't seen this one--thanks for the spoiler alert.:) I was sad to reach it though because I was totally enthralled in the story thanks to your review. I'll have to save the ending for after I see it:) Leah

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    1. Whew! I'm glad you were stopped in time. Enjoy the "Pitfall" experience.

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  12. I haven't seen this either, but really want to, so I haven't read your whole review as yet - but will return to it when I've seen the film, which will hopefully be very soon!

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    1. So pleased you are now interested in checking out this most worthy film.

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  13. Super choice, I like this movie, and love Raymond Burr in anything, but he really was a great villain. What I enjoy about his villain roles, is that to me he was not at all a likable villain like other real life nice men. He could really be thoroughly hateful and as noted above, slimy. You could easily do a top 10 Burr Baddies when you take in the westerns and noirs he menaced. Thanks so much for being part of this event!

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    1. My pleasure. Thanks for hosting and giving us the opportunity to explore the dark side.

      I noticed there were, at last count, three Burr baddies making an appearance this year. I imagine he'd be pleased.

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  14. I am so used to seeing Raymond Burr as Perry Mason that I sometimes forget that before that role he played many heavies over the years. And Mac is one of his best. This is a character about as far from Perry Mason and Ironside as one can get! He really was good at playing villains!

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    1. Burr and we were lucky that Erle Stanley Gardner saw him as "Perry". On the audition footage available on the DVDs I think William Hopper did an excellent job on his try for the lead role. Things worked out as they should.

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  15. I've only ever seen Burr as Perry Mason, Ironsides, and as two other baddies, in His Kind of Woman and Rear Window. Great review and now I must find Pitfall!!!

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    1. While you are visiting the dark side, add "Raw Deal", "Walk a Crooked Mile' and "Borderline" to that list of Burr baddies. Our Raymond was a certainly a versatile fellow.

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  16. I haven't seen this one, but just two lines you spotlighted are enough to send me searching for it: "Mac: "I bet you never thought of me as a man who could fall in love."
    Johnny: "You'd be surprised how little time I have to think about you at all, Mac." Ooooh, zing! Indifference is a bitter pill to swallow, worse than hate. I am a big Raymond Burr fan -- he can be so handsome, and I love his voice. Very masculine. Imagine my chagrin when I found out he would be more interested in my brother than in me -- not a gay bash, just the sorrow of a girl with a crush who had no chance! LOL! Loved your article!

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    1. I understand your sorrow, Becky.

      "Pitfall" has an excellent script that feels real and provides a lot of food for thought. I'm sure you'll enjoy the movie.

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