Two words to describe Raymond Burr in Pitfall are menace and ooze. He oozes menace, but he also just oozes. You almost shudder whenever you see him. When Lizabeth Scott’s Mona tells Dick Powell’s Johnny that she’s “seen some weird ones in [her] time, but that one frightened [her] half to death,” I believe her.
I grew up thinking of Raymond Burr as the upstanding Perry Mason, so I was mildly surprised to discover that before his career defining TV show, he often played villains in film noir. And not just villains, but nasty villains. Creepy, brutal, hulking, psycho villains. His MacDonald in Andre De Toth’s Pitfall is one of his nastiest.
Pitfall is something of a downer, even for film noirs. Johnny Forbes (Dick Powell) is an insurance agent who must reclaim for the insurance company all the items that a man named Smiley (Byron Barr) bought for his girlfriend using stolen money. Johnny is bored with his life, his wife (Jane Wyatt), but mostly it seems with himself. When he meets Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), the girlfriend of Smiley, she snaps him out of his funk by demanding he not just be an insurance automaton, but a human being with sympathy. They embark on a brief affair, until she discovers that he’s married. She’s deeply hurt, but is too nice a person to make a stink about it and all seems to be over.
Except there’s MacDonald (Burr). He’s a private detective who was hired by Johnny’s company to find out what Smiley did with the stolen money and he’s decided that he’s in love. Mona is not interested, but MacDonald is not put off. He stalks her and when she threatens to go to the police, he threatens to tell Johnny’s wife about the affair. Once again, Mona is simply too nice a person to want to ruin Johnny and asks Johnny what she should do. But instead of telling Mona to go to the police, he says he’ll take care of it. He’s too scared to tell his wife or own up to his own actions, even though his wife knows something is wrong. His continued refusal to admit what he’s done causes Mona’s life, as well as his own, to spiral out of control.
Amazingly, everyone’s gut instinct seems to be to cover up. Johnny tells a friend of his what he’s done and his friend advises Johnny not to tell his wife (never mind that keeping Johnny’s secret is giving MacDonald leverage over Mona). Even Johnny’s wife’s initial reaction when she finally finds out what is going on is to demand Johnny not tell the police. In a telling scene where Johnny’s son has a nightmare, Johnny thinks it’s caused by the comic books he reads and tells him the secret to not having bad dreams is to essentially only look at nice things (ignoring the fact that his son is probably picking up on the unspoken tension in the house).
But MacDonald is a menace that cannot be ignored, covered up or dealt with by oneself. Johnny tries to play the tough guy and frighten MacDonald away, but MacDonald is not really deterred by that. He’s not deterred by anything. He honestly doesn’t seem to appreciate how repulsive he is to others, especially Mona. He really believes that if he can get rid of the men in Mona’s life then she would go away with him (as Princess Leia said, “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain”). He’s a cunning man at exploiting people’s weaknesses, but in many ways he’s completely obtuse.
Of course, if everyone had simply gone to the police, the film would have been over halfway through and a lot of heartache, violence and betrayal could have been avoided. Dick Powell is possibly at his least sympathetic in this film, with his tendency to feel sorry for himself and his inability to deal with things squarely (like telling Mona he’s married, telling his wife what is going on – as his wife tells him, “either it’s a marriage or it isn’t” – and the way he tries to save his own skin and leaves Mona with few options in dealing with MacDonald). He covers one lie with another and betrays so many people, there’s no way he can ease his conscience by the end. He’s just going to have to live with himself. It’s an excellent performance.
I really like Lizabeth Scott in Pitfall, too. She’s often compared with Lauren Bacall, but in this film she is warmer, more vulnerable, and looks like a person who has been kicked around a lot by life and other men. But she’s also a thoroughly nice, sympathetic person and she ends up being the real victim of the film.
In the case of Raymond Burr, it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the role better, being sleazier, slimier, more sure of himself. When he visits Mona’s workplace where she models gowns and makes her model several for him, your skin crawls. There is no ambiguity about his character – he is pure evil. Ironically, he used to work with the police force and likes to position himself as being “in” with the police, but at the same time a simple call to the police probably would have solved everything. Is he meant to be symbolic? The dark side of the system (government, authority)? Moral rot? A presence that boredom, fear and insecurity allows to assert itself? Whatever he is, Raymond Burr makes him one of the creepiest villains in film noir.