2018 Film Essays

Film Noir Without the Femme Fatale: André De Toth’s ‘Pitfall’ and ‘Crime Wave’

The film noir marriage often falls into three types: a passive-aggressive war between spouses (Woman on the Run), a sham with murderous intent (Sudden Fear) or a way to quick wealth by bumping off the other partner (Double Indemnity). Then there’s the odious or merely dull wife who drives her husband into the hands of a scheming spider woman (Scarlet Street and Nora Prentiss). These dark versions of the wedded couple are, of course, shown to be the lady’s fault. That’s fine if you’re ready to take noir as a glimpse into the distorted psyche, but it also tends to flatten the female characters.

In Pitfall and Crime Wave, two seminal films bookending the classic noir cycle, director André De Toth develops a more nuanced view of marriage and the married couple. No longer a prison or a soul-stifling arrangement, marriages in De Toth’s diptych are as close as noir comes to “realistic” portrayals of spouses. His female characters are also granted an interesting level of complexity.

Pitfall stars Dick Powell as insurance investigator Johnny Forbes. He’s a litany of complaints about his boring and regimented life. His wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) could probably list a few grievances of her own, but she’s an adult and a mother. She deflects her husband’s whining with amused sarcasm, no doubt practiced after years of raising their young son, Tommy (Jimmy Hunt). It seems boys take a while to grow up.

The story gets rolling when Forbes, in the course of attempting to reclaim some embezzled money, enters the life of Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), girlfriend to the imprisoned embezzler. Previously, another character has described her as “quite the girl.” Then, before Forbes meets Mona, he comes upon her modeling portfolio. The photographs depict a gorgeous woman adept at taking on seductive poses for the camera. The sequence sets up Mona as the film’s femme fatale.

In other words, she’s loose and compromised. Forbes certainly sees her that way — someone he can use to relieve his soul-crushing tedium. As positioned in the traditional fatale role and played by Scott (who made a career in the type), De Toth lets those assumptions stand for a bit. And then he skillfully pulls them apart.

It turns out that contrary to the femme fatale Scott so ably played in many other films, Mona has no designs on anyone or anyone’s money. She’s lonely but recoils at the thought of trying to take Forbes away from his wife. Instead, Mona is victimized by several homme fatales: her jailed boyfriend Smiley (Byron Barr), the sadistic PI MacDonald (Raymond Burr) and, most prominently, Pitfall’s main character, Forbes.

Unlike other dutiful movie wives, Sue Forbes isn’t present simply to raise the stakes of her husband’s philandering. She’s meant to be taken as a fully-rounded character and Wyatt plays the her with a mature, refreshing gravity. Frustrated by an increasingly erratic Forbes as the aftermath of his affair threatens to destroy their family, she reminds him that marriage is a bond of equals, at the same time demanding to know what’s going on. “You don’t want my problems,” Forbes tells her. “Whether I want your problems or not, I am entitled to them,” she replies.

Sue is also allowed to close the picture. She’s picked up her husband at the police station. (It’s telling that the two times Sue and Forbes ride in a car together, she’s at the wheel; woman as the couple’s guiding force.) As they drive home, Forbes says he won’t object if she wants a divorce, but he’d like to try and repair the marriage. “Then that’s what we’ll do,” Sue says. “We’ll try.” The distant look on her face leaves open the question if any amount of trying will heal them. It’s easy to imagine that when they separate, it will be her wish.

De Toth’s second noir feature Crime Wave from 1954 offers something more hopeful. Three escaped convicts have come into L.A. looking for a former partner in crime, Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson). Lacey was their getaway driver in an earlier heist and they have the idea to tap him for another score. Only Lacey is finished with the past. He’s determined to stay clean and complete parole. His ally in sticking to the honest road: wife Ellen played by an earthy and beautifully tough Phyllis Kirk.

The first shot of Steve and Ellen is of them asleep together in the same bed. It’ an amazing visual, given that — at the time — husbands and wives were depicted as sleeping in separate, side-by-side beds. With this image of the powerful, almost primal, connection between Steve and Ellen, the film declares “here’s the meat of the story.”

They’re awakened by a phone call from Lacey’s buddies. Afterward, as Ellen and Steve cling to each other and debate if they should call the police, the camera holds on their faces — two bright ovals in a darkened room. Scenes set in the wider city as they hold close show the nature of the shadows that are encroaching.

Lacey knows the midnight caller wants him back in the fold. Ellen is going to make sure he stays out. In another arresting shot, Lacey reaches for the phone when it rings again, only to be stopped by Ellen gripping his wrist. “Don’t answer it, Steve” she says. The moment is nothing but a closeup of a phone and two hands, a wedding ring prominent. It says everything about their bond and strength as a pair. There’s the added indication that Ellen is the reason Lacey has the fortitude to stay honest. He might be a hood fresh out of Q, but she’s just as tough — pure, visual storytelling.

Not only is Ellen determined to keep her man from getting roped back into crime, she’s equally determined to defend him against the hard-ass L.A. detective Lt. Sims (Sterling Hayden) intent on proving Lacey has rejoined his old gang. (Crime Wave is the very definition of “between a rock and a hard place.”) Once a crook, always a crook, Sims believes, and spends the film riding Lacey in the hope he’ll slip and give him an excuse to end his parole.

Her jaw set, eyes wide and betraying only the merest glisten of tears (the women in De Toth’s noirs don’t cry), Ellen goes toe-to-toe with the growling, toothpick-chewing Lt. Sims. She even lies to Sims when he threatens her as an accessory. The full truth would give him the evidence he wants to throw her husband back in prison.

That’s not going to happen on her watch.  Ellen might be all for the honest life, but she’s far from naïve, nor does the law earn her unquestioning respect. In fact, the way she’s dressed for the scene in a form-fitting black turtleneck sweater represents a practical, working-girl while hinting at the fatale that might lurk underneath.

Early in Crime Wave, Lt. Sims takes a stroll around his fiefdom of a police station. He watches detectives question a husband and wife dragged in for mutual assault, then a woman whose convict boyfriend beats her up. It’s background stuff but shows that in this world of crooks and cops, city streets and dark alleys — the world of film noir – Steve and Ellen are truly remarkable. Heck, they even shop for groceries together.

Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.