Sunday, July 08, 2007

Noir City Northwest: Pitfall (1948)/Woman on the Run (1950)

There are no introductions at weekend Noir City matinees, so it’s up to me to guess the day’s theme. I’m going to say shaky California marriages. Either that or heavies named Smiley.

Pitfall was the movie I was most looking forward to in the festival’s line-up, because it’s based on a novel by Jay Dratler, one of the great unsung screenwriters of Hollywood. He didn’t adapt his own book, but I wanted to see the result anyway.

Dick Powell stars as an insurance executive living the American Dream – house, job, marriage, son. And it’s slowly killing him. All it takes for him to regain some of his youthful vigor is a brief dalliance with down-at-the-heels model Lizabeth Scott. But the shady P.I. who tracked her down for the insurance company (Raymond Burr) has feelings for Scott as well, and he’s willing to ruin Powell in order to have her to himself.

Powell’s disillusionment with the post-war ideal of success is a powerful motor, so I was disappointed to see his character quickly settle back into suburban contentment. But Burr’s sexually obsessed shamus makes a potent villain, and Scott plays a singular femme fatale in that she doesn’t use her powers for evil. She’s not a homewrecker; she’s looking for a white picket fence life of her own. It’s not her fault if men make fools of themselves over her.

The discovery of a print of the long-thought-lost Woman on the Run gave birth to the Film Noir Foundation. It’s a classic B-movie, fleet and not an ounce of fat. A regular guy witnesses a murder and lams it. His estranged wife (Ann Sheridan in an unflattering hairstyle) teams up with ambitious reporter Dennis O’Keefe to track him down before the killer does, only to find herself falling for her spouse all over again. Norman Foster, who directed several Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto entries, keeps the action brisk and stages a breathless climax at a San Francisco amusement park that puts many a contemporary thriller to shame.