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It Might Get Quiet: "Ramrod" (de Toth, 1947) and "Pitfall" (de Toth, 1948)

Above: Dick Powell in André de Toth's 1948 film Pitfall.

Andrew Sarris's blurb on André de Toth in The American Cinema contains a hint about de Toth's style that is worth following: "Raymond Burr's soft-spoken Machiavellian schemer in Pitfall and Paul Kelly's quietly desperate traitor in Springfield Rifle are memorably de Tothian in their adaptability to a world of conflicting interests." Sarris's central idea was that de Toth had a knack and preference for depicting baseness and treachery; I don't know if I fully agree with that concept, but along the way he noted that de Toth's villains speak quietly.

A visit to Ramrod (1947) and Pitfall (1948), the de Toth films showing in Anthology Film Archives' One-Eyed Auteurs film series in New York, confirms the observation, which can even be extended a bit. A great many people in de Toth's films, not just villains, speak quietly, and also keep gesture and affect to a minimum. Ramrod, the first film to garner de Toth critical attention in the US, shows that de Toth does not enforce a quiet demeanor across the board. The rebellious female lead Connie (Veronica Lake) gets off an early tirade that goes from a whisper to a scream in seconds; the good/bad sidekick Bill Schell (Don DeFore) is a flamboyant, volatile personality. But even these characters have moments that are distinctly scaled down, as at the end of Bill's first scene with Connie's ramrod Dave Nash (Joel McCrea), when a cliché I-give-the-orders exchange is transformed by Bill's visible processing of Dave's assertion, followed by quiet assent. The forces of disorder in Ramrod, Connie's rancher father Ben (Charles Ruggles) and his out-of-control foreman Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), are, as usual in de Toth, portrayed with a conspicuous restraint that can be startling in the context of genre conventions. In one of the film's best moments, the seemingly invincible Ivey, having just burned down Connie's ranch, sits in a chair in Ben's parlor and holds up his end of a confrontation with the angry Dave by merely eating some bite-sized food and glowering in long shot.

Quietness is sometimes character-specific in de Toth, a contribution to particular characterizations. But it is also a free-floating dramatic effect that de Toth employs because he likes the vibe. That a quiet response so often imparts dignity to de Toth's characters implies, among other things, that de Toth likes to depict restraint and composure, and that his view of human nature may be more affirmative than Sarris believed. One senses that even the nastiest de Toth villains get points in his eyes for controlling their strength. In his own, somewhat brutal way, de Toth distributes virtue evenly across his universe, à la Renoir.

Pitfall has an exceptional script that imposes a greater artistic unity than in Ramrod, and manages the unusual feat of uncoupling issues of sympathy from the workings of the drama. (Ramrod has a number of writer's credits, but de Toth claims to have altered the script significantly when he came on board the project. Pitfall, on the other hand, seems to have been adapted by de Toth and William Bowers from Jay Dratler's novel. Karl Kamb, who gets sole adaptation credit, is not mentioned in the de Toth interviews I have read.) Possibly as a result of Pitfall's greater coherence, the restraint that crops up periodically in Ramrod goes global here, and the prevailing mood of inward, banked emotionality seems more a condition of the universe and less a character trait. Certainly Raymond Burr's insane, malevolent Mac draws special attention for his peculiar combination of fixed eye contact and hushed dialogue delivery. (It's amazing that Burr appears inPitfall, Mann's Raw Deal, Sirk's underrated Sleep, My Love, and Ulmer's Ruthless - all in 1948.) But everyone in Pitfall disposes of their pain with quiet dignity: Dick Powell's ill-starred insurance man John Forbes sets the tone with an impressive self-control that preserves some of our wavering sympathy for him, and Lizabeth Scott's femme fatale malgré elle Mona Stevens suffers so calmly as to constitute a major deviation from genre norms. In retrospect, we can guess that the less consistent application of soft-spokenness in Ramrod is probably due to de Toth's incomplete conquest of an ordinary script. Characterization problems crop up in particular around the central figure of Dave Nash, whose motivations are weirdly mysterious until late in the film, and are resolved in an unsatisfyingly conventional manner. As if to match the script problem, McCrea's performance is far from his best, oddly blank when it is not shifting into genre-determined responses to romance or danger. Whereas Preston Foster's villainous Ivey in Ramrod is a fully achieved de Tothian enigma, and DeFore's Bill is pleasingly inflected away from genre-based loose-cannonhood and toward intelligence and reflectiveness.

The flip side of de Toth's fetish for dignity is a strong inclination toward unsettling violence. In Ramrod and Pitfall, the gunplay is less memorable than the fistfights, most of which leave the victim in a serious state of distress. (De Toth appears to have contempt for the commercial cinema's tendency to minimize the effect of injuries, and goes out of his way to show painful recuperation, whether it be Dave Nash's agonized attempts to mount a horse and ride back to civilization with a gunshot wound, or John Forbes' bruised passivity after an unexpected beating from Mac.) Violence in de Toth's films takes place in a highly dramatically charged visual context. Despite a realist inclination, de Toth generally drags violence out a bit for dramatic purposes, quantizing each blow for clarity, often resorting to low angles to heighten the import of the moment. The vanquished fighter often vanishes from our sight in de Toth's mise en scène: possibly to elide the graphic results of the violence, which are alluded to but probably could not be shown in enough detail to satisfy the director; possibly to increase the sadomasochistic undertones of the fights, which seem to destroy identity.

This sadomasochism also crops up in an overtly sexual context, with female characters in each film required to submit to involuntary sexualization at the hands of a detested villain. Neither scene (Connie slapping Ivey in Ramrod; Mona modeling for Mac in Pitfall) is executed in a particularly lurid manner; and de Toth's women generally place much the same value on dignity and restraint as do his men. Without minimizing de Toth's fascination with power imbalance, one notes that his sadomasochistic tendencies are somewhat integrated into the psychological schema of his work, with loss of power and identity as the natural pitfall of characters who aspire to a calm containment. In different ways, Connie in Ramrod and Mona in Pitfall are driven to extreme actions to avoid sexual degradation - their capitulation is so encoded into their social environment that violence is required to combat it. And it would not be a huge stretch to find similar implications in John Forbes' dilemma.

If Sarris failed to note the affirmative aspect of de Toth's view of people, he was not completely off the mark in finding de Toth's world a grim place.  It's as if the director's desire to admire all of his characters was a reaction to an equal and opposite annihilating force from within.

It seems as if the loose cannon type often pops up in De Toth, perhaps as a dramatic contrast to the protagonist(s). Having just viewed Man in the Saddle, I noticed how similar John Russell’s obsessive character was to Pitfall’s Dave Nash. Nice piece!
These are really spot-on observations, and gave me a lot to think about during the films re-screening last night. Pitfall is a tremendous film, a real masterpiece. Ramrod suffers, as you said, but in comparison to the former’s purity, the latter’s complexity of plot and space (and terrific location usage) are conceptually a great deal more interesting. The night shootout there is wonderful too, especially in the light of, as you mention, de Toth’s attention to the real violence of violence, that scene’s isolated, unviolent violence really conjures up something special, and dramatically different than the other violence in the film.

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