This week’s film recommendation is an unusual, disturbing film noir that has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years: 1951’s The Prowler. Made by left-wing artists who were being harassed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it’s a dark take on class resentment, sexual repression, and the ruthless pursuit of the American dream.
Many film noirs feature cops who are half-witted or on the take, but The Prowler is the only one I know where the central character is both a police officer and a calculating, manipulative psychopath. Van Heflin is mesmerizing as Webb Garwood, a flatfoot who is called to investigate a report of a prowler in a wealthy neighborhood. The call comes from Susan Gilvray, played with vulnerability by Evelyn Keyes (I also raved about her work in 99 River Street). Webb lusts for Susan immediately, not just physically but also for her and her husband’s obvious status in society.
Susan is both flattered and scared by Webb. Sensing her ambivalence, he pays her several more visits until the lonely and repressed Susan — who wants a baby — gives in to his advances. Eerily, their liaisons are accompanied by the sound of her husband’s voice, a radio announcer who works at night. Webb now has the wealthy man’s wife that he wanted, but he knows he doesn’t possess her completely, nor does he have access to the money he wants to buy his own place in the world. But if her husband were out of the way, who knows what might be possible?
In terms of establishing character and framing the plot elements, the script of The Prowler is one of the best in noir. The screen credit went to Hugo Butler, but Dalto Trumbo wrote much of the script. He was blacklisted and couldn’t be acknowledged publicly as a screenwriter, but in what was probably an inside joke at the expense of the McCarthyites, he provides the voice of Susan’s husband on the radio (again, uncredited). Anyone who wants to learn how to write strong scripts should watch the scene early in the movie in which Webb and Susan discuss their experiences growing up in Indiana. As Webb explains how he blew his chance to get a college education, the audience understands immediately his smallness as a human being and his entitled rage towards people whom he tells himself have denied him what he deserves.
The film also demonstrates something many producers forget: Characters don’t have to be likable, they just have to be interesting. Neither of the principals are people you’d want as your neighbors, but it’s extremely compelling to follow the tenebrous twists of their relationship.
The direction, by the soon to be blacklisted Joseph Losey (probably best known for the thematically similar The Servant), is unusual and effective. He structures the scenes in play-like fashion, with long takes in just a few key, evocative sets. Those locations each have their own vivid bleakness, especially the ghost town in which the third act occurs. Congratulations are due to Art Director Boris Leven and Set Designer Jacques Mapes for tremendous work on a small budget.
The film suffers slightly from a lull between the first and third acts as well as some plotting improbabilities, but it’s still a bit surprising that it wasn’t more of critical and popular hit upon release. It may have been a bit ahead of what a 1951 U.S. audience wanted to see in a story focused on a police officer. It was however very popular in Europe, where Losey was soon to flee to escape political persecution. Later, the film was reappraised by U.S. film noir devotees and its reputation has deservedly grown.
The Prowler is in public domain, and has been remastered version by UCLA’s vaunted restoration team (with financial support from The Stanford Theater Foundation).