The Prowler (1951)

Director: Joseph Losey

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This week, Noir City is in Chicago, bringing with it some luminaries of noir cinema, including Foster Hirsch, author of the authoritative Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen and other books on cinema, and Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation. Both were present for the rare screening of The Prowler, a noir classic that has been unavailable for many years. The Film Noir Foundation came to the rescue of this languishing film not only because it’s stylish and compelling, but also because of the talent who put it together. Horizon Pictures, aka John Huston and Sam Spiegel (credited in the film as S. P. Eagle), produced the film; blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo wrote it (his credited front Hugo Butler would later be blacklisted); Robert Aldrich was assistant director; and the director, Joseph Losey, would flee to England to avoid the blacklist and establish a distinguished career for himself there. Film preservation/restoration is a tricky business, but let there be no doubt that The Prowler was worth the effort.

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The film opens with a shot of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) as seen from outside her bathroom window as she prepares for a bath. She turns toward the window, and her smile is replaced by a twisted look of horror. She quickly pulls down the window shade. Two uniformed cops, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) and his partner Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), answer a call to investigate a report of a prowler. They arrive in a posh section of Los Angeles and knock on Susan’s door. Crocker talks with her and goes to the bathroom to investigate her vantage point. Garwood, after nosing intrusively around the Gilvray home and making a few fresh remarks to Susan, goes outside to check for footprints. When Crocker lifts the window shade, Garwood’s face is framed in the window. He found no evidence to suggest a prowler had been there. The cops leave Susan with the suggestion that she pull down her shade in future.

In short order, Webb starts coming around to see Susan, who is alone at night because her husband (Sherry Hall in person, the voice of Dalton Trumbo on the radio) works evenings announcing what sounds a bit like a Paul Harvey radio show with music. They find that they attended rival high schools in neighboring Indiana towns, with Susan saying how she admired Webb’s athletic abilities and cut his picture out of the local newspapers. She is unhappy in her marriage because her husband can’t give her the children she wants. The two begin an affair. This being noir, we know what that means.

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Van Heflin plays Garwood with all the aggressive dissatisfaction of any noir antihero who thinks life dealt him a bad hand. When Webb pursues Susan, she’s too lonely and unhappy to notice what a bum’s rush it is. Webb hates being a cop and dreams of owning a motel in Vegas that will be a moneymaker without him having to lift a finger. It’s hard to know whether he truly loves Susan—though it appears he does—or simply her rich lifestyle and, later, the insurance policy on her husband’s life he finds when he picks a lock in Gilvray’s desk—a script convenience that helps us picture Webb scheming right from the start.

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Susan is the real wild card in this film because of the subtle neuroticism with which Keyes infuses her. Susan seems like a horrified innocent when she realizes Webb murdered her husband. Yet, during the coroner’s inquest, she lies for him, causing the grand jury to label the death accidental. She marries him in record time—later, when we learn she is four months pregnant, her motives come screaming into question; she was an actress, after all, though she claimed to have had no talent. Keyes never betrays Susan as an accomplice to her husband’s murder; she’s not like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) telling Walter Neff she only wanted her husband dead, that she wouldn’t have actually killed him, and then coming clean to having played Neff from the start. She’s horrified when she realizes that Webb intends to kill the doctor he has fetched to help deliver their baby in an abandoned mining camp, a hideout to prevent authorities from learning that Susan lied about not knowing Webb before her husband’s death. When she warns the doctor of Webb’s malicious intentions, we have to wonder whether Susan is now trying to get rid of Webb, too, to cover her tracks completely, now that she has the baby she always wanted. Or maybe one murder really is all she can live with.

There is so much rumbling under the surface of Susan Gilvray, so many sentences that we think are going to end one way and go in another. This is a brilliantly written and realized character, one that kept me in the movie even when Van Heflin and the colorfully corny supporting characters threatened to turn the film to kitsch. Foster Hirsch doesn’t even believe there was a prowler. Indeed, the way Losey shoots Van Heflin through the bathroom window makes it pretty clear who is planning to invade this home after the distressed “invitation” of the lady of the house.

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The settings are brilliant, from the rather eerie and lifeless Gilvray home to the dust and tumbleweeds of the mining town, where the incessant winds create a mad atmosphere similar to that of the great silent classic The Wind (1928). In the seedy SRO where Webb lives, he proudly displays evidence of his dead aim with a gun. The motel Webb buys and in which he and Susan will live seems to be a physical emblem of their adulterous and murderous alliance, the deafening noise of the trucks barreling down the road and pulling into the parking lot an accusing cacophony. Justice is served up somewhat arbitrarily, but the final image of Webb’s desperate climb up a slippery slope is as symbolic and appropriate at they come.

  • Richard Harland Smith spoke:
    4th/08/2009 to 4:12 pm

    Yes, this is a nice and nasty piece of work, isn’t it? I think the whole relationship between Susan and Webb is based on who they represent to one another – he to her a sense of security and masculine tonnage and she to him a thing of beauty, something soft, a keepsake of more innocent times. Like a lot of noir, The Prowler is about postwar restlessness (and this title is one of the more apt in the very diverse canon), the dark side of affluence.
    I wrote about The Prowler back in February of last year for Turner Classic Movies. Wish I’d seen this on the big screen.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/08/2009 to 5:21 pm

    Do you really think Susan is a symbol of more innocent times? Webb does not seem homesick for his hick-town past. He longs for Vegas, the big time, to be a big shot. Susan is beautiful, from the right side of the tracks, both in Indiana and in Los Angeles, and desperate. He’s got her eating out of his hand when he pretends to throw her over. She’s a symbol of success to him, in my opinion. For her, Webb is virile, not much more. I think he’s like Stanley Kowalski to her Stella Du Bois.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    4th/08/2009 to 10:09 pm

    A fine piece, Marilyn. Your description of Gilvray as having “so many sentences that we think are going to end one way and go in another” is a fine turn of phrase.
    I’ve never seen the film, so it’s hard for me to comment … though I’ve never been a Heflin fan, it sounds right up my alley.

  • Fox spoke:
    4th/08/2009 to 11:01 pm

    I like the way Webb works his way around the house and get’s his head framed by the window in the same way that Susan said she saw the prowler. You mention in your review that Losey is clearly leading us here, but do you think the filmmakers are also saying that she’s somehow inviting this on herself?… maybe even in an exhibitionist way?

  • Miranda Wilding spoke:
    4th/08/2009 to 11:58 pm

    This sounds absolutely delicious, Marilyn. If I ever find it, I’ll definitely sit down and give it some time and attention.
    I worship noir. We have our own Film Noir Festival that’s just about to kick off up here. Greatly looking forward to immersing myself in those dusky classic gems.
    Evelyn Keyes, from what I understand, was a real live wire off screen. It’s unfortunate that she never really got her due in terms of her profession, though. She was really quite talented.
    I imagine she’s most famous for playing Vivien Leigh’s kid sister in GONE WITH THE WIND. She was also the woman that Mike Todd left…for Elizabeth Taylor.
    After that, Ms. Keyes is said to have retorted, “Elizabeth Taylor has had many grand love affairs. But the most important one she ever had is with herself.”
    Ah, well…
    Great crackling review as always, Marilyn.

  • Richard Harland Smith spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 1:58 am

    Well, when I say she’s a keepsake of more innocent times, I don’t mean that Webb wants to go back to his past. He can’t. He’s not the same guy. But I do think there’s a layer of psychology for both of these people that operates on sheer ornamentation. He’s the polar opposite of her intellectual, sexless husband she she’s a dish… but she’s not a cheap, disposable kind of dish. I think, at least initially, there’s a idolization going on – it’s not even that she’s just beautiful, it’s that she’s the kind of woman every man wants and Webb wants her for that reason, as if he can only desire a woman who has a value to other men. If that makes sense.

  • Richard Harland Smith spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 2:00 am

    Memo to self: don’t comment while tired.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 8:09 am

    Fox – I think Foster Hirsch had the right idea when he said she was a lonely woman. She might have imagined a prowler just to get some company. I think this is probably right. She’s obviously a bundle of nerves, and she does invite the affair in numerous subtle ways. I’m not sure about the exhibitionism in the bathroom – there doesn’t seem to be much opportunity for people to see her (unlike Susan Sarandon’s lemon wash in Atlantic City), but I do think exhibitionism motivates her actions. She wants company, wants to be seen, and is horrified at her own desire to be exhibitionist.
    RH – Yes, it does make sense, and I think that’s what I was getting at. She’s his ultimate trophy wife.

  • Maya spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 11:13 am

    Marilyn, great to read your synopsis. It was like watching the movie all over again. I like your photos too. Where did you find them?
    Evelyn Keyes is an underrated actress. Along with many of its incentives, Noir City has turned me on to so many of the key players in this period of film history. Heflin has never been one of my favorites. I just don’t understand his appeal.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 11:33 am

    Thanks, Maya. I know a lot of people don’t like too much plot in a review, but I just can’t seem to change my ways.
    I haven’t seen Keyes in much. I was astounded at her first-rate performance in this film. She’s not an iconic femme fatale, but something better – a real woman with many mixed emotions and confusing behaviors. Van Heflin isn’t that great, but she makes he look better than he is.
    As for the photos, it took a little digging, but I turned up a couple of sites that had images to go with their reviews of the film. I usually look at the external reviews on IMDb and Google images.

  • Maya spoke:
    5th/08/2009 to 11:49 am

    I first noticed Keyes when she played Al Jolson’s wife in The Al Jolson Story, across Larry Parks; but, only because I love that biopic so much. I didn’t really know her by name until Noir City. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see a few more of her films at their editions. One year Eddie invited Tab Hunter–a close friend of Evelyn’s–to talk about her. Apparently, she had quite the mouth on her.

  • Whit spoke:
    6th/08/2009 to 12:46 pm

    I hope this isn’t a film that I seen before but I don’t recognize the name. I’d like to see a really good one. I highly recommend –
    Act of Violence (1948)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    6th/08/2009 to 7:03 pm

    I was lucky enough to speak with Foster Hirsch months back at a screening of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL at the restored movie palace, the Jersey City Lowes, and have secured his most excellent new film noir volume. He is a most fascinating fellow. I have heard about the Chicago Noirest through our beloved “Dee Dee” and have been informed of the screenings and some engaging anecdotes involving Mr. Hirsch and Eddie Muller. I am a huge fan of Joseph Losey, and believe his DON GIOVANNI to be one of the greatest of all opera films, and THE GO-BETWEEN, THE CRMINAL and THE SERVANT to be superlative pieces. MR. KLEIN is interesting too.
    Alas, I have NOT seen THE PROWLER, and was asked just yesterday by a reader at our site if I would be able to secure a copy? The reader lives in Illinois. is this a coincidence with teh festival, or has he been at Ferdy on Films?! Ha! Either way, the film is hot, and after reading this exceedingly riveting treatment (I hung with every word) I will be on the lookout!

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