Director: Joseph Losey
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.