Bad cops, family values and the middle class American dream are the themes driving Joseph Losey’s dark riveting film noir, “The Prowler.” Whenever one thinks of voyeurism in the cinema, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” tops the list. For 110 minutes we watch James Stewart observe what goes on in the magnificent studio constructed Greenwich Village court yard. But “Rear Window” was not alone in approaching this topic, in fact, released at almost the same time, within a week of each other was another film, this one from Columbia called “Pushover.” It was directed by Richard Quine and starred Fred MacMurray and a young Kim Novak. Plenty of other films have dabbled in voyeurism including “Psycho,” “The Conversation,” “Peeping Tom,” “Body Double” and more recently “Suburbia.” If one thinks about it, and if you take it to the extreme every film is voyeuristic, subsequently making every moviegoer a voyeur. Now, doesn’t that make you feel good?
So now that you feel nice and dirty we can delve into Joseph Losey’s “The Prowler,” a nasty tale of bad cops, misplaced trust, repressed sexuality, desires and chasing the middle class American dream. That last piece is part of what would get Losey in trouble with the HUAC. It may seem insignificant today but back in the early 1950’s right wing communist witch hunters looked at “The Prowler” as downright subversively un-American, but more on this later.
The world of film noir is filled with good cops like Glenn Ford’s Bannion in “The Big Heat” or Charles McGraw’s Walter Brown in “The Narrow Margin.” Sometime cops want to be good but are drawn to the dark side, for example Dana Andrews’ Mark Dixon in “Where The Sidewalk Ends.” Then there are cops who are just plain bad, real dirt bags like Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in “Touch of Evil,” or Edmond O’Brien’s Barney Nolan in “Shield for Murder.” At the bottom rung of this last category is Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a sleazy worm who doesn’t even like being a cop. He sees it as a nothing job.
Late one night Webb and his partner, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), respond to a call at the home of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), a married woman whose husband William is an overnight disc jockey at a local radio station. Alone, she had called the police after spotting a peeping tom outside her bathroom window. While Bud acts professional, Webb roams the house more interested in checking out both Susan and her personal belongings.
Pretending it’s in the line of duty, Webb shows up the next night at her place in plain clothes “just to see if everything is okay.” They talk and discover they come from the same town in Indiana and even went to the same high school where Webb was an athletic star. He would have gone on to play college sports except for an abrasive personality that caused the coach to side line him. He explains how his life could have been different, better, instead of just being a cop.
Susan’s marriage is not a happy one. Her husband doesn’t trust her. When he comes home after his show every night he quizzes her on what songs he played and what he talked about. This ‘test’ is his assurance that Susan was at home listening to the radio.
Webb confesses his attraction to Susan; at first his advances are rebuffed. Susan claims she’s happily married. Webb says Gilvray sounds like a pretty dull guy. Webb is persistent and Susan’s lonely. She begins to enjoy Webb’s company and eventually succumbs to Webb’s seduction. They make love.
One evening, Webb finds an insurance policy on the husband’s life; his mind begins to churn setting in motion a plan to kill him. Late one night, Susan and William hear something outside their home. Is it the “prowler” again? William goes outside to investigate. We find Webb hiding, he shoots and kills William saying he just happen to be on patrol, thought William to be the prowler and shot William. An investigation clears Webb of any wrong doing.
Webb continues to pursue Susan who is reluctant to be seen with him so soon after her husband’s death. However, her desires and his insistence overcome any restraints and they quickly get married even receiving the blessings of Susan’s late husband’s brother who believes Webb is just a swell guy. He resigns from the police department and with the money from the life insurance policy on William, Webb pursues the American dream of buying his own business, in this case a small motel. The future finally looks good for Webb.
And then Susan whacks him with the news.
Susan reveals she is four months pregnant! Webb is stunned realizing the timing of the pregnancy will reveal their affair began before her husband’s death. This would lend a motive to what really happened. They need to get away from everyone, hide out until the baby is born and enough time passes to explain the baby without it looking like they had relations while hubby was still alive.
The couple head out to the Nevada desert shacking up in a ghost town known as Calico where they set up a distorted world of marital bliss. All goes well until Susan starts experiencing birth pains. She needs a doctor but doesn’t want Webb to get one in fear the doctor or someone will recognize him. But she’s in pain and Webb goes anyway bringing back an elderly doctor who delivers the baby.
Susan soon realizes Webb’s plan is to kill the doctor whom he suspects recognized him. She also comes to realize Webb murdered her husband. She sneaks the doctor the car keys and the doc takes off with the baby. Webb goes off after him but the police have been called and are on the way. They catch up with Webb in the middle of the harsh empty desert, his former comrades shooting him down.
Webb Garwood aspired to a lifestyle beyond his means, a theme Losey would explore later again in “The Servant.” To Webb, everybody is crooked. With one of the film’s best lines of dialogue he spits out his philosophy, “You work in a store you knock down the cash register; a big boss, cheat on your taxes; a ward healer, you buy votes. I was a cop, I used a gun.” Webb wanted the perfect American dream, a wife, a house, to be his own boss and he planned on getting it anyway he could.
Van Heflin is one of those actors who over the course of his career has put together a catalog of characters in some very intriguing films; a former POW who betrayed his men in Fred Zinnemann’s “Act of Violence,” and as a struggling rancher who agrees to guard a notorious outlaw in Delmer Daves “3:10 to Yuma” are two prime examples. Other films like “Shane,” “Johnny Eager,” “Gunmen’s Walk,” “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers,” and “Grand Central Murder” have all been enhanced by Van Heflin’s performances. In “The Prowler” while you don’t trust Webb right from the beginning, Van Heflin gives him a vulnerability that makes you hope he is not as bad as you really believe him to be. Webb Garwood is also one of a long list of alienated, disillusioned characters in Joseph Losey’s cinema.
In this film, Evelyn Keyes had what truly may be the best role of her career. A three-dimensional character filled with hope, loneliness and unfulfilled lust and desires. She is alluring and understatedly sexy enough that you have no problem believing Van Heflin’s obsession with her. In her autobiography, “Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister” Keyes wrote, “The Prowler turned out to be the best picture I ever made.”
Losey’s camera is claustrophobic throughout. Also impressive in the wedding scene which he shoots in one long take using a crane. Losey has said this was his own personal favorite of his early Hollywood films maybe because, like many of his later films, obsession and careerism drive this jaded view of American middle class values.
It was this jaded view that added fuel to Losey being blacklisted. Some in the industry and in Washington saw his cynical dark vision as anti-American. It may be hard today to look at this film and fathom what the big deal was, what was so anti-American about it. But back in those early days of the 1950’s anyone who did not paint a pretty picture of America or even dared to show a dark side was tainted. In the book, “Losey on Losey” the director talks specifically about RKO, run at the time by Howard Hughes, and the process Hughes used to smoke out reds.
”I was offered a film called ‘I Married a Communist,’ which I turned down categorically. I later learned it was a touchstone for who was a “red”: You offered “I Married a Communist, and if they turned it down, they were. It was turned down by thirteen directors before it was made…”
Not exactly scientific, but a good example of the kind of hysteria that was running amuck at the time.
The script was written by Dalton Trumbo who was already blacklisted by this time. Writer Hugo Butler was used as a front. Later Butler would have his own battles with the HUAC. Trumbo’s voice, by the way, was that of the radio announcer you hear. Evelyn Keyes never learned of Trumbo’s involvement in the film until some twenty years later.
The film was only director Joseph Losey’s fourth feature film. He already had a reputation for making films of social significance. His first feature, “The Boy with Green Hair” was a parable on discrimination. “The Lawless” his second film also dealt with bigotry. These two were followed by “M,” a remake of Fritz Lang’s German masterpiece and “The Big Night” which would turn out to be his last American film. Losey’s background as a communist sympathizer caught up with him and he was soon blacklisted. Losey fled to Italy and then to England where he would spend the rest of his life.
One final note, Robert Aldrich was Losey’s assistant director on this film, his second for him. He was also worked on the remake of “M.”
THE PROWLER will air on TCM Monday August 6th at 11:45PM.