The Prowler

Film noir is a look and an attitude as much as anything else. There’s the darkness, both visually and thematically, and the fatalistic tone which creeps ever nearer the doomed characters treading the fine line dividing shadow and light, hope and despair, in this cinematic moral maze. If it grew out of the bitterness nurtured by the economic hardship of the 1930s, the wounds inflicted on society were then cauterized and desensitized by the horrors experienced in WWII. And the end result? A feeling of jaded weariness, of disenchantment when the post-war promise of a brighter future for all remained tantalizingly and agonizingly just beyond the reach of some. The Prowler (1951) is a film about disappointment and dissatisfaction, and the lengths people will go to, either consciously or unwittingly, in an effort to conquer this.

The opening sees Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) reacting with shock on realizing that someone has been observing her through her unshaded bathroom window. Naturally, she calls the police to report the incident and has a visit from a squad car containing an old pro on the eve of retirement, Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), and another younger man, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). It’s the latter who takes the keener interest, not so much in the case itself as the lady at the center of it. You see, Garwood is a dissatisfied soul, a man whose youth was taken up with dreams of wealth and success as a professional athlete. When circumstances didn’t allow this to come to fruition Garwood became a cop, a second-rate job in his opinion and he began to brood. Here’s a man who feels life has cheated him out of what ought to have been his due, and his nocturnal visit to the luxurious Spanish home with the vulnerable and alluring woman inside has just added to his ethical itch. While our disgruntled cop readies himself to scratch while he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, a similar sensation is beginning to come over the woman, just not quite so obviously. She’s not happy either, and you read it in her demeanor, drifting listlessly around her well-appointed but empty home, as her husband (notably absent at least in visual terms until the fateful moment) is an older, less exciting man – and it’s later revealed that he is leaving her unsatisfied in more than one way. The scene is set therefore for a drama built around betrayal, deceit and ultimately murder.

I guess what I’ve written above gives a fair indication of how the tale develops. However, I’ve deliberately left it there – what I mentioned essentially occurs in the first act, and most of it quite early on – as I think it actually moves in slightly unexpected directions, due to some good writing and a pair of strong central performances. The version of the film I watched comes with supplemental contribution from such noir experts as Eddie Muller, James Ellroy and Alan Rode who make the point of how the film is a critique of corrupt authority and how dangerous it is to put too much trust in this. I certainly don’t dispute that reading and I think it’s a major element of Dalton Trumbo’s script. Nevertheless, I found certain other elements, namely the disenchantment and disillusionment with hand dealt by life, every bit as noticeable and important. The character of Garwood has been warped and turned in upon itself by a sense of thwarted entitlement; it’s there in his words when he speaks of his lousy breaks and it’s also writ large on his face as he surveys the comfortable home occupied by Susan and her elusive husband, a marked contrast to the cramped and mean room he lives in. That post-war American Dream wasn’t delivering for Garwood.

As I said, the script was from Dalton Trumbo but this was the era of HUAC and the blacklist and so his name wouldn’t appear on the credits. Originally,  the story (by Robert Thoeren & Hans Wilhelm) was titled The Cost of Living, a phrase repeated by Susan’s husband during his radio broadcasts (voiced by Trumbo incidentally) and I reckon it’s a more apt one than the admittedly catchy The Prowler. The lead is driven by his materialism and his hunger for social status, and the constant refrain of how the cost of living is going down takes on a decidedly pointed meaning when we think how cheap life becomes in his eyes. Still and all, this isn’t some dull socioeconomic diatribe, it’s a pacy and not entirely predictable thriller, and director Joseph Losey moves his camera around with a calm fluidity – it’s never showy or self-conscious but effortlessly artistic. And the climax had me thinking of Anthony Mann and his penchant for driving his characters towards heights they struggle to scale.

Some years ago I wrote a piece on Act of Violence and remarked then on the way Van Heflin was cast somewhat against type. The Prowler takes that a step further by almost entirely subverting the typical dependability of Heflin’s persona. Having him play a policeman, a figure one associates with protection and security, serves to further heighten the shock value of seeing him as a cold and manipulative schemer. Evelyn Keyes is very good too as the suburban wife bored by her everyday isolation, flattered by the attention yet also horrified by the increasingly chaotic turn of events. While there is some interesting support work, most particularly from an earnest and likeable John Maxwell, this is very much a two-hander and a fine showcase for the talents of the leads.

The Prowler came out on DVD first via VCI in the US and that’s the edition I picked up. I was happy enough with the quality at the time and the attractive extra features I referred to earlier were welcome too. A few years later the same company put out a Blu-ray version of the movie but I it sound like a significant upgrade so I just stuck with my older SD copy, and i can’t say I’m displeased. Frankly, I feel this is a fine film noir, well cast, well shot, well written, and well worth ninety minutes of anyone’s time.

16 thoughts on “The Prowler

    • Yes, it takes a remarkably bleak view of everything – marriage, family, authority, society in general – and weaves in voyeurism, implied impotence, extra-marital affairs etc., and all when the production code was still very much in force.

      To be honest, I don’t know if my comment about Mann has any relevance really, it’s just something that struck me as I was watching that climactic scene as it’s a motif that shows up time and again in his work.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Hi, Colin – this is a terrific film and it highlighted for me just how good an actor Van Heflin was. As you say, he’s playing against type here but pulls it off convincingly. Marian Keyes was also very good in this.


    • Yeah, I think any film which relies so heavily on just a couple of performances, and is successful, is always going to be worthwhile. Both Heflin and Keyes did excellent work in layered roles and were handled well by Losey – the inquest scene is a fine bit of shooting.


  2. A very interesting film and a good early example of Losey’s directorial talent. Heflin was always an interesting actor for me and, like Robert Ryan, could move with ease and believability between the ‘good guy’ and not exactly the ‘bad guy’ but usually many shades of grey in between.

    By the way, Colin, I have read many assessments of ‘film noir’ over the years, some pretty pretentious, but your view, weighing up the tough times of the 30s for so many and the passage through WW2 to a darker post-war take on the world, is just right. The language you use to bring the genre to life is, in my humble opinion, simply masterful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s extremely kind of you, Jerry. Thank you.

      I’ve come to appreciate Heflin’s screen work more and more over time, a very accomplished performer with range and depth. So much of screen acting is, I think, in the small things and Heflin had a strong handle on that. He does some very expressive and convincing work in this film.


  3. Great review of a favorite movie. I think you put the finger on the pulse of the movie. Garwood’s life is the American Dream gone wrong, a storyline that we find very often in Noir. Unfulfilled hopes and dreams are the driving force of the Noir (anti)hero. Garwood is certainly one of the most disillusioned Noir protagonists ever.

    This is another Noir that doesn’t have a femme fatale but an homme fatal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, it’s always bugged me to an extent how it’s commonly claimed, or suggested at the very least, that one of the defining characteristics of film noir is the presence of the femme fatale. Sure she’s a figure who appears periodically and is in herself a noir creation, but I don’t believe the character is essential for a film to be included within the genre/category.


  4. But isn’t one of the distinctive features of noir – why it was so subversive in the 1940s and why it is so relevant today – the powerful woman, the one who controls and manipulates the action? So driven are these characters to achieve their goals, that murder is a tool they grasp with both hands. Such characters aren’t essential for a film to be noir but, when present, the genre is at its best.


    • Yes, fair point, Steve. Personally, I have no issue with or dislike of the character type. In fact, I think the best examples of its usage are highly memorable. What I do find somewhat irritating is the impression given by some writers that this is a virtual necessity, and there is a similar misconception that has managed to circulate among casual viewers of noir that the private eye is another staple.


    • Hi, if I may butt in on this conversation, there are a lot of Noirs without a femme fatale. Even really good ones. Raw Deal, Night and the City, DOA, Brute Force, Cross Fire, Pickup on South Street, Kiss of Death, Ace in the Hole, The Big Heat, The Naked City, In a Lonely Place, Touch of Evil, Asphalt Jungle, to name just a few.


      • Yes, while a femme fatale can certainly enhance the right kind of story, it’s possibly true that a strong general female role is as important, if not more so.
        It’s just the way some critics focus on the femme fatale, along with the trenchcoated private eye, creates a restricted view of noir and may lead to some films being, if not exactly ignored, somehow overlooked.


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