Joseph Losey, 1951
Starring: Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes
Susan, a housewife alone at night, calls the cops to report a prowler in her backyard. Webb Garwood, one of the officers who arrives, becomes smitten with Susan and her comfortable lifestyle. Her husband works as a radio DJ and is away nearly every night, so Webb begins checking in on Susan. He soon pushes for a romance and the lonely, love-starved Susan eventually allows him to seduce her. Their relationship develops, particularly when Webb finds out that her husband has a life insurance policy, but she refuses to run away with him. One night Webb pretends to be a prowler and kills Susan’s husband. He convinces everyone it is an accident and he Susan marry. But then she reveals that she is several months pregnant, and soon everyone will know of their affair…
For whatever reason, The Prowler is somewhat lesser known alongside Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Out of the Past, and other famous noir works. But The Prowler is insidious as it is disturbing, the tale of a bad cop who seduces a woman and kills her husband. Van Heflin (Act of Violence, 3:10 to Yuma) gives off a quality of ambiguity that is used at its best here as the antihero Webb. Actually, I don’t even know if Webb could be referred to as an antihero. He’s morally black, motivated purely by greed and narcissism; at no time does director Joseph Losey depict him as sympathetic.
The fact that Webb is a cop is perhaps what made this film so shocking for its time. Authority figures, particularly policemen, were almost never cinematically tarnished in the ‘40s or ‘50s, with the possible exception of minor characters who quickly receive their just desserts. And here, Webb hates his job — actually looks down on the police force and compares it to other, more menial blue collar professions — and is an antisocial loner who seduces another man’s wife, murders the man, essentially all for his life insurance policy. Violent cops in films like On Dangerous Ground or Where the Sidewalk Ends are represented as inherently good men driven to violent ends and they are always punished — or at least psychologically tormented — for their misdeeds. Webb is irredeemable, little more than a psychopath, and obsessed with wealth and advancement. Like the Laurie Starr in Gun Crazy, he wants to amass a fortune and a life of comfort without putting forth any work at all.
Despite the occasional appearances of a few side characters, this is essentially a two-person film. Van Heflin’s Webb is contrasted with Evelyn Keyes (wife of director John Huston) as the lonely, innocent Susan. If Webb represents the dark side of greed and the lust for success implied by the American dream, Susan represents a different kind of dark side. She is a woman confined and nearly destroyed by the dream of the perfect family, of middle-class bliss. She is locked in the house by a controlling husband and denied her dreams — nothing more than a family — and simply exudes pent up sexuality. Her husband is a radio DJ who expects her to listen to — and report back on — every single show, and creepily ends each broadcast with the catch phrase, “I’ll be seeing you, Susan.”
One of the film’s strongest points is the connection between this phrase, the actual prowler at the start of the film, and Webb as a coveter, a man who lurks in the shadows, drooling over someone else’s success. Despite its lovely cinematography, The Prowler is a sunny, brightly lit film. Aside from a few scenes shot at night, this blazing light serves to focus the constant sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, which emanates from Webb stuck, like a tiger in a cage, in his tiny bedroom, or Susan trapped in a bleak, lonely image of domestic bliss. The Prowler is also somewhat unique for its depiction of pregnancy and childbirth. Though they were sordid subjects through the ‘60s, they are depicted in full detail here and are an integral part of the film’s second act.
Director Joseph Losey had a short, but fairly controversial career and was soon blacklisted, after which he fled to Europe for the rest of his life. The Prowler, his masterwork, was written by another blacklisted artist, Dalton Trumbo, who penned the script in secret. It is certainly an indictment of '50s culture in America and is one of the nastiest films of the decade. It's a bleak, perverse little film that comes highly recommended. Available on DVD, it’s definitely worth a purchase and not a rental.