The Prowler (1951)




(director: Joseph Losey; screenwriters: from a story by Robert Thoeren/ Hans Wilhelm/Hugo Butler/ uncredited Dalton Trumbo; cinematographer: Arthur C. Miller; editor: Paul Weatherwax; cast: Van Heflin (Webb Garwood), Evelyn Keyes (Susan Gilvray), John Maxwell (Bud Crocker), Katherine Warren (Mrs. Crocker), Emerson Treacy (William Gilvray), Madge Blake (Martha Gilvray), Robert Osterloh (Coroner), Wheaton Chambers (Dr. James), Louise M. Bates (Doctor’s Wife), Sherry Hall (John Gilvray); Runtime: 92; United Artists; 1951)

“A neat noir thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A neat noir thriller that has a slight variation on the “Double Indemnity” theme, this time it is the guy who is the seducer. This is a Joseph Losey American film, made before his self-exile from the 1950s HUAC witch hunt days when he fled to England. It is the director’s aim to highlight social issues and class differences. They will play a major role in the motif, adding to the usual noir ones of dark character and sexual misconduct. Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted writer, is the uncredited cowriter of the script.

The film opens with a beautiful framing shot of a woman in the window screaming as she sees a prowler. The patrol car partners respond and come to a luxurious Spanish-styled house, in an affluent L. A. neighborhood. The caller is an attractive and frightened woman, Susan Gilvray (Keyes), who saw someone peering into her window after she came out from her bath. The two officers, the bespectacled veteran Bud Crocker (Maxwell) and the much younger but less civil cop, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), question her and give her some safety tips to avoid having the prowler return. There is one arresting shot of Webb peering into the same window the same way the prowler did and eliciting the same response from Mrs. Gilvray as before. This is a sign of what’s to come, as Webb will take the place of the prowler. He will slowly maneuver his way into Susan’s life and starts an affair that will result in a tragic outcome.

Bud is a married man who has never fired his gun after 20 years on the force, whose interest lies in collecting rocks in the desert and in visiting ghost towns. His wife doesn’t care too much for Webb because he isn’t proud to be a cop as he feels that he is a failure after getting a basketball scholarship to college, but couldn’t catch a break when his coach withdrew that scholarship and he had to take this police job — which he considers demeaning. She also senses he is disinterested in hearing what Bud has to say about his hobby.

Finding Susan to be attractive and wealthy, Webb’s interest in her is piqued. He goes back to her place and strikes up a cordial conversation discovering that they are both Hoosiers, though she is from an exclusive neighborhood and he’s from the other side of the tracks. He thought that she was single and is disappointed to find out that her husband John (Sherry) is an all-night radio talk-show personality, whom she listens to because he questions her about the program afterwards. His trademark signal at the end of his show is, “I’ll be seeing you Susan.” This is particularly annoying for Webb, as he calls his voice oily.

Webb can’t contain himself any longer, realizing that she is a lonely woman who doesn’t love her wealthy husband. He becomes sexually aggressive, but she resists by slapping him a few times and telling him to never come back. But the resilient Webb comes back in uniform with a seemingly sincere apology and the two get together. The affair begins because her boredom is replaced with sexual ecstasy. Webb tells her that he wants more than this affair, he wants her as his wife. He also knows he will need money to support someone who is used to living in luxury.

After Webb’s vacation in Las Vegas, where he dreams of bettering himself financially and becoming a motel owner, he cooks up an ingenuous scheme to get rid of her husband. Webb does this, because he has discovered in Gilvray’s will that he has left a small fortune to Susan.

Warning: spoilers to follow throughout.

After dropping Bud off when their patrol is over Webb will go to Susan’s house and cut the screen door, making it appear as if a prowler is there. The Gilvrays call the police and he is sent to investigate that report. To get John to come out again with his pistol he makes some noise around the house and when John comes out he manages to shoot him making it look accidental, even taking John’s pistol and winging his arm with it.

Susan is repelled by Webb, believing he killed her husband. But in the coroner’s jury it is ruled an accident. There’s a great camera shot at the end of the inquest, when Webb is exonerated and all the men in blue come up to congratulate him. The resilient Webb quits the police force after that, saying the accident shook him up and he will never handle a gun again. But he is now closed out of Susan’s life, so he goes to John’s brother, William (Treacy), who is satisfied with the jury’s verdict and willing to see Webb. He even mentions that his brother was a tough one to live with and he knows he didn’t get along that well with Susan. Webb asks him to give Susan his life savings of $700, to help her out in case she needs some money. This effort to elicit sympathy for himself works, as William pushes them together and they soon decide to get married.

Webb is now as happy as he’s ever been in life; he’s got his woman, her money, and a motel in Las Vegas. But she tells him that she is four months pregnant and the wheels start to spin in the hard-luck Webb’s head. He knows that John is sterile and that they haven’t been married long enough for the child to be his. Fearing that he will be charged with the murder and Susan as his accomplice, he talks her into going to one of Bud’s ghost towns in the Mojave Desert to have the baby.

The desolation of the desert, where there isn’t a neighbor for miles, brings out a certain peace in them even though they are living in a rundown shack. But by mistake they hear a recording of John’s radio program, including his trademark goodnight to Susan, which breaks the jubilant mood and sets the dismal one to come.

When complications arise in her birth, Webb says he will go into town to get a doctor. But Susan sees him pack his gun and it dawns on her that she is living with a murderer, and that he will kill the doctor.

The doctor delivers the baby. But in an earlier conversation with her husband, Susan gets Webb to admit that he married her to get the money in the will. Susan is able to warn the doctor of the danger he is in and he flees in his car with the baby. Webb has no choice but to flee alone, back to ground zero in his life. The last frame shows him running into his past as he meets Bud on the road, whom he angrily tells to get out of his way when trapped in the one lane road leading out of the desert. He runs away from Bud and the police who have just arrived and he tries to climb a sand dune, but the police shoot him just as he crawls his way to the top.

The Prowler” shows the underside to the American Dream and its all-American antihero, the milk drinking, status seeking Van Heflin. He’s a law enforcer but who is himself the abuser of power; and in contrast, his lonely bride, Evelyn Keyes, who wants the same material things as he does, but is willing to sacrifice her need for material things for love and security.

The reason Van Heflin got away with the initial crime is because he is one of the boys in the power structure: his image as a clean-cut white American, the ruling class in the social structure, stops others from questioning his use of power. As for the contemptuous Van Heflin, who really has a disregard for others, his love for Keyes was real but not enough for him, he had to also have the superficial material trappings of life to satisfy his weak ego. That is the bad break he made for himself and the reason he went over the edge. These two stars gave superb performances in this arresting thriller.