The Prowler (1951)

Directed by Joseph Losey

Cinematography by

Arthur C. Miller

When Susan Gilvray reports a prowler outside her house police officer Webb Garwood investigates and sparks fly. If only her husband wasn’t in the way.

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Plot

Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), a disgruntled cop, is called to investigate a voyeur by Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). Her husband works nights as an overnight radio personality. Webb falls in love with the young and attractive married woman.

Obsessed, he woos her despite her initial reluctance and the two begin an adulterous affair. Webb finds out about an insurance policy on the husband’s life. He dreams up a scheme in which a phantom “prowler” would be a good scapegoat if Susan’s husband should happen to die mysteriously. After becoming a prowler himself, Webb “investigates” and then commits the murder, making it look like a tragic accident with he and the husband shooting at each other as each suspected the other of being the prowler. Webb’s ruse fools a coroner’s jury, thanks in part to both Susan and Webb testifying that they didn’t know each other prior to her husband’s death. Susan initially suspects Webb of foul play, but becomes convinced of his innocence and subsequently marries him.

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Shortly after the wedding, Susan informs Webb that she has been pregnant for four months. This is problematic because the date of the child’s conception would prove the two had lied in their testimony to cover up their previous relationship, and would thus suggest that Webb’s killing of Susan’s husband had not been an accident. The two run away to a ghost town named Calico to have the baby without anyone back home knowing. Susan goes into premature labor and Webb finds a doctor, Dr. William James (Wheaton Chambers). Susan realizes that Webb intends to kill Dr. James to preserve their secret, so she warns the doctor who then escapes with the newborn.

Susan tells Webb that she knows what he had planned to do and that she now realizes that he intentionally murdered her husband. Realizing the doctor will send the police after him, Webb drives away, leaving his wife in Calico alone. On the way out of town, he find the road blocked by his former partner on the police force who was coming to pay a visit. While attempting to get around his friend’s car, Webb sees several police cars coming so he heads for the hills on foot. He refuses to stop and a sheriff’s deputy shoots him dead.

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Edgy noir piece in desperate need of a wider audience.

9/10
Author: Spikeopath from United Kingdom
20 March 2010
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a grumpy and unhappy cop who is called to investigate a suspected prowler at the home of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). Garwood is smitten with the young and attractive woman from the off, and sensing her marriage to a late night radio personality is far from happy, he sets about wooing her, obsessively. It’s the start of a coupling that is going to travel down a particularly dark road.

The film opens quite brilliantly with a quick shift of tone, Susan Gilvary is pampering herself in her bathroom, we see her from the window, domestic contentedness. This shot is accompanied by jaunty and jolly music, but then in the blink of an eye, she spies something out the window {it’s us you know}, a scream, the music becomes troubled and she draws the blind. Welcome to Joseph Losey’s creepy skin itcher, The Prowler.

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Very much a two character piece, The Prowler flips the favoured femme fatale formula around to great effect. Here it’s the male protagonist that is the seducer, a cop no less, the abuse of power hanging heavy over proceedings like, yes, some “prowler” lurking in your back garden. It’s made clear to us very early on that Garwood is troubled, he’s up to no good, with a snarl here and a shifty smirk there, we just know that poor Susan is under threat from a man meant to protect her. Yet in a perverse piece of writing, Garwood surely does love Susan, but the bile within and the skew whiff way he now views the world-and his place within it, has ultimately made him a most dangerous anti-hero. It’s evident that the makers here are wryly observing, but without preaching about, the shady underbelly of the American dream, the social differences of the two characters a most intriguing aspect of the story. As is the shift from the affluent setting of the Gilvray home in the first half of the piece, to the finale played out amongst the ghost towns in the Mojave Desert. The desolation of the landscape has rarely been so apt in a noirish world.

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Technically The Prowler boasts high quality. Losey’s direction is tight and holds the viewer in a vice like grip, while the art direction from Boris Leven is superb, particularly in that first quarter as the bright Gilvray house is cloaked in sparse darkness. But it’s with Heflin, and to a lesser extent, Keyes, that the film reaches its high points. Keyes’ character frustrates immensely, her decision making annoys and her surrender to Garwood is at first hard to swallow. But this is a testament to the good work that Keyes does, that she can induce these feelings for the character is surely a job well done. Heflin, tho, is a different kettle of fish. A criminally undervalued actor in his generation, Heflin serves notice here that he could play a bad guy convincingly, almost terrifyingly so too. His shift from meek, almost puppy dog love yearner, to conniving bastard is handled adroitly and gives film noir one of its best homme fatales.

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Back on release big hitting critics such as Manny Farber and Wallace Markfield unreservedly praised the film. While pulp writer supreme James Ellroy is quoted as saying it was one of his favourite film’s. So it’s somewhat surprising that it took until late 2010 to receive a DVD release, that, much like the machinations of Webb Garwood, is very much a crime. Moody, bleak and corrosive in its telling, this is a must see for noir and Heflin purists. 9/10

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Van Heflin is great

7/10
Author: blanche-2 from United States
21 September 2010

Van Heflin is “The Prowler” in this 1951 noir directed by Joseph Losey and also starring Evelyn Keyes. Heflin plays a bitter cop named Webb who meets the lonely Susan (Keyes), whose husband works at night on the radio, when he investigates a prowler at her house. He returns, ostensibly to check up on her, and they discover they’re from the same part of the country. Soon, they’re involved in a love affair that has serious implications.

Losey was a hit or miss director. He was blacklisted and made several films starring Dirk Bogarde in Europe, including the amazing The Servant and a big miss, Modesty Blaise. Here he’s on the money with a suspenseful, well done film. Van Heflin is brilliant as Webb, who finally sees a chance at making his dreams come true, and Keyes is wonderful as Susan, disappointed in her marriage.

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“The Prowler” was restored by UCLA, and for some reason, when Christopher-Jan Horrocks discussed it on TCM, he described the story incorrectly.

Frankly, I thought this film had a couple of plot problems, but I can’t go into them without giving the film away. The event that the plot hinges on is certainly a daring one for those days. I’ll just say that the two main characters would have had to have been Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt for a total stranger to have realized what he realized immediately.

Well worth checking out.

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Critical response

Critical reception for the film has been mostly positive. Film critic Dennis Schwartz liked the film, writing, “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.”

Leonard Maltin awarded the film 3 out of a possible 4 stars, praising its camerawork and production design and calling the film “Unusually nasty and utterly unpredictable”

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  Tense low-budget thriller has its moments…scary performance from Van Heflin…

7 August 2012 | by Neil Doyle (U.S.A.) – See all my reviews

The most unsettling thing about THE PROWLER is the way Van Heflin inhabits the role of a corrupt police officer who worms his way into the life of an innocent woman (Evelyn Keyes), a bored housewife trapped in a loveless marriage with a jealous older man.

From the very first scene, we know that Heflin is going to set a trap for this woman and that eventually she’ll succumb to his dubious charm merely to break the cycle of loneliness she’s used to. The plot sustains interest up until the cliffhanger of an ending in which all hell breaks loose.

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But along the way, there are several glaring faults in the script. Keyes falls in love much too quickly, needing him at her side so desperately that he concocts an accidental shooting to get rid of her hubby. And from then on, her motivations for lying at the inquest are shaky, to say the least. Credibility begins to slip as we lurch toward a very effective ending which won’t be revealed here.

In the meantime, the performances are professional, with John Maxwell excellent as a loyal friend and Wheaton Chambers fine as a reluctant doctor. Joseph Losey gets all the suspense he can out of the script, but in the end the bleak low-key photography and sparse sets gives it the feel of a hurried programmer rather than an A-film.

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a near-forgotten semi-classic of the B film-noir

9/10
Author: MisterWhiplash from United States
23 March 2010
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is the kind of film noir that has its foot rooted in the ‘B’ tradition. What I mean is Losey and his writers (including blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) are keeping their aims low, and scoring high within their limitations. They’re not working with big stars, or even through a big studio. Van Heflin, its main marquee star name, was known later for westerns like Shane and 3:10 to Yuma. And its story, while based on a novel, seems to ring a bit much from The Postman Always Rings Twice, albeit with some obvious differences (the wife in this case becomes attracted to the man after he imposes himself on her, but is still wary, even after the death of her husband by the lover’s hands).

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But in terms of what a ‘film noir’ might mean, in its characters and mood and setting, it rarely gets more ‘noirish’ than this. The themes presented, of characters (or just a character in Webb Garwood) in an existential tailspin to oblivion, and of the danger around sex and murder, not to mention one’s place in a society, are made paramount by Losey. He’ll take some of those given dark shadows on a street or especially outside of Susan’s house at night, where the prowler of the title lurks. But it’s at the scope of the characters, how Webb finds his way into this woman’s life, for better or worse (actually, usually, worse), that makes it consistent and interesting.

Seeing the body language and how the actors Heflin and Evelyn Keyes act towards one another is one aspect of its success. In a thriller of the period, with infidelity and high drama and murder and greed, we need characters to connect to, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. We know from almost the start that Webb’s intentions are rotten, that he wants to insinuate himself into Susan’s life, and to be her’s alone, since a) it’s easy to push over an average though domineering middle-aged husband who can’t give her kids, and b) there’s thousands in the will if he gets bumped off ‘accidentally’ as it were.

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And yet, somehow, I got wrapped up in what would happen to this guy Webb. His plan seems so diabolical, and he is a kind of male femme fatale in a way (or is that ‘masculine fatale’?), but his every action leads towards a psychological mean. Susan is played by Keyes as a woman who is smart and aware, but, being really a small town girl from Indiana (also where Webb is from, small world, huh), she lets her emotions get the better of her. Keyes is believable because she’s not at all twisted in her plans, though does decide after her husband’s death, and knowing what was most likely the truth, to stick with Webb (also, third act twist, she’s been pregnant four months, which adds another level of anxiety and suspense to their situation).

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Sure, some of the things in the film don’t quite hold up over time, like how Susan ends up giving birth in that ghost town. But its faults are few and far between. I loved seeing Helfin’s desperation but also his charisma; he’s like a second-rate (though still impressive) James Cagney, if only in the sake of this part, as he’s deceitful and perhaps more than a little cruel, but alluring, which is just right for what is essentially a corrupt cop. Also admirable is Losey’s use of symbolism and cinematic affectation. When we hear the sound of Susan’s husband coming out of the radio, during his late-night broadcasts, it’s the closest thing to a God in this little world were laws seem to be able to be pushed aside.

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He also manages to pull off something visually that could be obvious, but works just right. In a nearly hypnotic moment, Webb tries in a last ditch effort to escape the law at the end, and tries to climb up a sandy hill. For every step that he takes he loses a bit more ground, and at the end, it’s no use anyway. We know how this story will end, perhaps, from the start, as it was the given at the time (bad guy dies, good people, more or less anyway, live). But it’s the presentation of the images, the stark landscape, the individual crushed by himself in the scope of its fatalistic outcome, that gives Losey the edge here.

The Prowler is a near-forgotten semi-classic of the B film-noir catalog, and is just about essential for anyone studying the form and characters… or just want an entertaining infidelity thriller. 9.5/10

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