The Prowler (1951) (VCI) has been one of those acknowledged classics of film noir that many have had to take on faith for far too long.
All but absent from TV screenings since the early days of cable TV, never released on VHS and previously unavailable on DVD, The Prowler has been almost impossible to see, something of an orphan thanks to being independently produced outside the studio system by Sam Spiegel (using the credit S.P. Eagle) for his own company, Horizon Pictures. Prints were wearing out, original elements lost or destroyed and no studio was there to step in and preserve the film until the Film Noir foundation partnered with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to restore the film from the best materials they could find anywhere. The result is manna from noir heaven: a nearly stellar edition of film that, until a couple of years ago, was relegated to rare TV prints and even rarer repertory revivals of a sole, increasingly overworked circulating 35mm print.
Directed by Joseph Losey for Spiegel as he was also making The African Queen and scripted by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (behind front Hugo Butler), The Prowler (which was produced under the working title “The High Cost of Living”) is a classic of working class envy, restless resentment of the “bad breaks” that arrogance and assumed entitlement get you and the brutal opportunism of a former golden boy willing to do anything to get what he’s sure is due him.
Van Heflin, an actor who (3:10 to Yuma excepted) hasn’t impressed me much, is, in a word, brilliant as Webb Garwood, the small town sports hero who sabotaged his future. Now he goes through the motions of public service as a beat cop while he looks through the windows of opportunity along his beat. What he finds is a woman left alone every night by her radio deejay husband. Evelyn Keyes is lovely young wife Susan Gilvray, married to the disembodied voice on the radio who signs off every broadcast with “I’ll be seeing you, Susan,” which starts out as a lover’s promise and ends as a threat. Using the implied authority of his uniform to insinuate himself into her home, ostensibly to follow up on a prowler scare, we see Webb worm his way into her life.
Losey and Trumbo lay in a wealth of commentary without putting it in capital letters. Webb wears the best clothes but lives in a grubby single room. He talks a story of big dreams only to reveal that his ambition is to own motor court: a motel just outside of Las Vegas that, from the looks of it, isn’t much classier than the Bates Motel (which must be just up the road). And he’s a bald opportunist. It’s hard to tell if he really loves Susan or simply loves what she represents, especially the way he works her like a salesman shaping his pitch for the audience. When seduction doesn’t work, he leverages small town camaraderie to a chummy friendship. When macho aggressiveness throws her defenses up, he plays the wounded, lovelorn penitent and charms his way into her arms. The sharp “please don’t” of alarm from one attempted assault melts into a moan on his next pass, the words losing all conviction except the fear of giving in to her desire.
What really makes Webb such a riveting figure, even more than his arrogance and his sense of entitlement, is the cold-blooded way he shifts personality to play a vulnerable, warm-blooded romantic. Heflin pours his conviction into this role, never letting the mask slip as Webb plays his parts. Only once, after the curtain falls on his act, does he reveal the actor behind the role, bouncing with sadistic joy at how his command performance is working on the tormented audience of one. He’s a piece work and all the more terrifying for his callous amorality.
The dialogue is stacked with loaded dialogue, flirtations and verbal passes. When Webb asks “Why did you marry him?,” he isn’t looking for an answer, he’s telling her that he knows she doesn’t love her husband and is offering to take his place. She’s tempted: a young woman with an older, possessive man who leaves her alone every evening, she has her own desires and Webb knows just how to play on them. But she has guilt working on the other end of her desire. Webb is under no such handicap. One peek at the old man’s will and the gears start turning.
All through this, we have not seen the husband’s face, only heard his voice (which, it turns out, is an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, a dig at the censors since Trumbo was blacklisted and Losey was soon to follow) and seen him in silhouette. Only when Webb executes his scheme (so to speak) do we finally put a face to the presence and it’s a bold, startling close-up that punctuates the violence of the action. He was just a voice, a blank, until this moment, but he’s a person as he dies, no longer faceless or anonymous.
The Prowler doesn’t necessarily have the dominant visual scheme that defines so many of the great noir films but Losey’s approach makes its own magic out of night scenes in a seemingly safe suburban neighborhood. The camera creeps up to an open bathroom window in the pre-credits sequence to stare at a woman stepping out of a shower in a towel; her shout and sudden tug on the blind calls in the rumble of the opening theme and the slashing letters of the opening credits. When Webb answers the police call, he traces the steps of the peeper right to the same window and peers through the window, just as much a prowler himself, both judging and wanting. He likes what he sees, the girl and the life out of reach of this working class stiff.
Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller uses the lights not to cast shadows or obscure, but to pick the figures out of the darkness, almost like a spotlight. He saves the shadows for intimacy: Webb’s shadow swallows up Susan when she gives in to her desire. And in the final act, which plays out in a crumbling ghosts town outside an abandoned mine in a blind desert canyon, there are no shadows at all, just the lonely wind blowing through the desolation of their self-imposed isolation: the fool’s gold of his impossible dream. That deserted town makes for a magnificent exile for the finale, adding an eerie atmosphere to the “us against the world” romanticism Susan brings to the situation, little realizing what’s really behind Webb’s paranoia.
Restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive with support by the Film Noir Foundation, this orphaned landmark film arrives on DVD from VCI. No offense to the erstwhile label, which makes a specialty of independent and off-studio classics (to use the generic version of the term), but VCI doesn’t have a reputation for the high quality of its masters. Rest assured, this is a top-notch, the best DVD they’ve released yet in terms of technical quality. The restoration is gorgeous, rich and clean and sharp, and the master is vivid and rich and crystal clear. There are minor interlacing issues but I only found those upon a more thorough examination. Watching the film through it looked superb, with a clarity worthy of the Film Foundation-sponsored “Film Noir Classics” box sets.
The disc features commentary by Film Noir expert and founder of the Film Noir Foundation Eddie Muller, a top notch film noir historian and a born raconteur, skills that make him top man for such duties. He’s in fine form with this film, which was a labor of love project of restoration for him and the Film Noir Foundation, and he lavishes his research and insight through the commentary. The 25-minute “The Cost of Living: Creating the Prowler,” featuring interviews with historians Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rodes, authors James Ellroy (fast becoming a parody of himself: “It’s perv noir,” he proclaims repeatedly) and Denise Hamilton, and Christopher Trumbo (son of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo), is the most professional caliber featurette I have seen to date on a VCI disc. It covers the origins, history and curious stories behind the production along with a perceptive reading of the film. French film historian Bertrand Tavernier gives his perspective on the film (“maybe one of the ten best films of the genre”) in the 20-minute interview featurette “The Masterpiece in the Margins: Bertrand Tavernier on The Prowler,” and while it is sometime difficult to penetrate his accent, it is worth the effort. His passion is palpable and his insights are many. And if you listen very carefully, you will hear Eddie Muller lobbing questions from behind the camera. The nine-minute featurette on the restoration is an excellent overview of the need for the preservation, the challenges faced by film restorers and the tools used in restoration. Also features a pressbook still gallery and the trailer.