Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Prowler (Eagle Productions/United Artists, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Prowler, made in 1951 by producer S. P. Eagle (a.k.a. Sam Spiegel — he had decided to form a pseudonym by turning the first two letters of his last name into initials, and various jokesters in Hollywood came up with similar names for other well-known producers of the time, like M. A. Yer or Z. A. Nuck) and director Joseph Losey, and a quite good film noir that had been singularly elusive; I had seen it on commercial TV on a local San Diego station in the early 1980’s but shortly thereafter it dropped through the cracks of commercial distribution and has only resurfaced recently, with an official DVD release and some new exposure on TCM.

It’s one of the rather interesting sub-genre of noir in which the protagonist is a cop who goes over to the criminal side — others include the Douglas Sirk/Sam Fuller Shockproof (a quite impressive movie despite the rewrite of Fuller’s script by producer Helen Deutsch, which Sirk felt ruined the film), Pushover (directed by Richard Quine at Columbia in 1954 with Fred MacMurray essentially rehashing his role from Double Indemnity, only instead of a corrupted insurance salesman he’s a corrupt cop, and Kim Novak surprisingly impressive in her first major role as the woman who corrupts him) and Private Hell 36 (a rather messy movie, also from 1954, in which Ida Lupino co-produced with her previous husband Collier Young and co-starred with her then-husband Howard Duff, and director Don Siegel resented the “bedroom politics” that were going on around him — though he still got a chilling performance out of Steve Cochran as the bad cop).

The Prowler begins with officers Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) and Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) getting a call that Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) has reported an attempted break-in at her elaborate home in the L.A. suburbs. Webb is immediately struck by Susan even though, when he asked her point-blank if she was married, she said yes — to a man who made enough money to retire and build the house they’re living in, but who continues to work for the fun of it, doing an all-night D.J. show on a local station which Susan feels she has to listen to continually because he slips little messages to her in between the records, then gets upset if he comes home and she hasn’t heard them. (He always signs off his program with her name.) She and Webb are both transplants from Indiana and even attended the same high school, where Webb was a star athlete — good enough to win a college basketball scholarship (we see him lying on his bed in a small room, wadding up a piece of paper and throwing it into the light fixture as if it were a basketball, which had Charles worried that by doing that he was going to set the room on fire), only to blow it after the second game when the coach benched him, he argued it and got kicked off the team and lost his scholarship.

The Prowler continues as Webb invents excuses to come to Susan’s house, at first in the guise of a cop and later leaving her under no illusions that he’s there because he wants her sexually — Losey indicates the change by having him turn up there in street clothes instead of his uniform — and she rather reluctantly drifts into an affair with him that seems motivated more by boredom than love. He’s interested not only in her but the $65,000 she stands to inherit if her husband dies, which would give Webb the money he would need to quit the police force and buy a motel in Nevada, so — without telling her, which alone sets this apart from most noirs — he hatches a plot to murder Gilvray by pretending to be responding to another prowler call; he will slash open a screen door at the house and lure Gilvray outside with a gun, thinking he’s warning off the prowler; then Webb will shoot Gilvray and claim he mistook him for the prowler (and to make this credible he uses Gilvray’s gun to wound himself after he’s shot and killed Gilvray). The coroner’s jury returns a verdict of accidental homicide after Susan and Crocker both lie for Webb — saying that she’d never seen him before the night he “accidentally” killed her husband (why they felt a need to lie when there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly incriminating about the fact that the two cops were out to Susan’s house on a prowler call before is a loose end screenwriter Hugo Butler, working from a story by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm, doesn’t bother to explain) — and Webb and Susan marry, which prompts attention from the tabloids, obviously driven by the salaciousness of a widow marrying the man who (albeit supposedly justifiably) killed her husband, then buy the motel and run it together.

It appears that Webb has pulled off the perfect crime when biology rears its ugly head; Susan turns out to be pregnant, and the pregnancy is too far along for the child to have been conceived after Gilvray’s death — and it can’t be Gilvray’s because he was impotent (a flash point in the relationship between him and Susan that helped lead her to be interested in an affair in the first place). Webb freaks out and insists that he and Susan drive out to a ghost town in the Nevada desert his partner Crocker once told him about, where they will remain until she’s had her baby; they’ll either stay there long enough to pass off the baby as post-marital or place it in a home and then “adopt” it legally. Only when Susan actually starts going into labor Webb freaks out again, blowing his whole scheme by calling a doctor when he’s convinced Susan will not be able to deliver safely on her own, then plotting to kill the doctor — Susan, who’s finally realized that Webb killed her husband and did it for the money as much as for her (and gets him to admit it), warns the doctor and he gets away, and Webb tries to flee — only Crocker, his former partner, figures it out and blocks Webb’s way until the Nevada cops can come and arrest him, where in a scene Losey pretty obviously ripped off from High Sierra Webb tries to escape by climbing up a pile of mine tailings but is shot down just as he reaches the top.

What separates The Prowler from the other bad-cop noirs is the sheer obsessiveness of it all; Van Heflin’s character is considerably more black-hearted than the innocent but weak figure usually used as the male lead of a noir, and Evelyn Keyes is more morally ambiguous — not outright destructive the way Barbara Stanwyck’s character was in Double Indemnity but not morally strong enough to confront her lover or even see through his act until the very end — and what fascinates me about it most is how it’s almost a parable of devolution. At the start of the film Webb has a well-regarded (if low-paying) job as a cop and Susan is living in an elaborate mansion with the voice of her husband (and the musical playlist of his show, a series of instrumentals stupefying in their repetitive banality — we see very little of him on-screen but his choice of music and the smarmy voice with which he makes his announcements tells us all we need to know about how unpleasant life as his spouse would be, while his insistence that his wife listen to all his broadcasts gives him a Big Brother-ish quality, as if he’s trying to run her life even when he’s not physically there) as her constant companion.

Later, after the murder, they’re reduced to running a desert motel — and while Webb thinks of this as a step up, what Losey’s visuals (superbly realized by the veteran cinematographer Arthur Miller, who had just left 20th Century-Fox after a long contract and was hoping for an exciting future in independent film — only he caught a debilitating illness, tuberculosis, which forced him to give up his next assignment, The African Queen — Jack Cardiff replaced him — and Miller had to live the remaining 19 years of his life in semi-retirement, occasionally resurfacing to do an interview or appear in a documentary before he died in 1970) tell us is it’s a step down, a way station on the route to the ghost town, where he and Susan practically revert to a primitive existence (albeit one with a battery-powered record player on which Webb inadvertently plays an aircheck of one of Gilvray’s shows — so it seems like the bastard is still spying on her even from beyond the grave!) before he’s shot down like an animal against the desolate desert landscape.

In his book-length interview with Tom Milne, Losey has surprisingly little to say about The Prowler except to praise producer Spiegel a.k.a. “Eagle” for giving him excellent behind-the-scenes help (including the services of cinematographer Miller, who had been working ever since he shot The Perils of Pauline in 1914!) and allowing him to rehearse the cast for two weeks before he started shooting. One oddity of this film is how many of the personnel involved in it were blacklisted; Dalton Trumbo, who worked on the screenplay with Butler, had already been blacklisted and within a year or two Losey himself would be (and would be forced to flee to England and resume his career there), as would John Hubley, the great cartoonist whom Losey brought in as a “design consultant” — Boris Leven was the art director of record but it was Hubley who designed that bizarre house in which the Gilvrays live (and according to Dalton Trumbo not only worked on the script but actually supplied the voice of Gilvray’s radio broadcasts, though both Milne’s book and The Film Noir Encyclopedia credit actor Sherry Hall with playing Gilvray on screen).