The Prowler (1951)
Directed by Joseph Losey
The Prowler ends memorably with its antihero scurrying up a desert hill, but it's the remarkable utilization of interiors that chiefly qualifies it as one of the most foully sophisticated noirs extant. A prime example is the low-rent, furnished shoebox where cop Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) rests his badge. There's a target on the wall freckled with kill shots to the brain and heart. A plug-in electric razor stretches from an outlet in a far wall to the ceiling, then over Webb's headboard, where a sort of pulley lets him lazily shave in bed. An ex-jock, Webb shoots baskets of wadded-up garbage into the dingy ceiling lamp, while the drably minimal wallpaper and furnishings convey his angry, single-minded fixation on speedily and dishonestly escaping his caste. Credit is due to animator and design consultant John Hubley, who worked with Losey on all four of his American films, and whom the director has credited with teaching him about composition and camera technique. Hubley, Losey, and uncredited screenwriter Dalton Trumbo would all be blacklisted, one key to the movie's rotting sense of trust in American authority and idealism.
The plot is Double Indemnity with the sexes reversed. Cops Webb and Bud (John Maxwell) respond to a prowler report phoned in by housewife Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), who spends her nights listening to her husband's "oily voice" on a radio show alone in an imitation Spanish hacienda, a stucco icon of phony L.A. decadence. The husband—voiced by Trumbo—signs off every night with a loving "I'll be seein' ya, Susan," which registers as a menacing threat. They don't find a prowler, but Webb sees a target in the "dish." Wondering what her "angle is," he returns for a follow-up and a glass of milk, eventually discovering a mutual Hoosier heritage, and a mutual dissatisfaction. Subsequent visits and talks reveal her passive imprisonment (her impotent husband quizzes her nightly about his show) and Webb's insecurity—once a young basketball star, now he's "just another dumb cop!" (Manny Farber keenly noted the perils of "athletic nostalgia" here explored). When Webb gets a peek at Mr. Gilvray's will, he hatches a plan for the husband's murder and Susan's conquest that will lead to an unhygienic birth in a cruddy ghost town called Calico.
As a stylized, long take-heavy noir by an expat career formalist, The Prowler is comparable to Kubrick's The Killing. After a crucial two-week rehearsal period during which the director and lead actors crafted their characterizations, the movie was shot in just seventeen days. Even still, it brings the same rigid, symbol-rich mise en scène—Diego Rivera's The Flower Carrier hanging in Susan's house carries weight—and fluid camerawork as Losey's British collaborations with Harold Pinter, particularly The Servant (another masterpiece of interiors). And it's as trenchant, all the more poignantly since its contempt is directed towards the ruthlessness of ambition in Losey's home country. Sturdy, frog-faced homme fatale Van Heflin's eventual marriage to Keyes' Susan is doomed, emphasized by their wedding, done in one 180-degree sequence shot that ends outside, where a funeral can be seen across the street. Like the unexpected final bow by the voice of Mr. Gilvray, this is deliberate, look-at-me craftsmanship. But despite this, and the movie's decided moral grudges, it's too contentedly sleazy to be didactic.
Opens March 19 at Film Forum