This is a transcript of Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay on The Prowler, viewable here.
“Quite a hacienda.”
That’s the opening line of The Prowler, a 1951 film noir about an affair between a married woman and a Los Angeles beat cop who responds to a call at her home. It’s not just a classy thriller. It’s a thriller about class.
Directed by the soon-to-be blacklisted filmmaker Joseph Losey (The Servant, The Go-Between), and written by two more, then-current blacklist victims, Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo, under pseudonyms, The Prowler has all the standard (by now cliched) building-blocks of noir: Doomed love; furtive criminal plotting; desperation; greed; murder. But the film’s power comes from its recognition that all these elements are fed by a deeper, darker force: class resentment. The movie opens a window into the heart of film noir, and clarifies that every sin committed by noir characters comes from the same source: envy.
All noir is about brute appetite—about wanting what you don’t have and taking moral shortcuts to get it. The French critics who named this sort of movie—and praised its artistry and courage at a time when most American critics treated it as sleazy pop trash—weren’t just responding to the genre’s photographic daring, smoky atmosphere and existential weariness. They were also applauding the genre’s potential for social criticism—for tearing away society’s grinning false face and revealing the monster beneath. The basic appeal of noir was always prurient—the chance to watch sexy, impulsive people break some or all of the Ten Commandments. But running just beneath this spectacle of bad behavior was a river of discontent—a sense that the so-called “Good Life” taking shape in postwar America wasn’t really that good—that it was, in fact, quite toxic, because it was based on envy—on greed and materialism, on the desire to get ahead no matter what.
One of the most distinctive things about The Prowler is the somewhat confounding tone of its lead characterizations. Webb and Susan aren’t your typical noir couple: a ruthless femme fatale and her hardboiled sap of a lover. Aside from his blue uniform and badge, the male half of central couple, Webb (Van Heflin), is a prototypical noir hero—a failed high school basketball star quietly seething over what he doesn’t have. But he presents as a thoroughly decent guy, a knight in shining armor, and Losey shoots Heflin the way Clint Eastwood shoots himself, making the most of his study physique, granite features and imposing height.
Webb’s forbidden love, Susan Gilvray—a local radio host’s much younger wife, subtly played by Evelyn Keyes—is likewise dissatisfied. And although she maintains sympathy right up to the end, her appearance of normality seems almost as hinky as Webb’s. Her well-heeled demeanor suggests a pacified postwar suburban housewife, but some secret part of her is drawn to Webb. They have more in common than the fact that they grew up in the same small town. They share a suppressed but gnawing conviction that what they’ve got isn’t enough. And at times the burly cop’s increasingly vicious actions seem to fulfill Susan’s secret wishes.
Losey and his screenwriters were all left-leaning social critics—men who either were vilified or were about to be vilified by guardians of the status quo. The Prowler‘s happy-face suburban approach to film noir takes the genre’s potential for social criticism out of the shadows and places it center-frame, where you can get a good look at it. These characters aren’t thrillingly dark fantasy figures upon whom the audience can project its dirty daydreams. They’re uncomfortably close to quote-unquote normal. Their moral relativism hits close to the bone because it’s easy to see them as people we might know—perhaps, in the worst of all possible worlds, people we might recognize by looking in a mirror.