By the time The Prowler appeared in the middle of the last century film noir was a fading fashion. Men and women were buying homes, cars and washing machines. There was belief and hope, and black and white misanthropy had palled. This is the theory and it is not without truth but film noir also suffered because some of its finest creators were being blacklisted. This left a disproportionate number of optimists and conformists in Hollywood. Like anything, film noir needs favourable circumstances and nourishment from the qualified. Those with sunny natures and large cinemascope cameras avoid dark streets.
Joseph Losey directed The Prowler. The title is ironical. The main protagonist is a policeman who dreams of being a rich businessman. Policemen prowl and respond to what they hear and see. Sometimes they assist, and sometimes they take advantage. When the film appeared in cinemas, the blacklisted Losey was building a new life and career in the UK. He may have secured fame and glamorous work but Losey spent the rest of his days as a political and economic refugee from the USA. Dalton Trumbo wrote the script for The Prowler but was also blacklisted. His name was deleted from the titles. There is nothing in the movie to suggest that post-war American capitalism is a good idea. Money is too important to the flawed and unlikeable hero. He is a policeman who aspires to being a rich entrepreneur and is only contented when he is savouring wealth. This, though, indicates the values of Trumbo rather than defines a left wing message. The Prowler is neither political nor didactic. The strength of the movie is the characterisation of the two key protagonists. Trumbo is as gloomy about people as he is about society.
The obvious comparison with The Prowler is the 60s movie The Servant that Losey made in the UK. The film was important because it helped define the changing times. The upper class was losing confidence, and the British working class had acquired an irreverent sneer. Or so it seemed at the time. Today, although still a great movie, The Servant looks like a Miss Julie re-tread with a faint Gay logo written on the walls of the tyres. The cute trick in the Losey film is that the roles are reversed from Miss Julie. Thanks to Losey and scriptwriter Harold Pinter the superior snob is the live-in manservant.
Film noirs were famous for manipulative and deceitful women that could turn men into malleable putty. There is no femme fatale in The Prowler. Susan tells one lie in the whole movie and that is to protect her lover, the policeman Webb. She is honest about her past. Susan failed as an actress and was too easy with men on the make. She married her dull husband for money and security, someone who would help her settle and avoid self-destruction. The Prowler is a film noir but, and this is different, it has a homme fatal. Self-hating Susan may be wary of calculating men with appetites but she has a problem. She not only likes sex but also lacks the fibre to ever suspect that pledges of romantic love can be something other than the truth. Webb wants Susan for the $62000 insurance policy but what makes The Prowler a great film is that Webb is as complicated as Susan. At the end of the film no one can be sure just what the policeman felt for Susan. Webb does more than tell lies. He manipulates Susan so that she suggests what he has been planning. He is the spider that snares the fly. The choice of surname is deliberate. His mate in the police is called Bud and, guess what, he has a friendly nature. The relationships that Webb has with his police colleagues are glimpsed in isolated moments but they provide fascinating clues about the character of Webb. He is not simple selfishness. He can be polite and patient. The other policemen like him.
Most of the people in The Prowler are dopes. Bud collects rocks and thinks that somehow they will explain the history of his country. Genocide and the rest can be ignored. The jury in the inquest make the wrong decision about the murder. The brother of the murdered man ignores a duty to be quizzical and is conned by Webb. If everyone swallows the lies of Webb, he misunderstands his fatal flaws and overestimates both his potential and the rewards that society can provide. More important he misses what is being offered by Susan a woman who loves him. Susan, though, is the biggest dope of all because she loves a rat. Or does she? At the end Webb is battling a hostile desert landscape, trying to climb the eternal hill and convinced that he can escape his fate. Meanwhile innocent Susan will have some explaining to do to the police.
Movie formats mean that all thrillers need at least one hole in the plot to function, and The Prowler is no exception. For a man who risked murder and withstood the pressure of an inquest Webb is far too sensitive about the pregnancy of Susan and how the news will be received. It may cause gossip but murder it does not prove. But it is the only false note in the movie, and it allows us to witness Webb the prospective father and fugitive. At one point he says to Susan, ‘So what, I’m no good.’ This is accurate self-analysis but Webb is not the only no-good man on the planet, and they do not all perish. His relationship with Susan is dysfunctional. In the final scenes we see the rotten and amoral side of Webb but we also are given an idea that if Webb and Susan had just a little more self-understanding and common sense they might have survived. In that sense the hole in the plot helps.
Webb needs to be a lucky spider to catch Susan the fly. They live in Los Angeles but they both arrived there from Indianapolis. Both are leading wasted lives in a society bereft of community. They misplaced their youth when they failed to achieve the celebrity that the glamour of Susan and the sporting prowess of Webb had promised. Although Webb and Susan are not young, others refer to them as kids. These bystanders think the couple have innocent aspiration and hope. Most of that, though, has already been lost. This is the price of competition. It may drive down unit costs but there are always more losers than winners. What is left is grasping ambition, materialism and the hope of being noticed by the indifferent and the anonymous. Welcome to the modern world.
Two complex and frustrated characters dominate the film, and for them to be believable we need decent actors. John Huston helped finance the film because he wanted his wife Evelyn Keyes to have a decent part. She is fine. Her beautiful eyes have heavy lids and suggest aloof sadness, a beautiful woman who is tired of being looked at. In one scene the appeal of women is compared to the sight of money in the bank. An attractive woman is a commodity. Keyes had a modest career but in The Prowler she captures the essence of Susan, an unfulfilled woman who is vulnerable and naïve but also has ambition. Susan wants to be a mother but like her relationship with her husband her maternal desire could be a way of avoiding sexual temptation from men best avoided. As fine as Keyes may be in the part, she is no match for the great Van Heflin. His admission that he is no good sounds like an angry plea for understanding. His performance is detailed but gestures, frowns and flicks that defined integrity and the burden of responsibility in 3.10 To Yuma and Shane here provide evidence of deceit and shabby selfishness. Apart from the detail Heflin captures a man whose urgent gait and even his breathing is always slightly behind his ambition and purpose. The Prowler may have only been a B Movie but it presents a difficult challenge to the lead actor. Heflin has to be both repulsive and charming. Webb repels when he muscles into the home of Susan but after rejection he shares his emotional pain with her and becomes sympathetic. Heflin modulates his voice and breathing, and Susan falls into his arms.
Clothes are used to help explain the characters. Webb wears clothes that have been designed to be looked at rather than make a man look smart. His appearance, like himself, is a creation intended to impress. Susan is more relaxed. Her clothes are casual and indicate a woman who wants the understanding that accompanies authentic intimacy. Both need someone from the other sex. For all his manipulation of Susan we realise that Webb is dependent on women. He lives in Hotel Angela and without the point being laboured we discover he wants to be the opposite of his timid father. Susan needs to be impregnated. A child will help her escape adolescence and offer her life meaning. This is the hope but she only survives Webb by letting the doctor take her child away. Both Susan and Webb are thwarted. This is a significant spoiler by me but no one should worry. No matter how many times The Prowler is watched it leaves the viewer with much to ponder.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.