Noirvember: The Prowler

The Prowler, a taut and cruel thriller that’s both insightful and deeply disturbing, begins with an unsettling scene that can’t help but remind viewers who have seen both of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom:  Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) is preening in front of her vanity when she spots a creep lurking outside her bathroom window.  We don’t see him, but we’re looking at Keyes from the camera’s eye view, and so her terrified scream implicates us in the intrusive crime — and thus begins one of the most unnerving noir films of the ’50s, suffused with a particularly menacing and effective illustration of the power of the male gaze.

When Keyes — who’s married to a well-off late-night radio DJ — calls the police to report the prowler, the responding officers are folksy, gregarious Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) and his brute of a partner, the beautifully named Webb Garwood (Van Heflin).  Sizing up her “hacienda”, they find no evidence of her stalker, and the dialogue, intentionally or not, reveals the difficulty with which women reporting sex crimes are often minimized or mistreated; the well-meaning Maxwell tells her she’d better stop leaving her curtains open, the way banks hide the counting rooms “so as not to tempt the customers”, while Heflin, cocky and on the make, goes through her belongings, sizes her up like a cut of meat, re-traumatizes her by popping into her bathroom window, and lingers outside the house, wondering what her angle could be.

Early the next morning, just before Keyes’ husband comes back from work, Heflin returns still in his cop uniform and basically barges in, making himself right at home.  He’s an embittered, entitled ex-jock, coincidentally from her old home town, who blames his every failure on the jealousy of others, and as he starts to woo her into cheating on her doting husband, the romance is downright assaultive.   The ‘your mouth says yes but your eyes say no’ gimmick is pretty common in crime dramas of the period, but Heflin’s approach is downright rapey; he practically forces himself on Keyes and she has to literally force him out of the house, hissing “You’re a real cop, aren’t you?  You want everything for free.”  When she finally succumbs to temptation, he runs what can only be described as a protean version of Game on her, belittling her, denying her affection, manipulating and pressuring her like a real pick-up artist. His partner’s wife is the only person in the movie who’s appropriately creeped out by Heflin, and before long, he’s already hatched a scheme to make Keyes a widow.

At the hearing following Heflin’s murder of Keyes’ husband, murkiness abounds; Maxwell is clearly suspicious but trusting and protective of his partner, while Keyes is monstrously compromised by Stockholm syndrome, pure terror, and her own muddled feelings about Heflin.  He keeps lying to her, manipulating her and keeping her constantly off balance, to save his own neck and keep her on a short tether.  That’s when the prototypical noir cycle of doom begins, as it turns out that Keyes is knocked up and they are forced to flee to an abandoned mining town so she can have the baby without brewing up a scandal packed with uncomfortable questions.  Now Heflin has to come up with some way to silence the doctor who delivers the baby, and, after nearly committing a second murder, he stops pretending and comes clean about his own brutal intentions — only to be finally and completely rejected by the woman for whose affection he made his awful choices, as at her moment of greatest weakness, she finds the strength to see through his deceit.

The Prowler is a real catch, psychologically deep and filled with ugly social and sexual subtext.  It’s drawn from a fairly unremarkable short story, but its elements of male mental cruelty and undercurrents of class hostility (Heflin and Keyes were from different sides of the tracks in small-town Indiana, and he never lets her forget it) are courtesy of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, writing covertly alongside Hugo Butler.  (Trumbo also provides the folksy voice of Keyes’ husband on the radio.)  The direction is tight and compelling, with most of the action taking place at night and illuminated by police flashes, neon signs, and cheap outdoor lighting; with Arthur Miller behind the camera on his last film, Joseph Losey — working his own final Hollywood production before the same witch hunts that drove Trumbo underground would send him packing to England and a string of excellent movies — captures some terrific visuals of L.A. and the Southwest.  (A sweeping shot of Heflin’s car kicking up dust on the way to the remote ghost town is particularly striking.)  Just about everything clicks, even the inviting Lyn Murray score.

The cast is also winning, with Heflin, no stranger to playing heavies, turning in a remarkably callous and calculating performance as Garwood, and Keyes — best known for Gone with the Wind and The Seven Year Itch, but also a film noir vet who appeared in The Killer That Stalked New York99 River Street, and Hell’s Half Acre (coming in this space in two days!) — turning in an excellent performance as a woman almost permanently kept on her heels by un homme fatale.  Maxwell and Katherine Warren as his wife are charming even though they don’t get much screen time, and there’s not a bad performance in the whole thing.  It’s also nice to see unfold on the screen, as the currently available DVD is a beautiful restoration print from the hard-working folks at the UCLA film library working partly on money donated by novelist James Ellroy, who knows a good psychosexual cluster-fuck when he sees one.

The great strength of The Prowler is the depth of its insight onto the way a man can brutalize without violence and the way a woman can be implicated in her own abuse by a man’s expectations, but the greatest trick it pulls is to make us part of that possessive vision from the very first frame.  In one particularly nasty scene, Heflin lights up a cigarette from a pack belonging to the man he’s cuckolding just as he’s talking on the radio about lighting one up himself.  “You’d think he was watching,” says a nervous Keyes; it turns out he is — and so are we.  We have been, all along.

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