Monday, April 4, 2011

COOL FLICKS: The Prowler (1951)

There's plenty to crow about for film noir fans with the release of the newly restored print of The Prowler now on DVD from VCI Entertainment. Directed by Joseph Losey, written by Dalton Trumbo already blacklisted by the HUAC and forced to borrow his pal Hugo Butler's name as his byline, and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes it is without a doubt a masterwork of the film noir genre. Forget many of those other well known and oft talked about crime thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s that are touted as the epitome of noir. This is hands down the movie to use as a template when discussing the essential ingredients of film noir.

Heflin is a cop who hates being a cop and wants Keyes the moment he lays eyes on her. Keyes is a wife trapped in a marriage to a man who manages to keep watch over her even as he broadcasts his radio show.  Every night he signs off his show, in a very creepy voice, with his signature catchphrase: "I'll be seeing you, Susan." In the main supporting role there is John Maxwell playing Heflin's cop partner -- an oddball who travels throughout the deserts of California collecting rocks with his wife. If you think that's thrown in just for laughs, think again. Every element of the story has its function and has a meaning beyond the obvious. The layers involved are fascinating. In fact, the original and far more evocative title that Trumbo wanted to use is The Cost of Living - one that has several meanings aptly spelled out in this movie about desiring and envying a materialistic lifestyle.

The plot is deceptively simple but becomes increasingly complex with its multiple layers and the ever changing emotional lives in the two leads. As Bertrand Tavernier says in an interview in the bonus section of the DVD the story almost defies summarizing. Like all good cinema it really needs to be seen rather than read about. It is in the composition, the lighting, the visuals that the story really comes alive.

Keyes calls the police after being spied on by a voyeur (us, the audience, as Losey films the scene). Heflin and Maxwell arrive in response to the call and she lets them into her home. Heflin shows too much interest in Keyes. She senses it and likes it although she's disturbed that she likes it. They are soon carrying on an affair that transforms from a casual friendship into obsessive love. And, of course, like all noir films the love leads both of them into a continuing downward spiral to the ruin of them both.

The settings play an important part and act as some of the best supporting characters in the movie outside of the numerous bit parts. The story begins in the opulent home of Keyes and her radio broadcasting husband and that set dominates the movie for the first third. The second third we see Heflin in his squalid one room apartment with the most prominent piece of decor being a target practice sheet with numerous bullet holes in the silhouettes chest and head. The final third of the movie takes place in a barren desolate desert scape – a ghost town, in fact – where the two of them live out their brief married life while awaiting Keyes' birth of their child. It has no happy ending, I can promise you. But you knew that already, didn't you?

Heflin is the creepiest of any of his roles in this film. Keyes, who had few leading roles and was pretty much a supporting player of lightweight roles, does a remarkable job as the woman at first obsessively in love and finally loathing the object of her desire.

I watched all the bonus sections on the DVD and heard a lot of analysis that usually goes over my head. I was surprised to hear the experts talking about much of what I picked up on in terms of the story itself as well as subtler cinematic points like art direction, lighting and framing of scenes. I was very proud of myself with this viewing. Probably I was luckier with this movie because structurally it is very similar to the dark crime stories that appeal to me in novel form.

The most interesting parts in these bonus interviews were hearing about the history of John Huston's involvement in the film and how Dalton Trumbo, a blacklisted screenwriter, got two jobs for this movie.  Huston was married to Evelyn Keyes at the time and was instrumental in getting her this part. Trumbo, it is mentioned in one interview, wrote some of his finest screenplays during his blacklisted period but had to resort to pseudonyms or "borrow" the names of his screenwriter friends to use in the credits. Trumbo also appears in the movie as the voice of Keyes' nearly invisible husband. We only the see the husband in a single sequence when he is played by an anonymous actor in the violent death scene. Prior to that and afterwards we only hear his voice from the radio and on recordings of those radio shows that he made.


  1. This does sound intriguing. I've mostly seen Losey's work from after he left for his own exile...

  2. This is such a great movie and you really do give its creators their due here - thanks for writing about such a little known gem.