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With: Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes, John Maxwell, Katherine Warren, Emerson Treacy, Madge Blake, Wheaton Chambers, Robert Osterloh, Sherry Hall, Louise Lorimer
Written by: Dalton Trumbo, Hugo Butler, based on a story by Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm
Directed by: Joseph Losey
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 92
Date: 05/25/1951

The Prowler (1951)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Window Leaners

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Around the time he was making The Prowler, director Joseph Losey began to have trouble with Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. He chose to go into exile in England, where he worked for the rest of his career; some of those British films -- such as The Servant (1963) -- are highly acclaimed and much loved, but this lurid film noir doesn't seem to get the same kind of love. (Producer Sam Spiegel signed it "S.P. Eagle," as he did with other films from which he wanted to distance himself.)

The Prowler is a down and dirty masterpiece, telling a story not unlike the ones in Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), with some truly despicable characters. But more than a cursory glance reveals some brilliant ideas and themes that make it stand up as more than the some of its grimy parts.

Van Heflin stars as Webb Garwood, a beat cop who was once a star basketball player; he complains of "bad breaks," but it's not hard to see that it's Webb that made his own bed. Heflin's wide caveman brow was never better used; he's a creep from frame one to frame last. His co-star is Evelyn Keyes; she plays Susan, a well-to-do housewife who came from a good family and married into a rich family. Unfortunately, her husband -- a radio announcer -- can't provide her with kids, and she's bored.

Webb and his cheerful, rock-collecting partner Bud (John Maxwell) investigate a prowler on Susan's property, and Webb becomes fascinated with her. He pays a follow-up call and they begin an affair. Susan is not your typical film noir victim. Nothing is black-and-white to her, except when it comes to right and wrong (she makes one fearless, fearsome decision). Otherwise, she's sad, smart, and emotionally open. It's not long before Webb murders her husband, but despite his careful planning and canny playacting, there's one little thing he has overlooked.

Losey opens the film with a striking shot; we in the audience are peering through a window at Ms. Keyes as she casually undresses. She spots us, screams, and shuts the window. We're an unwanted presence. That might be enough to put off any audience member. Later, Budd first appears to Susan through that same back window, and he becomes like a prowler in her life. He rarely appears to her in any truthful way. (It's ironic that, when she offers coffee, he asks for milk.)

Later in the film, the couple is forced to hide out in a dilapidated building in a ghost town. The wind keeps blowing open the doors and windows; anybody or anything could get in at any time. Losey keeps up this visual scheme, using the film's extraordinary spaces throughout, all the way up to the closing shot with Susan looking out of a window. Oddly, while Losey uses these windows masterfully, there's one thing missing from this noir: shadows. Most of the scenes take place in the brightly-lit house or in the dusty, glaring streets of the ghost town. This creepy stuff takes place under the full, harsh light; if anything is hidden, it's hidden in the corners of men's rotten souls.

Losey's more serious British films had a chilly feel to them, and it seems as if he was always cynical enough to have been a great noir director. This, along with The Big Night, and his remake of Fritz Lang's M -- all made the same year -- are all that exists of his work in that genre. Happily, The Prowler is finally available to shake things up once again.

VCI Entertainment's impressive 2011 DVD comes with a commentary track by San Francisco writer and noir expert Eddie Muller (complete with a warning for foul language!). Muller also appears on a featurette with his friend James Ellroy and other noir experts. The French director and former film critic Bertrand Tavernier speaks about the film in a video interview. The DVD also comes with a featurette about restoring the film, plus a photo gallery, a trailer, and optional English subtitles.

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