I’m delighted to be joined today by Kristina Dijan, senior writer for The Dark Pages: The Newsletter for Film Noir Lovers and the author of the blog Speakeasy. Kristina and I have chosen to collaborate on a discussion of Joseph Losey’s controversial 1951 film noir The Prowler.
The Prowler (1951)
Directed by Joseph Losey
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Screenplay by Hugo Butler (a front for Dalton Trumbo)
Story by Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm
Cinematography by Arthur C. Miller
Edited by Paul Weatherwax
Distributed by United Artists
Restoration by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive
(1:32) VCI Blu-ray - Rewatch
(We’ll soon delve into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t seen the film, please don’t read past the posted warning!)
Van Heflin stars as Webb Garwood, a disgruntled policeman who answers a prowler report from Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), a woman all alone in her Los Angeles home while her husband works nights. Webb and his partner Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) investigate, but find no one lurking around. Yet Susan makes a unsettling discovery: Webb is a little too interested in this case and particularly interested in Susan.
AW: Kristina, can you remember when you first saw this film and how you discovered it?
KD: Tough to say, I’d seen it a few years ago and the main thing I remembered about it was what a piece of work Van Heflin’s character is! Pretty sure I found out about it as one of the “essentials” of noir, from a book or list, and know I saw it first on TCM.
AW: I think I discovered it around the time I really started getting in film noir several years ago. I saw the film mentioned on the Film Noir Foundation (which, with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, funded the film’s restoration) website and took a chance on it. I’m glad I did. I had the same reaction to Van Heflin’s character of Webb Garwood - absolute revulsion, but amazed at how slick and persuasive he is.
KD: Growing up in a family of classic musical fans, the first time I saw Heflin was in Presenting Lily Mars and Till the Clouds Roll By, so anything after that, if he played anything other than the light, pleasant guy, it was amazing to see, but this is definitely the best (worst!) villain he probably played. Or should I call him an homme fatale?
AW: Definitely an homme fatale! Even the very first shot of the film is unsettling, as we see Susan through the window of her bathroom.
KD: I love how efficient that opening is, Webb’s first look at the big house, and his comments about the wealth of the residents and the neighbourhood; it sets up right where his priorities and resentments lie.
AW: We also see an immediate difference between the two cops: Webb, who casually but intimately takes in every detail of the house and everything in it, and his partner Bud, who’s actually taking charge of the investigation. We also learn a lot about Webb in a brief exchange between him and Bud as his partner says, “I wish I could convince you that a hobby’s a good thing.” Well, I suppose Susan is his hobby!
KD: True, I think it’s Bud who has the line comparing Susan to the money in a bank, as in: keep the curtain drawn, don’t tempt the thieves! Which is the way Webb approaches her and her riches, at first glance he lusts after the woman and her money. To the extent that he doesn’t even hear Bud talking anymore after that first visit, he’s just thoroughly obsessed.
AW: I wonder what those original audiences thought at this point and when they sensed something was wrong. For me, it’s when Susan talks about her failed acting career. “I tried to be an actress but it didn’t work out,” she says. When Webb says, “You’re good-looking enough,” we see a whole range of expressions reflected in Susan’s face.
KD: Yes that was big moment for me too, he’s waving so many red flags so early on, he’s so clearly a problematic man, and she seems so uncomfortable that you think, “what is she thinking?!” getting so involved. But then people in noir relationships haven’t been known to make the wisest choices. We may get more into this later, but there are such fascinating depictions here, to me, about how people handle failure, and how a man in a healthy relationship behaves…
AW: I think the high school connection was probably what made Susan rethink things. I know that when I’ve met someone from my part of the world, it’s really hard to simply dismiss that person, regardless of our initial reaction to them. It’s almost like that shared geographical background obligates you to talk to them.
KD: Yes, and that ties them together as “foreigners” in California as well, kind of an “us against the world” thing. That conversation also has the first big sign of Webb’s mentality, his view of himself as life’s victim, everyone is against him, keeps ruining his life, keeps him from getting ahead. He’s so defensive. Did you notice, when Susan says, what are the odds you’d end up here…he jumps to the wrong conclusion and says, you mean ”AS A COP?!” Misinterprets her, and reveals he hates his job, his position in life, and that it’s everyone else’s fault.
AW: Yes, he’s pretty bold and almost gives too much of himself away during that first meeting. It’s interesting that, after making the hometown connection, that his second visit to Susan’s home finds him in civilian clothes, signifying his level of comfort there. Plus, having had that initial conversation, he feels he can get into more personal matters. When he asks, “Why did you marry him?”, Susan responds, “Because I loved him.” Webb immediately fires back, “Try again. Why did you marry him?” This is a really gutsy move that seems to imply that they’ve established enough of a relationship for him to ask about their marriage, yet it’s also incredibly manipulative.
KD: Definitely! And again revealing of his nature--pushy, disrespectful of boundaries, greedy. He plays Susan like a violin, shaming her, rejecting her, then luring her back in once she’s hooked. That question he asks her, about her marriage, is not only bold but also pushing her into an answer he wants, one that will help absolve him from guilt. Are you interested in a weird theory I had about Susan’s role in the changing relationship?
KD: ...and this might just go to show how trained modern movie viewers are to search for a big twist. That part where she sneaks out at night, meets Webb by the road and tells him her husband now knows of the affair and threatened her, then you hear William’s voice calling. First time I watched, I thought: oh, she’s using her husband’s recordings [of his own radio show] to trick Webb into murdering William! That she was setting Webb up, which would have been a neat reversal after the way he manipulates her. Wishful thinking.
AW: I hadn’t thought of that! But it’s interesting that after William is dead and she’s packing up everything, she hasn’t touched his recordings. You can still see them on the shelves. I think that’s an interesting theory you mentioned. I’ll have to mull that one over. But there’s a lot in the recordings themselves… We constantly hear the lines “I’ll be with you tomorrow night” and “I’ll be seeing you, Susan.” William’s voice sort of acts as an omniscient presence watching over Susan when he’s not there. It’s a bit jarring when we actually meet William and he doesn’t seem to have the gravitas to match that voice. Perhaps Losey and Trumbo are showing us that this isn’t the marriage that we thought it was, and perhaps that also gives support to your theory.
KD: Keeping up appearances--the voice and message to his wife give the radio audience a picture of a perfect marriage that’s anything but. That’s actually Trumbo’s voice, by the way. And how wonderful the moment when Webb and Susan play “their song,” the high school dance song, once again when they’re alone in the ghost town, and unexpectedly there’s William haunting them: ”I’ll be SEEING YOU SUSAN.” Another thing he closes his radio program with is “remember, the cost of living is going down,” which was the movie’s working title I believe, and points at another of its big themes, about what success looks like. For Webb, success is status, easy, fast money that earns while “you sleep!” It’s less hard work and putting your effort in, and more about being a better class of somebody. He has it all backwards.
AW: Have you been looking at my notes? I had that “cost of living” quote ready to go! But you make a great point about Webb’s concept of success, especially the easy, fast money that earns while you sleep. I think Trumbo’s script is getting to the heart of one of the many aspects of postwar film noir that people were dealing with: the concept of success after a war and easy money, all leading to dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Webb is clearly caught up in that cycle, thinking that life should be easy. He definitely does have it all backwards. He wants this (and Susan) so badly that he’s willing to brainwash her into buying into his worldview of the easy life he feels he deserves. As Eddie Muller mentioned on the film’s commentary, they actually do have the easy life for about a minute-and-a-half before reality sets in. Maybe this was part of the fantasy that some people had at the time about postwar life in America, that the hard times were over and it was time to settle down on Easy Street. Only it’s played out with a character like Webb with deadly consequences.
KD: Yes to all that, Webb frames the world in terms of who’s a sucker and who wins the game, as if it is one. This is why I love Bud’s character, and the example he sets as a cop and husband. Look at how his marriage is one of equals, respectful. He consults with his wife on everything--she’s the War department, he says, I loved that--and he’s just content, maybe in Webb’s eyes he’s a sucker, but happy with life, and has the right priorities about what a cop should be: concerned about people, not things. Even his hobby, the rocks, to me speaks to an interest in grounded, stable things, a curiosity about things that last and outlast trivial things. Webb ends up not on that kind of solid ground but slipping down the shifting sands and failing to reach the top, like Sisyphus. Getting deep here…
AW: Deep, but great stuff. That’s a wonderful observation about Bud and his marriage, and especially about grounded, stable things. I think one of the most telling moments about Bud and Grace’s marriage occurs when Grace tells Bud, “He (Webb) never really listens when you talk” (implying not only that she listens to Bud, but that he also listens to her, mutual respect for one another) “and hates being a cop.” It’s a very quick line, almost a throwaway, but it implies that their marriage is built on something just as solid as the rocks that constitute Bud’s hobby. It’s almost as if Trumbo is saying, “THIS is where the treasure is: a good, stable relationship built on love, mutual respect, and a genuine concern for the other person,” none of which Webb can truly lay claim to. Yes, that image of Webb on the mountain of sand will stay with you for a long, long time.
KD: So true, Webb has no use for family either, at least not any way other than on his terms. He reacts to the unexpected baby with such rage and disappointment, only seeing how it affects him. Must have been quite the controversial subject back then to address it so directly.
AW: Speaking of controversial subjects, I’d like to talk a bit about the incredible Dalton Trumbo script and specifically about the baby and Susan. This was a groundbreaking script and film, and I’m awed by the way Trumbo wrote the characters with such depth, as we’ve been discussing. How did the Trumbo script speak to you?
KD: Well, it works in all the ways I’ve already mentioned, the examples are set out so nicely, of the different forces at work in people-- greed, lust, envy-- that the message is baked into the relationships, the dialogue, the little actions. For another example, when Webb just helps himself to the cigarettes in William’s locked desk, that’s the surface action but it’s about bold corruption, resentment, disrespect of property and privacy, how comfortable he feels in a short time invading another home and marriage, all those things and more. Good scripts do it that way.
AW: Totally agree, wonderful script. I think one of the aspects of the film that may surprise modern audiences (or maybe not) is the fact that Susan really wants this baby.
KD: Yes and how eager she is to go through the most unfair inconveniences and subterfuge to keep it, and keep Webb happy and safe. You really feel for her, getting so sucked in and hurt by him. Nice time to come back to Keyes’ wonderful acting; Susan is hard to read in the beginning and that works to show her doubt, shame, guilt, desire to grab something better for herself than an unhappy marriage, etc. So well done, and a reversal of what you usually see for women’s noir roles, which tend to be the third wheel good girl, rejected wife or predatory femme fatale who lures.
AW: Keyes and Heflin are both stellar in this film, giving real powerhouse performances, and not just when they’re delivering their lines, but also in watching their faces as they react to dialogue and events. When I first saw this movie, I was horrified at the Nevada location’s living conditions, especially near the end. To me, this was the more realistic side of what might’ve happened if Nick and Cora had gotten away with things at the end of The Postman Always Rings Twice. In fact, it also reminded me of the silent masterpiece Greed. The Prowler combines elements of both films and makes you extremely uncomfortable, which is what the best film noir movies do when they can successfully dodge the unrealistic “happy endings” tagged on by the Production Code. I was really impressed with how many people at Noir City DC last month bought DVD and Blu-ray copies of the film sight-unseen after Eddie Muller gave an informal talk to a group of noir fans, relating the stark, unflinching nature of the film.
KD: Uncomfortable is the right word, there’s an uneasy feeling right from go. The idea that you call someone to protect you from a prowler, then that lawman abuses position and becomes the predator who invades and wrecks the home, it’s really disturbing. Fitting that they end up in literally a wrecked dilapidated home in that ghost town. Again, great writing and final product!
AW: I feel like this is a film that we can both recommend to people, one that’s really hard-hitting and won’t disappoint. I think it’s safe to say this isn’t one of those movies you’ll watch and forget about. It stays with you and it stays with you for a reason. Is there anything else we haven’t touched on? I feel like I could keep talking about this one for hours!
KD: Oh I’m sure there’s more but what a fun time this was, thanks so much for having me be part of this conversation! Love to look at movies this way.
AW: This was so much fun! We’ll have to do it again, and not just for Noirvember. Thanks so much, Kristina, for joining me for this look at The Prowler.
Next time: Fred MacMurray in a film noir that is not Double Indemnity.
Photos: DVD Beaver, MUBI, IMDb, Another Old Movie Blog