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The most significant film noir disc release in quite some time is this one-of-a-kind melodrama from 1951, when Hollywood blacklisting was terminating dozens of vital careers. Self-appointed guardians of Americanism followed with loyalty oaths and "Red Channels" character assassination. The blacklist soon moved on to Television and radio, schools and universities, and into businesses everywhere. People were deprived of their livelihood without due process because someone denounced them or because they were married to a "known" subversive. One man lost his career in television and couldn't understand why; he discovered only much later that the witch hunters had confused him with another writer with the same name.
Back in Hollywood it was every man for himself. Some directors were called up before the HUAC committees and some weren't. The Roosevelt liberal Nicholas Ray seemed to be protected by Howard Hughes, while more outspoken directors found themselves forced to name names if they wanted to keep working.
The most bitter film noirs associated with a subversive, anti-blacklist attitude came from directors Cy Endfield (Try and Get Me!; The Underworld Story), John Berry (He Ran All the Way) and especially Joseph Losey, who had already revealed a deep interest in social messages. Losey's The Boy With Green Hair trod the dangerous path of openly expressed pacifism, at a time when anybody not on the "all nukes" bandwagon ran the risk of being labeled a traitor. Losey's The Lawless is a breathtakingly direct exposé of bigotry against Mexican-Americans. A small town riots, destroying a local newspaper that dares defend a Chicano accused of murder.
Losey's producers were after good dramas, not movies that slam American "values" and invite political controversy. Seen from the outside, producer Sam Spiegel just wanted a hit and his semi-partner John Huston wanted a good vehicle for his actress wife, Evelyn Keyes. But now The Prowler is known almost exclusively as a provocative and daring critique of the American Success Story. VCI's cover art doesn't even mention the film's actors -- the stars of The Prowler are now director Losey and its blacklisted screenwriter, the outspoken alumnus of The Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo. Although the defiant Trumbo had to work behind a Front, he must have enjoyed writing a movie that proclaims that the glorious American system of opportunity encourages greed, deceit and murder.
The story wastes no time setting its murder tale into motion. Well-to-do Hancock Park (or Los Feliz?) housewife Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) spends her evenings alone, listening to the live broadcast of her husband William, a popular radio personality. One night Susan sees a Peeping Tom lurking outside her window, and calls the police. Patrolmen Bud Crocker and Webb Garwood (John Maxwell & Van Heflin) answer the call. Webb follows up on his own and he and Susan find that they went to the same high school. She's lonely and he's eager, and they begin a furtive affair during William's working hours. Webb waits until Susan is emotionally hooked before announcing that they had better break up. Susan talks to her husband about a divorce and reports that his response was a nearly violent refusal. That's when Webb puts into motion a plan he's been cooking from the beginning, one that will net him everything he wants -- especially William Gilvray's $63,000.
So much about The Prowler goes against the edicts of the Production Code that producer Spiegel must have actively slipped his script past the Code's pre-censors. Each of the movie's key story points is a production seal no-no guaranteed to raise the eyebrows of conservatives out to cleanse screens of negative images of America. We start with Van Heflin's corrupt cop, who dishonors his badge by seducing a woman and plotting to murder her husband. Their sordid affair is rewarded, at least initially, with public approval and material success. Officer Webb Garwood is a liar and a killer. He betrays Susan with the claim that his love is pure and the killing was accidental.
Other movies from this era treat uniformed cops as valiant, unimpeachable authority figures. Seeing Webb committing crimes while wearing a spotless patrolman's uniform makes us uncomfortable. He's a scheming loner. He spends his off-duty time holed up in his tiny rented room, reading "physical culture" magazines and waiting for Susan's desperate phone calls. 1 In a way, Garwood is the inverse of Robert Ryan's honest, bitter detective in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground. Both were high school athletes. Disillusioned with the public ("Who cares?"), Ryan's cop channels his frustration into his work with violent results. Webb Garwood is a cynic looking for the quick path to success. His dream is to own a motel so he can "make money while he sleeps." Garwood wants to go directly to Easy Street, and claim the car, the woman and the money that goes with it. Dalton Trumbo reinforces the notion (accusation?) that the capitalist system transforms American go-getters into venal sociopaths. William Gilvray's radio sign-off is the cheery phrase, "Remember: The Cost of Living is going down. I'll be seeing you Susan!" 2
The Prowler also uses the issue of pregnancy in a sordid fashion (I won't go into details, for spoilers' sake) at a time when normal childbirth in happy households was most often something that happened across a dissolve, or suggested in some 'symbolic' manner. Believe it or not, Being With Child was considered a private and somewhat tasteless (!) subject; my parents always reminded me what a big deal it was when Lucille Ball was allowed to approximate pregnancy for TV's I Love Lucy. So it must have been all the more shocking to see Susan pregnant under such debased circumstances.
Variety called The Prowler "...strictly adult entertainment." Besides comparing the movie to Double Indemnity, at least one reviewer asked producer Spiegel how he talked his way through the story point that Susan, a clear-cut adulterer, was allowed to get away unpunished. Any girl having sex outside of marriage in a 1951 film almost always pays dearly in the end, often by dying. Spiegel was quoted as saying, "...but we fought it out and won ... the woman sort of atones for it by suffering." Spiegel also pulled a fast one with his premiere one-sheet for the movie, getting quite a bit of publicity by showing Evelyn Keyes wearing only a towel. Again, he seems to have gotten away with this trick. It's possible that a confusion of titles helped -- soon before release, the movie was re-titled The Cost of Loving before a last-minute switch to The Prowler. The fact that the film was an independent United Artists release possibly made it harder for the censors to monitor these issues.
Joseph Losey directs with an intensity found only in his best films, pulling the maximum out of Dalton Trumbo's focused screenplay. The actors generate impressive on-screen chemistry, with Evelyn Keyes particularly convincing as a woman carried off by her passions. For Susan, the affair lurches into high gear and then squirms in self-loathing and physical addiction. Webb Garwood affects the exact correct behaviors -- remorse, contrition, noble concern -- that will get him what he wants.
Showing his peculiar sensitivity to locations, Losey makes the most of the film's movement from Los Angeles to an motel in Las Vegas (pictured as a faceless building surrounded by highway traffic) and from there to a desert wasteland, the actual ghost town of Calico. A hitch in Webb's master plan forces a retreat from society that soon devolves into an elaborate, self-generated trap. When one has a lot to lose, fear takes over - Garwood's scheme might have worked had he simply spent a year overseas or in Canada; things might have turned out okay. Instead, the former Narcissus becomes a literal Sisyphus, struggling in vain to escape up a sandy slope and continually sliding back down again. Losey is lucky in that this rather schematic image doesn't come off as facile. Seen for the first time, it seems the proper fate for such a cowardly schemer.
What we remember most strongly is Webb Garwood in tears, packing a bag for a hopeless getaway. First he bawls that he did everything for a rotten $63,000, and then he tries to defend himself by saying that everyone cheats everybody, that everybody is a crook and he only wanted his fair share. This self-serving moral evasion, the movie implies, is becoming the unwritten law of the land. It's a nasty view of American society, and one that far too often seems accurate.
Losey's movie pretty much has everything one wants in a classic noir thriller -- fascinating characters, sex, cynical misanthropy and the kind of tension one associates with a horror film. The contented Mr. and Mrs. Garwood have almost forgotten her late husband, when Webb accidentally plays one of his radio transcription discs on the phonograph. The words echo around the eerie ghost town: "I'll be seeing you Susan!" The Prowler defines the term "subversive noir".
VCI's The Prowler has been given the DVD special edition treatment we wish ALL of our favorites would receive. The restored and remastered feature transfer is flawless, thanks to the work of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the close attention of The Film Noir Foundation, which collected some of the donations that helped make the restoration possible.
The Film Noir Foundation's Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode make the extras both entertaining and highly informative. Author and expert Muller carries the full audio commentary track, serving up the benefit of his research and wisdom on the making of the film and its relationship to the blacklist years. He also gives the film's text and visuals a fine combing, examining the specific choice of words in Dalton Trumbo's screenplay. Gilvray's home is described as a "hacienda", to make it seem even more of a prize to Webb Garwood, the outsider looking in. It's one of Muller's better commentaries, and he's recorded many.
The docu featurette The Cost of Living: Creating The Prowler is the place to begin, after seeing the film, of course. Aided by Trumbo's late son Christopher Trumbo, Denise Hamilton and author James Ellroy, Alan Rode takes us deep into The Prowler, painting vibrant pictures of the appealing Evelyn Keyes, the underrated Van Heflin and the shifty producer Sam Spiegel, who pocketed the crew donations for the wrap party. Rode and Muller bring forth much of the film's fascinating factual background, including Dalton Trumbo's resorting to threats to get his pay for the script. Denise Hamilton digs into the film's strong characters, especially Susan, one of the most believably rounded women in film noir. The occasionally profane James Ellroy explores the film's ripe sleaze factor. Now a serious L.A.P.D. apologist, Ellroy distances Webb's crooked cop from the local force. He reminds us that the city is nowhere identified, but it is obviously Los Angeles. When Ellroy identifies himself as once having been a voyeur "perv" like Garwood, he's referring to events recounted in his autobiographical novel, My Dark Places. As a homeless young adult Ellroy stalked Hancock Park, sneaking into yards to peek through windows. When he tells us that he has a personal connection to The Prowler, he isn't kidding.
The academic heavy lifting for The Prowler is performed by French director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier, in an interview featurette Masterpiece in the Margins. When Tavernier talks about subtext, it doesn't come off as graduate school doubletalk. I refer to Joseph Losey's use of contrasting locations as "schematic", but this man can describe the film's landscape as "metaphysical" with confidence. It's true: when Losey's moves his urban murder drama to the desert, the story seems to enter a separate, almost surreal dimension.
The disc's featurette On the Prowl: Restoring the Prowler gives us a full picture of the effort and process by which The Prowler came to be reborn. UCLA Archive restorers go on camera both at their facilities and at the film's re-premiere at the American Cinematheque. "The paperwork and the actual film had become separated" and for all practical purposes The Prowler was a lost feature. An original 35mm element was offered to UCLA by the lab where it had been abandoned, long ago. With backing from the Film Noir Foundation, UCLA was able to finesse a beautiful restoration. We also see clips from other UCLA-restored noirs like Pitfall and work-in-progress on Cry Danger!, a terrific tough-guy noir that may have become legally unglued from RKO. We don't see anything of Try and Get Me!, rumored to be a future focus of The Film Noir Foundation. 3
The package rounds off with a close look at the film's provocative pressbook and an original trailer in good shape. That's a fairly rare item considering that United Artists kept so few of its trailers from the early 1950s. The pressbook's poster image of Evelyn Keyes shows her wearing a sleek dress. We can just see the wily Sam Spiegel substituting similar artwork showing Keyes in an abbreviated bath towel, and then claiming that the premiere ads were an accidental mix-up.
For once one doesn't need superlatives to praise a new noir release: ask anyone who's seen The Prowler and they'll recommend that you check it out at your first opportunity. I halted my story synopsis before the film's halfway point to avoid spoilers, and not reveal how the film arrives at its final moments of utter moral desolation. The Prowler is definitely one of the top ten classic-period noirs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Prowler rates:
1. As in Try and Get Me!, the effort to depict the villain as a narcissist backfires. Webb works on his muscles and reads body-beautiful pulp magazines, which in today's coded iconography implies that he is gay. Back in 1951 the connection was not automatic. One priceless shot shows Garwood peeking over a magazine when the phone rings, as if hiding a dirty secret.
2. The Cost of Living was the film's shooting title. Even more wicked is the knowledge that Dalton Trumbo provides the folksy, Midwestern radio voice for William Gilvray.
Glenn -- one last thing. Cry Danger was restored by UCLA due to the restoration being fully funded by the Film Noir Foundation last year. The premiere in January 2010 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and at the Egyptian with stars Rhonda Fleming and Dick Erdman in attendance were both sell-outs. I will be hosting another screening of Cry Danger with both stars at the Billy Wilder Theater on February 18 as part of UCLA's Restoration Festival.
WB does not own the rights to Cry Danger... in fact it is not clear who does. We are moving forward with a DVD release of Cry Danger for late 2011. Best, Alan K. Rode, The Film Noir Foundation
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T'was Ever Thus.