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Every year The Film Noir Foundation puts on gala noir festivals across the country; the flagship venue is San Francisco's Castro Theater but the yearly Hollywood stop-off at the Egyptian is a big deal as well. As seen at their website, the Foundation has helped restore or made screening-ready an impressive list of formerly at-risk noir films. A big part of the problem can be freeing films stuck in legal limbo, when rights holders are difficult to locate or even identify. To take one example, it's still not entirely clear who ended up owning the Foundation-rescued classic Cry Danger.
One of the first and most significant Foundation rescues is Joseph Losey's The Prowler, a one-of-a-kind murder melodrama with a history inseparable from the Hollywood blacklisting era. Losey later became one of the most respected film directors of the 1960s, but his name will always be associated with the blacklist.
It was a time of loyalty oaths and employee purges. The studios caved in to political pressure, terminating dozens of vital careers both in front of the camera and behind. Self-appointed guardians of Americanism followed with "Red Channels" character smears. 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 writer who lost his career in television couldn't understand why; he discovered only much later that the witch hunters had confused him with another man 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.
But committed directors countered with bitter, accusatory pictures: 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 openly championed pacifism, at a time when anyone not an atomic patriot ran the risk of being labeled a traitor. Losey's nearly perfect social issue film The Lawless is an exposé of bigotry against Mexican-Americans. A small town riots, destroying a local newspaper that dares defend a Chicano accused of murder.
Losey's producer Sam Spiegel was after a good drama, not a slam at American values to invite political controversy. His semi-partner John Huston wanted a good vehicle for his actress wife, Evelyn Keyes. But The Prowler has become known almost exclusively for its provocative critique of the American Success Story. VCI's cover art doesn't even mention the film's actors -- the stars are now director Losey and his blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the most outspoken alumnus of The Hollywood Ten. Working behind a Front, the defiant Trumbo must have enjoyed writing a movie that proclaims that the glorious American system of opportunity encourages greed, deceit and murder. The working title was The Cost of Living.
The story wastes no time setting its murder tale in 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; patrolmen Bud Crocker and Webb Garwood (John Maxwell & Van Heflin) answer her call. Webb makes an irregular follow-up visit. 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 and physically hooked on him before announcing that they had better break up. She reports that her husband angrily rejected her request for a divorce. 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.
The Prowler so completely goes against the edicts of the Production Code that producer Spiegel must have had greased his script to get it past the Code's pre-censors. Several of the movie's key story points were production seal no-no's, "thou shalt nots" unacceptable to Code officials out to cleanse screens of negative images of America. Van Heflin's corrupt cop Webb Garwood 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 Garwood is a liar and a killer. He betrays Susan with the claim that his love is pure and the killing was accidental.
Movies of this era ennoble uniformed cops as valiant, unimpeachable authority figures. Not many people were aware that corruption was widespread in police departments across the country. Seeing Webb committing crimes while wearing a spotless patrolman's uniform made audiences uncomfortable. He's a scheming loner. He spends his off-duty time holed up in his tiny rented room, waiting for Susan's desperate phone calls while reading "physical culture" magazines. 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 violent frustration into his work; he's a sick man in need of redemption.
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 go with it. Dalton Trumbo reinforces the notion 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). In movies of the 1950s, even a normal childbirth in a happy household took place far off screen, elided with a discreet dissolve or suggested in some symbolic manner. Being "with child" was considered a tasteless subject, as if it were part of the forbidden sex act. My parents told me that it was a big deal when Lucille Ball was allowed to approximate pregnancy for TV's I Love Lucy. It must have been all the more shocking for Susan to be pregnant under such debased circumstances.
Variety labeled The Prowler "...strictly adult entertainment" and many reviewers compared it to Double Indemnity. 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. Women having sex outside of marriage in a 1951 film almost always paid dearly at 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 after agreeing to use a less sensational artwork treatment. It's possible that a confusion of titles helped -- not long before its release, the movie was re-titled The Cost of Loving, which was then switched last-minute to The Prowler. 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 stars generate impressive on-screen chemistry, with Evelyn Keyes particularly convincing as a woman losing control of her passions. When Webb Garwood suddenly breaks off their relationship, Susan squirms in physical addiction and self-loathing. Webb continues to manipulate the situation, affecting the exact 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 a motel in Las Vegas represented only by a faceless building surrounded by highway traffic. The final stop is a desert wasteland, the actual ghost town of Calico near Barstow in the Mojave Desert. A hitch in Webb's master plan forces a retreat from society that soon devolves into an elaborate, self-generated trap. When one has so much to lose, fear takes over. Garwood's scheme to avoid detection (I'm being unclear to avoid more spoilers) could 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 wailing in tears, packing his bag for a hopeless getaway. First he bawls that he did everything for a rotten $63,000. Then he defends himself with the evasion that everyone cheats everybody, that everybody is a crook and he only wanted his fair share. Webb's self-serving ruthlessness, 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 uneasy 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 Gilvray's 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 Blu-ray of The Prowler follows up on their excellent DVD release from 2011. The presentation is identical except for the improved HD film transfer. The Blu-ray format brings not just more detail, but greater image stability and a much broader and finer grayscale. Arthur Miller's rich cinematography reveals more textures in clothing and the actors' skin. The brighter brights combined with the added resolution make the actors' eyes twinkle and glitter the way they do on theater screens. The near-flawless restoration work was done by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The Film Noir Foundation also 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. The docu featurette The Cost of Living: Creating The Prowler is the place to begin. 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 reportedly pocketed the film crew's 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.
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 gives the film's visuals a fine combing, and examines specific choices 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 has recorded many.
More academic heavy lifting on the disc is performed by French director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier in the interview featurette Masterpiece in the Margins. When he 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 Tavernier 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 shows us the involved 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.
The package rounds off with a close look at the film's provocative press book and an original trailer in good shape. That's a fairly rare item considering that so few United Artists trailers from the early 1950s have survived. The press book's poster image shows Evelyn Keyes wearing a sleek dress. We can just see the wily Sam Spiegel substituting similar artwork showing Keyes in her abbreviated bath towel, and then claiming that the premiere ads were an accidental mix-up.
The Prowler was once difficult to see, but becoming more readily available has not diminished its mystique. I halted my story synopsis well 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 Blu-ray
1. As in Try and Get Me!, the filmmakers' 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, mid-western radio voice for William Gilvray, effectively thumbing his nose at his ban from films and forced exile in Mexico.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.