The Prowler (1951)

The Prowler (1951) is a modest and excitingly unpredictable doomed-love-affair obsessional-voyeur and adulterer crooked-cop film noir starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes as two lovers who find themselves in an evil mess of murderous ill happenings after starting an affair that is set from the off to go badly wrong, premised as it is on prowling, envy, lust and a crooked copper's cravings.

Although The Prowler promises voyeurism and terror, it is not exactly this type of film, and spends its time following cop Van Heflin as he pushes his way into this victim's life.

Van Heflin is excellent at this character, Webb Garwood, who is unhappy in his job and just simply can't get why some people have got rich houses and classy women, when all he has is his crummy boarding house room and for company, his sharp shooting targets.

Because victim Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) is by herself most evenings while her husband presents a radio show, he sees this first as an injustice, that she should be left alone, and then later as an opportunity, to start an affair.

Everything in this love affair in The Prowler is wrong and in fact the affair itself is predicated on evil from the off.

Evelyn Keyes and Van Hefflin in The Prowler (1951)

First, crooked cop Heflin begins the affair by forcing himself on supposedly bored housewife Keyes. She not only does an excellent job of resisting and repelling him, she makes it clear even by pushing and pushing during their first forced kiss that she does not want this.

The bad apple himself though persists, and not only forces the affair into being, does more than just concoct and carry out a murder plot, but in fact pushes her into that too.

Evelyn Keyes as Susan Gilvray plays no part in any of the noir chicanery and deceit. She is not looking for an affair, and loves her husband, and while perhaps mildly flirty at the off, is in fact a vulnerable woman by herself, to be protected at best and left alone at worst.

She displays no wicked or deceitful traits, and in fact we meet her as crime victim, which in effect she remains. 

With its life insurance policy at the heart of the greedy tale, this is not even close to Double Indemnity, upon which elements were clearly modelled. Firstly, this is not a conspiracy of a murder plot as cop Heflin carries it out himself and then manages to persuade his victim's wife of his innocence.

So Evelyn Keyes as Susan Gilvray is not complicit in the murder and is certainly not a willing participant, and is no femme fatale. Instead she is as much a victim as her dead husband, proving that this cop is one-man crime wave  --  a part psychopath and a part adulterer.

What is oddest of all about The Prowler, directed by Josef Losey, is the identity and lack of presence of the eponymous villain. Although the movie commences with the two beat cops being called to investigate reports of a prowler and peeping Tom-style voyeur in the smart area of the city.

Although this is the catalyst for the story, it is the last we encounter of this villain, save for two more mentions. As Van Heflin and his dullard geology obsessed partner investigate the crime, Van Heflin appears once again at the same window they are investigating and gives victim Keyes a fright once again. The implication here is that perhaps the prowler was this cop to begin with - - a kind of Bad Lieutenant type feel, in which we're looking at a perverted cop using the badge and its privileges as a means to satisfy his own dark criminality.

The other significance of the prowler figure in the movie The Prowler, comes when Van Heflin is executing his rather far-fetched and yet effective murder plot. In order to do this, he pretends to be the prowler, making prowler-style noises outside Susan's house in order that her husband may emerge to defend them.

Van Heflin in The Prowler (1951)

Again the implication here is that Van Heflin as crooked cop Webb Garwood, has been the prowler all along - - so adept is he at prowling. Other than this, for a film noir which perhaps suggest the possibility of a mystery of voyeurism and a story of psychological urban alienation and mental corruption, in the form of a sex pest and the social terror it might bring - - does not emerge.   

The story itself is odder than this, and shows Van Heflin forcing his way upon Keyes who eventually gives in, the murder and trial, and then a strange retreat into the desert for a denouement where the couple hide out, and where Keyes' character gives birth to their illicit baby. It is out in the desert and in a deserted building lot in the ghost town of Calico, where Van Heflin's crazy plans unravel and he is forced to flee, eventually being felled by  the local sheriff and his men.

Van Heflin's character, the crooked cop Webb Garwood, seems pleasant enough much of the time, and although he is trusted by his partner, this trust is not shared by his partner's wife. Yes, he sits at home mulling and scheming like any good sociopath, and yes he lies his way out of murder. But he does create an almighty mess from which there is no escape, piecing together a fantasy that he even gets his victim to take part in, even insofar as they run away together. Ultimately he not only smashes his own life, but hers too, and that too of their new child.

Masterplan murder? Crooked Cop Van Heflin in The Prowler (1951)

The intention would seem to be to shine a film noir spotlight over class and social issues, but instead The Prowler seems to be more about psychopathy and above all obsession. Obsession is in fact what makes the most sense here, in cop Van Heflin's obsession with Susan (Evelyn Keyes) which is obscene enough to make him into the prowler of the title - - if he is already not that prowler. 

The  there is his obsession with wealth, which bears more towards the sociopathic rather than anything that might make a social comment, especially like anything else we might find in classic film noir titles by the likes of Raoul Walsh, which often deal with such glaring inequalities.

The Prowler was written by Dalton Trumbo who was at that time blacklisted and used as a 'front' his writer friend Hugo Butler, whom in turn would be blacklisted soon after. Interestingly, Dalton Trumbo can be heard throughout the picture, as the radio voice of the man who is to become Van Heflin's victim. It may be as close as we can get to the physical presence of Dalton Trumbo himself, in all of the classic film noir cycle. 

You could describe Van Heflin's character as the homme fatale of the relationship, as he is the seducer of Evelyn Keyes' character Susan. Perhaps 'seduction' is too kind a term for this however, as he seems to pressure her more than anything else into the doomed relationship, never taking no for an answer, and moving in - - tellingly smoking the cuckold husband's cigarettes as he moves in on the take.

As an aside there, we'd have to wonder why a man would keep his cigarettes under lock and key, but sometimes plots require these strange foibles. 

Ultimately, despite any such strangeness The Prowler is high value arch as hell classic period first rate noir, and an upturned American Dream. Now in the heart of suburbia the protector cop and the figure of the sociopathic threat are one in the same. Susan is easily manipulated by Webb, but this isn't because of her own inner weakness but down to trust - - trust in him as a policeman, and then as a father - - neither of which roles he can handle. Webb's inability to be a man is the crash that keeps on crashing.

As a totality, the final package is full subversive and as claustrophobic as the interior of this killer's mind. Adultery and pregnancy out of wedlock were not easy themes for the era, and followers of The Hollywood Production Code will note that these factors aside, the couple still sleep in separate beds, as the code would have demanded.

Evelyn Keyes in The Prowler (1951)

Cop Webb is clearly as smitten with Susan's house as he is with Susan, which is as ruinous a glance into the sociopathic mind as you'll find in the cinema of 1951. As for Susan herself, although she is an unwilling participant for the most part, her marriage is presented as infertile and unproductive, so that when Webb puts the moves on her, she is at least a little bit interested. 

The final kicker and key plot element is the life insurance policy, discovered courtesy of the locked up cigarettes, and in itself a great favourite key feature of many a film noir. 

Even film noir scenarios are twisted here, making this as classic a slice of noir as you'd ever need. The leads are compromised and of course moral ambiguity rings hard. On top of that, merciless fate is gripping the collar of both, while poisonous sexuality runs like a blackened river, largely from the heartless core of Van Heflin.  Retribution is hard, even if it is not clear what Van Heflin's crooked cop Webb Garwood is being punished for. He plays it like he wants the woman, but he probably wants the house - - at the same time he plays it like he wants the whole family shebang, but he doesn't want that either, and messes everything up in a noose of horror that gets tighter and tighter until the only thing that is clear is the conclusion.

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