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The Prowler

The Prowler(1951)

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teaser The Prowler (1951)

Poor Susan Gilvray. One night she sees a peeping tom watching her through her bathroom window, so she does the sensible thing and calls the cops. But that prowler was but a fleeting invasion of her privacy. The cop who comes to her rescue brings a more sustained intrusion into her life. She has made a mistake in inviting this emotional vampire into her home. He sizes up what he sees--a huge suburban mansion, and a shapely blonde within-and decides he wants it all. The prowler scampers off into the night, never to be seen again. The cop, however, stays.

Compared to Joseph Losey's previous films, The Boy with Green Hair (1948) and The Lawless (1950), his third outing switches tone. The first two films were scathing social critiques that explored mob psychology, while The Prowler (1951) is a focused character study on one man. Policeman Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) is shown to be a selfish, murderous wreck, but there is nothing to suggest he is meant to be emblematic of police in general. His psychological cracks are unique, and the other patrolman in the story is portrayed as a gentle old coot, as harmless as they come. If there is a social message underneath this noir tale, it is not in the man but in the man's desires.

"The Prowler to me is, and always has been, a film about false values," explained Losey, "About the means justifying the end and the end justifying the means. '100,000 bucks, a Cadillac, and a blonde' were the sine qua non of American life at that time and it didn't matter how you got them."

Webb's conquest of Susan has ironic consequences for his materialistic dreams. Webb starts courting Susan, although she is not technically free. Her husband is a radio announcer, and every night she listens to his show, awaiting his signature sign-off, "I'll be seeing you, Susan" as the cue to end that night's passion. The affair must be conducted in secret, bounded by the walls of her home, and dictated by radio schedules, but the pair luxuriates in her enormous Spanish-style villa. Webb hits on a bright idea of how to get rid of Susan's husband. By literally becoming the prowler, he sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in the perfect murder, with Susan as his unwitting and unwilling accomplice. Strangely, the one and only time the husband appears in the film is the moment where he is shot dead-he begins as a virtual ghost and ends as a corpse. With the life insurance money of the man he killed, Webb at last can realize his lifelong ambition of owning a motel in Las Vegas (!), where he and Susan can now live as man and wife. Trading up from adultery to marriage also means trading down from opulent furnishings to the functional world of a travelers' pit-stop. There's another step down yet to come, when Susan reveals she is pregnant. The timing is a mess-she's four months pregnant but has only "officially" known Webb a few weeks. To reveal otherwise would threaten his alibi. Yet her late husband was known to be sterile, so the couple flees to a desert ghost town to give birth in secret, hoping to fudge the birth date as the child gets older. Far from the comforts of the dead man's house, they are stranded in an apocalyptic wilderness, where they find the dead man's voice follows them even here.

Each progression in their relationship corresponds to a decline in living standards. It is a cosmic punishment for his greed, but Webb has been his own worst enemy. For all its noir atmosphere, The Prowler inverts the typical noir pattern. Instead of a femme fatale, Losey delivers an homme fatale. Comparisons to Double Indemnity (1944) have often been made (and Losey himself acknowledges the debt of influence), but whereas Billy Wilder's 1944 classic indicts both its lovers for their crime, Losey's film follows Webb on a path of self-destruction that simply drags others down with him.

Losey himself knew a thing or two about self-destruction. He had quickly distinguished himself as an artist of considerable skill, but his combative nature burned bridges behind him as quickly as his talent opened doors ahead of him. His marriage was dissolving around him at the same time. His wife Luisa had hoped a baby might bring them closer together, but Losey's alcohol use had compromised his fertility. Luckily she had gotten pregnant, but then lost the baby to a miscarriage. It sent her spiraling into grief, but Joseph pulled away from her when she needed him most. He grew tired of her talking of nothing but her lost child, and responded by not coming home any more. Instead he spent his nights with Evelyn Keyes-the actress playing Susan in The Prowler. As bad judgment goes, it was a doozy: not only was he cheating on his wife, but he did so with the wife of his producer, John Huston! Evelyn had little sympathy for the distraught Luisa, and callously sniffed that she "was dragging out her sorrow too long after the miscarriage."

Aside from Evelyn's temptation to blame the victim, it is perhaps also the case that Joseph's grief simply took a different form. Rather than express his pain openly, as his wife did, he repackaged it as work: The Prowler ruminates on infertility and pregnancy, difficult births, extramarital affairs, and the death of love. Even the fact that the cuckolded husband worked in radio carried echoes of Losey's personal life, as he had gotten his start making radio dramas, before transitioning into films. Joseph Losey succeeded in converting these fragments of his world into compelling cinema, but failed to keep his own family together.

Divorce was not the only force rending Losey's life apart. For years he had been the subject of intense scrutiny by the FBI. A file as thick as 750 pages sat in J. Edgar Hoover's office, with wiretaps and active surveillance being used to divine if the filmmaker was an active Soviet agent, or if he merely posed a threat by conveying Soviet propaganda in his subversive films. Indeed, the investigation seemed to blur the distinction between these two, to the point that any liberal thinker in Hollywood was equated with enemy espionage. Many of Losey's friends were blacklisted in Hollywood for their political beliefs, and he knew he would soon join them. Not long after The Prowler was released, Losey left Hollywood to start anew in Europe, away from the reach of the Red Scare panic.

In Europe, Losey used The Prowler as his calling card, screening it for potential backers. It won the gushing enthusiasm of Olive Dodds, head of artists' contracts at England's Rank Studios, who proclaimed it "extraordinary, brilliant. I hadn't seen such genius."

The project had begun when independent producer Sam Spiegel (then working under the name "S.P. Eagle") and his partner John Huston contracted an original screen story from writers Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm. Spiegel admired The Boy with Green Hair and The Lawless and decided Losey was an up-and-comer who could be had for cheap. Once Losey was brought onto the production, his first reaction was that the existing screenplay was "pretty awful." Losey handed it to Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler to improve. Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten and as such his contribution would be concealed, his name expunged from the titles. Butler was soon also blacklisted, but managed to eke out this screen credit before that happened. For that matter, the FBI was also compiling a file on writer Thoeren, whom they considered "an active Communist."

Although Trumbo's role in creating the screenplay was hidden, Spiegel and Losey did take the opportunity to thumb their noses at the blacklist by having Trumbo provide the voice of Susan's radio announcer husband, for which the writer received the modest sum of $35.

At least Trumbo got his $35. Both Butler and Losey were left to sue Spiegel for their salaries, which they only received after years of legal wrangling. Losey never lost affection for Spiegel, though, and while the process of extracting payment was a grueling slog, he appreciated how Spiegel let him work in his own idiosyncratic way. Losey assembled a first-rate team of collaborators, including director of photography Arthur Miller, a multi-Oscar® winner accustomed to the traditional approach to lighting Hollywood soundstages. Miller was eager to prove that his skills were adaptable to the faster pace increasingly common in lower budgeted productions, and was happy to show Losey that he could work swiftly.

Losey had developed a good rapport with designer John Hubley, also known for his pioneering experiments in animation. Hubley designed the three key sets of the story (the house, the motel, the ghost town) which were erected several weeks in advance of the shoot, allowing Losey to spend ten days carefully rehearsing with the cast on-set as if preparing for a stage play. While the actors settled into their roles, Losey and Miller mapped out camera positions. By the time rehearsal was over, everyone was so well prepared that the actual production clipped by in a scant 19 days. Keeping with the idea of letting the actors work as if on stage, Losey opted to film scenes in long, sustained takes. Assistant director Robert Aldrich, soon to be a fabled director in his own right, built a lightweight flexible crane for Miller's camera, which could swoop and glide through Hubley's sets with great agility. Rather than break scenes into lots of individual shots, Losey could let his actors perform entire scenes without interruption. Aldrich's crane also came in handy for a wry piece of commentary that Hubley concocted for the wedding scene: as Webb and Susan are married in the foreground, a funeral takes place at an adjacent church in the background.

Losey called such moments of visual symbolism "baroque," and would find himself increasingly turning to theatrical tricks of the sort in the years to come. As he became fussier about his compositions, he tended to look back in disdain at earlier, less self-conscious works. Losey gave an interview to the New York Times in 1968 complaining about how Dalton Trumbo had taken the liberty of writing his own choices of shot selection into the screenplay. Although this was standard practice, Losey described it as an unwelcome insubordination. Trumbo wrote a response defending himself, but the argument was moot. As European critics had hailed him as a great artist, Losey let the praise go to his head, and needed to justify why not all of his works were of equal artistic stature. It was easier to blame his collaborators for any perceived weaknesses. Of The Prowler he would say that it had "a kind of Hollywood polish which I don't admire and don't strive for."

Losey struggled with how to fit The Prowler into his own personal narrative. To call it the high point of his Hollywood phase was, to him, tantamount to calling it the best of the worst. But to praise it on its own terms seemed to denigrate his European career, implicitly challenging whether leaving America was the right call. As he vacillated, his fans in France considered the question settled. The Prowler became a cult hit in France. The influential Cahiers du Cinema dedicated an entire issue to Losey's films, and singled out The Prowler as the moment that Losey became a true auteur.

Producer: S.P. Eagle
Director: Joseph Losey
Screenplay: Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm (story)
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Lyn Murray
Film Editing: Paul Weatherwax
Cast: Van Heflin (Webb Garwood), Evelyn Keyes (Susan Gilvray), John Maxwell (Bud Crocker), Katherine Warren (Mrs. Crocker), Emerson Treacy (William Gilvray), Madge Blake (Martha Gilvray), Wheaton Chambers (Doctor James), Robert Osterloh (Coroner), Sherry Hall (John Gilvray), Louise Lorimer (Motel Manager).

by David Kalat

David Caute, Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life
Michel Ciment, Conversations with Losey
Foster Hirsch, Joseph Losey
James Palmer and Michael Riley, The Films of Joseph Losey
Edith de Rham, Joseph Losey

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