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The Prowler

The Prowler(1951)


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In the spring of 2000, moviegoers at the annual Festival of Film Noir at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre were treated to a rare screening of The Prowler (1951), written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Joseph Losey. It proved a revelation, as the film had been extremely hard to find for many years. Even star Evelyn Keyes, who was in attendance, loved the chance to see it again -- understandable given her exceptional performance. But the 35mm print shown that night soon fell into disrepair, and there seemed to be no others in existence. For years afterward, a restoration of The Prowler was one of the top priorities of the Film Noir Foundation, the entity formed by film historian Eddie Muller to fund the preservation of classic film noir and enable exhibition of such films in quality 35mm prints. Adequate elements for The Prowler were finally found through the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and a restoration effort was spearheaded by Muller's foundation. A new, beautiful print premiered at the 2009 noir festival, and now, thanks to the Film Noir Foundation and distributor VCI Entertainment, fans everywhere can enjoy The Prowler on a superb new DVD.

And it really is superb. Not only does the movie itself look flawless, but there are abundant extras giving this classic the attention it deserves, which is especially impressive in this era of bare-bones classics releases (when such films are even released at all anymore). More on the extras in a bit.

The Prowler stars Van Heflin as an unhappy policeman, Webb Garwood, and Evelyn Keyes as a bored housewife, Susan Gilvray, who spends her nights alone as her husband hosts a radio show. Susan reports a prowler one night; Webb and his partner (John Maxwell) investigate. They find nothing, but there's something "off" about Webb right off the bat. He snoops around Susan's house more than he needs to, picking up photos, and he talks back to her in a smart-alecky way. It's disquieting to witness a uniformed cop -- a figure of trust -- behaving not just so unprofessionally, but even aggressively, in such a situation. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Webb sees in Susan's house and life a glimpse of upper-middle-class success that he has yearned for, and which he wants immediately. He hatches a long scheme to seduce Susan which must be seen spoiler-free, but suffice it to say that delicious, if not outlandish, plot turns eventually move the action from Susan's lonely, cold house on an otherwise pleasant street, to a lonely, depressing hotel on a Las Vegas highway, and finally to a lonely, desert ghost town in the middle of nowhere. Writer Trumbo and director Losey are smart enough to realize that while the narrative logic may be questionable, the emotional, thematic -- and above all, visual -- logic justifies the plot turns. Each landscape becomes progressively bleaker and more remote, which is a clear comment on the nature of the characters' relationship and the futility of Webb's scheme.

Running through The Prowler is a strong undercurrent of social class tension and a dark, subversive take on the American dream of wealth and success. The unstable Webb is motivated not by lust so much as by Susan's home, trappings, and lifestyle. The fragile and vulnerable Susan, for her part, clearly married her husband to tap into such a world herself, but her boredom indicates that getting to that world is no guarantee of happiness. These ironies are of great interest to Trumbo and Losey, and they lend a fascinating complexity to the characters. Heflin and Keyes give performances that are among their finest work on screen, expressing deep levels of subtext both physically and verbally.

The distrust and unease with established social institutions (like the police force) and with the American dream itself is surely a result of Trumbo's having recently been blacklisted. Certainly he was feeling disillusioned with America after being punished professionally for his apparent personal beliefs. He wrote the screenplay for producers John Huston (uncredited) and Sam Spiegel (who at this time was crediting himself as "S.P. Eagle"), but he used his writer friend Hugo Butler as a front. Not until decades later was Trumbo's involvement widely divulged. Butler would soon be blacklisted himself, as would Losey, who moved to England and worked there for the rest of his life. (That's why many casual fans are under the impression that Losey was British. He was actually from Wisconsin.)

Trumbo can be heard in The Prowler as the radio voice of Susan's husband John, a nice touch. He memorably signs off each broadcast with "I'll be seeing you, Susan!" -- which is meant to be romantic but comes off as threatening and, in the end, haunting.

The Prowler was, impressively, shot in just 20 days. It was cinematographer Arthur Miller's last film. The longtime Fox cameraman had recently parted ways with the studio due to a contract dispute. This was an unusual film for Miller, who lately had been doing more opulent productions such as Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and A Letter to Three Wives (1949). In an interview for the 1970 book Hollywood Cameramen, Miller admitted that he didn't think The Prowler amounted to very much, but he was selling himself (and the movie) short. His work is crisp and beautiful, from the hard-edged night scenes in and around the house to the wide-open, dusty ghost town. Miller was supposed to go on and shoot The African Queen (1951) for John Huston, but he fell ill with tuberculosis and decided to retire from filmmaking.

VCI has worked with the Film Noir Foundation and the video production house Trailer Park to produce a wealth of extras that are of Criterion-level quality. Muller's commentary track is among his best. There's no question Muller knows how to give good commentary; he's done it on many a noir DVD for Warner Brothers and Fox over the years. Here, he stays well-focused on the film and all its players, giving full attention to Losey and Trumbo and the blacklist, relating the ingenious ways Trumbo got around Production Code restrictions, analyzing scenes intelligently, and offering priceless details like the fact that Van Heflin once said he based every performance on a particular animal, here imagining Webb Garwood to be like a panther. Muller also injects a welcome dose of humor now and again, making for a commentary that is very listenable and never drags.

There's also a 25-minute documentary, expertly produced by Trailer Park's Steven Smith, entitled "The Cost of Living: Creating The Prowler," with input from Muller, Alan K. Rode, Christopher Trumbo (son of Dalton), Denise Hamilton and James Ellroy. Trumbo's appearance is poignant because he died not long before this DVD was released. Ellroy, who contributed financially to the restoration, offers wry comments such as "Van Heflin is the biggest perv in film noir history." (He calls The Prowler a prime example of "perv noir.") "The Cost of Living," by the way, was the film's title all the way through production. It was changed at the last minute as a way of increasing the film's marketability.

"On the Prowl: Restoring The Prowler" is an absorbing 9-minute featurette, produced and directed by Patrick Francis, about the restoration process and the partnership between the Film Noir Foundation, UCLA and the Stanford Theatre Film Lab. Technicians explain their work and the challenges involved in the process.

Finally, there's a 20-minute piece with Bertrand Tavernier talking about The Prowler and Losey's significance and influence; a trailer that is in surprisingly good technical shape; and a 3-minute montage of images from the original pressbook. Even the DVD's package design and graphics are beautiful and inviting. All in all, this is a supremely satisfying DVD release of a truly great film noir, and surely will wind up as one of the most notable and important classic-film DVDs of 2011.

For more information about The Prowler, visit VCI Entertainment. To order The Prowler, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold