The opening shot of The Prowler (1951) peers in out of the night through the luminous bedroom window of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). We suppose we’re assuming the eponymous prowler’s point-of-view, but who exactly is the prowler? Officers Bud Crocker and Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) arrive to check for signs of trespassage, the latter condescendingly reassuring this nervous and attractive wife of a late-night disc jockey while admiring her affluence and formulating plans to seduce her. But it’s not at all clear that our heroine’s adversary (and soon-to-be lover) was the opening’s peeper, though Webb will briefly inhabit the very same perspective as that first shot while surveying the house’s exterior. The identity of the bearer of the eyes through which we first leer at Susan remains ambiguous. Audaciously so, considering the film’s titled after this creature-voyeur ostensibly nestled in the shrubs. Does he (or she) even exist? Are we the prowler?
Previously unavailable on DVD, The Prowler has finally appeared, released by VCI and gorgeously restored by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Directed by Joseph Losey and secretly written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, The Prowler is brooding yet taut as a timing belt, brimming with lust and petty ambitions yet complicated by a thicket of unarticulated, conflicting emotions. With its overt perversions and premarital sex, it’s one of the period’s most flamboyant violators of the production code. A broad abstract of its plot promises a retread of Double Indemnity (44), replacing femme fatale with homme, but there’s so much more going on here. Every new sequence renegotiates the story’s direction and tone. At times it’s a comedy of discomfort, at others commentary on class envy. While moving through Susan’s cavernous bungalow it carries the air of a horror picture: there’s that monster, and he wants inside. But as we move from Los Angeles suburb to Nevada highway to a desert ghost town, the film’s landscapes become increasingly oneiric, the couple’s motives increasingly bizarre—yet somehow it all makes an eerie kind of sense.
Oblivious to his own douche-bag menace, Webb is Heflin at his finest: those round, Wellesian eyes that keep glancing backward as he swaggers away from Susan’s door, the way he abuses his authority to make himself at home, worming his way in, asking for milk, thumbing the records in search of some Guy Lombardo. Webb and Susan discover they share roots in rural Indiana—they attended the same football dances—and with this tenuous connection Webb commandeers their affair, delighting in toying with Susan’s feelings. He tells her he wants to buy a motor court in Nevada. Every time he’s in Vegas he drives out just to see if it’s still there. At first Susan says she married her older, wealthy husband to get away from guys like Webb, but she still falls for him. Is Susan lonely or mentally ill? Is she genuinely drawn to this creep? The elegance of Keyes’ performance lies in its sustained uncertainty. It’s often impossible to discern what she’s thinking, though it’s clear she’s thinking something. And it’s probably a bad idea.
Susan’s husband is heard on the radio during their trysts. (I love that the voice is supplied by Trumbo.) That voice assures the adulterers of the husband’s absence, yet it also makes him perpetually present, a bodiless chaperone, announcing song titles that read like chapters in the novel of his wife’s affair. When Webb kisses Susan the camera swings over toward the radio as if seeking a reaction shot. Susan never describes her husband physically, and that first fleeting moment in which we finally see him is also the last. In this way Losey’s film becomes a delicious, rigorous study in what it means to see and to hear in the movies. Everything out senses are given is precise and provocative. “I’ll be seeing you, Susan,” the husband says each night as he signs off, and we’ll be seeing her too: The Prowler is a noir masterpiece, and deserves to be revisited again and again.