More covertly critical than the socially conscious “message movies” of the postwar years, film noir smuggled a disenchanted, even despairing vision of American life into mainstream entertainment. Posing as a string of cheap, unpretentious thrillers, noir held up a starkly unflattering mirror to its audience. Joseph Losey’s The Prowler, screening in a newly restored print at Film Forum Mar. 19-25, is a low-key but merciless indictment of middle-class American life as a pit of dissatisfaction, boredom, envy and corruption. The Prowler has never been released on any home-video format, but has acquired a deserved cult reputation as one of noir’s bitterest pills.
Van Heflin stars as Webb Garwood, a brash, disaffected cop who feels cheated because he lost the college sports scholarship that should have guaranteed a life of ease. Heflin, an underrated actor who didn’t look like a movie star, specialized in ambiguous characters; his average, nice-guy demeanor could turn raffish, callous and sleazy. One night Webb goes on a routine call to look into a housewife’s report of a prowler. Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) spends her nights alone in a handsome Spanish-style house in the quiet California suburbs, listening to her husband, an all-night DJ, on the radio. Blonde, vulnerable, and unfulfilled—she had a failed career as an actress, and her husband is unable to give her children—she is easy prey for Webb Garwood, who turns out to be the real prowler. His desire for her is almost indistinguishable from his lust for her house and all its trophies of affluence. He keeps stopping by, ostensibly following up on the peeping-tom complaint, and they begin an affair; soon Webb is plotting to get rid of her husband, using his uniform to disguise the killing as a tragic accident.
While making The Prowler, Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee; he fled to England, where he went on to direct his best known films in collaboration with Harold Pinter. Contributing to the screenplay of The Prowler and providing the radio voice of Susan Gilvray’s husband was Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Film noir commonly dealt with adultery and murder, deception and greed, but The Prowler went further in exposing how thin and grubby the American ideal of success could be. The emptiness of Susan’s life as she wanders like a sleepless ghost through her own lonely house echoes Webb’s sadly small, cheap dream of owning a motel—the ultimate symbol of banal, transient car culture. Their sense of disappointment and isolation drives their violent urges to break out and grab the things they want. Webb defends himself with the argument that everyone cheats: lawyers take bribes, clerks pilfer the cash register, businessmen fudge their taxes. The film’s working title was “The Cost of Living.”
Webb and Susan wind up taking refuge in a bleak, dust-choked ghost town in the Mojave desert. Like Von Stroheim’s Greed and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, film noir used the desert to evoke the sterility of modern life, and how easily civilized people can revert to savagery. The ruin of a community built on dreams of easy riches, the ghost town is a bitterly appropriate place for the couple to hide. Though they conceive a child, their relationship, built on greed and lies, is truly barren.
NOTE: The 7:40 screening on Friday, Mar. 19 will be introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, which provided funding to restore The Prowler.