Prowler, The (Blu-ray Review)23 Mar, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Stars Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes.
When this generation’s definitive L.A. crime novelist James Ellroy himself refers to any movie from the early ’50s film as “perv noir,” Movie Mike listens — though in this case, I programmed director Joseph Losey’s uncommonly grown-up exercise in doom (with Hugo Butler fronting for then politically blacklisted Dalton Trumbo as screenwriter) at the AFI Theater in 1976, so the story’s queasy underbelly has never been an obscure factor to me. As a result, it’s curious to hear one or more of the bonus commentators/interviewees on this handsome Blu-ray of the picture’s restoration noting how tough The Prowler was to see for years in a good copy because someone (I don’t remember who) sent us a pristine 35mm print to run in a double bill with The Big Night (also 1951) — that acting showcase for Drew Barrymore’s real-life dad that ended up being Losey’s last U.S. film before taking up permanent exile in England. Over there, his output included that remarkable arthouse trilogy with Harold Pinter of The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between — all of which are available on first-rate Region B Blu-rays (but not via North American or all-Region equivalents, alas).
None in that trio, to be sure, is a likely Ellroy fave, but it’s no surprise that this one is — opening as it does with a prowler POV shot looking at co-lead Evelyn Keyes through her character’s bathroom window, an incident that precipitates a police call that leads to unsettling problems of a different sort extending through the movie’s final scene. One of the responding cops (John Maxwell) is — to employ parlance that easily might be heard in Olive’s new Blu-ray of Albert Zugsmith’s trash heap The Beat Generation — straight from Squaresville; for fun, he collects rocks. The other (Van Heflin) is a certified creep who lives in an apparently single-room flat whose standout chick-magnet decor is the bullet-pierced cardboard target from one of his stints on the firing range. Heflin is one of those guys who spends all his money on clothes and a flashy appearance to offset an inferiority complex that’s been well earned.
Keyes is trapped in a loveless marriage to a mostly retired moneybags about 150 years her senior, though the guy spends his evenings broadcasting a radio show from a local food market. Lonely and even horny, she’s nonetheless an up-and-up individual, and though there are obvious story parallels to Double Indemnity here, she’s nothing like the schemer Barbara Stanwyck plays in that all-timer. On the contrary, Keyes is obvious prey for Heflin mind-games that commence at once; the Trumbo script eschews the normal expository plot tissue to keep the story moving, and in what seems like just a blink after they meet, Heflin is coming over in flashy street clothes to put on the moves. Meanwhile, the husband’s voice blares from the radio during their at-home trysts, a keen Big Brother touch that utilizes the voice of Trumbo himself. The irony, of course, is that this was a time when HUAC showboaters prevented his name from appearing in the opening credits — the kind of point that noir specialist Eddie Muller is so good at hammering home on a commentary carried over from VCI’s old DVD version.
At this point, there’s a risk of getting into spoiler territory because the ante keeps getting upped with matters getting wilder and wilder. Even so, The Prowler is closer to a low-key character study than the more common melodramatic form of noir; the two leads had just begun freelancing after being sprung from studio contracts and seem to relish being given their acting heads. This is the twitchiest Heflin performance on record (it’s unlike anything else he ever did), though the tics illuminate without detracting or distracting. Keyes, whose character is fairly pitiable, rated this as the favorite performance of her career — a stint for producer Sam Spiegel (billed as S.P. Eagle) and John Huston for their Horizon Pictures, which would give us The African Queen (with Huston directing) later the same year.
The movie’s locale is obviously Los Angeles, but Ellroy notes in a bonus featurette that reactionary LAPD chief and Jack Webb buddy William Parker never would have allowed an official insignia to appear on the police car here (one of the great gags in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice finds private eye Joaquin Phoenix getting beaten up by cops when he approaches the building named for Parker). As a result, L.A. is never specially identified here — which may be why no clips from this movie appear in Thom Andersen’s fabulous 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (available on a bang-up Blu-ray from Cinema Guild), when they would otherwise seem to be natural inclusions.
Director Bertrand Tavernier, another Prowler fan, is also featured in the bonus materials here — and notes that a great box set could be made up of the noirs Trumbo had to write under pseudonyms when HUAC was having its way: this one, the classic Gun Crazy and John Garfield’s swan song He Ran All the Way (a big one from my childhood late-show cruisings just as I was beginning junior high). It’s a seductive idea but no doubt a rights quagmire — though I did just read that Ran is on Kino’s docket for a summer release.