“I’ll be seeing you, Susan.”
You say you like film noir? You like films in the “Double Indemnity” mode or “The Postman Always Rings Twice”? Then you might enjoy this 1951 noir thriller from soon-to-be-blacklisted director Joseph Losey (“The Servant,” “The Go-Between,” “A Doll’s House”) and already blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Roman Holiday,” “Spartacus,” “Exodus,” “Johnny Got His Gun,” “Papillon”). It’s got all the right ingredients, even if the results taste a trifle flat.
Incidentally, the reader should not confuse this release with the 1981 horror movie of the same name. That one’s the slasher; this one’s the noir, distributed by VCI Entertainment and restored to its original shape by the Film Noir Foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
“The Prowler” stars Van Heflin, no stranger to noir movie mysteries. Heflin plays a policeman, Webb Garwood, who responds to a woman’s phone call about someone looking through her window. The woman is Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), living comfortably in a big house and married to a radio announcer who appears to be much older than she is. Garwood is a cocky, smug fellow who used to be a big-shot basketball star in high school but feels he got unfairly aced out of a college scholarship. Now, he makes it pretty clear he hates being a cop.
Garwood sees in Mrs. Gilvray a possible way out of his present lifestyle. He sees that she’s beautiful, well off, but apparently lonely and discontented in her marriage. He senses she’s looking for someone, whether she knows it or not, so Garwood takes advantage of her vulnerability. Besides, when he discovers they are both from the same part of the country, he figures he has a way in the door, a way of getting to know her better. And get to know her he does.
In one of the film’s trademark quick edits (a series of fast, almost nonrational cuts we see throughout the film), Garwood is suddenly no longer in uniform but back in the lady’s house and attempting to romance her. Then, after an initial period of trying to woo her too fast, she abruptly falls head over heels for him. It helps that the husband is away from home most evenings, so they have a lot of time to themselves. It also helps that director Losey uses his edits to jump huge spans of time, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination to fill in the days, weeks, even months of gaps. Imagination is always better reality, I suppose.
Within a short time, the cop and the housewife are in love. The only question next is what to do about the husband. After all, in those days it wasn’t too easy for a spouse to get a divorce. Garwood’s answer is simple, as it is in so many noir films: murder.
The story takes a while to get started, maybe too long, but when it does catch fire, it moves along with a commendably zippy, suspenseful, if somewhat uneven, pace. Unfortunately, it also takes some doing on the viewer’s part to recognize that director Losey and screenwriter Trumbo aren’t providing the usual mystery tale here. It’s more subtle than that on the one hand and more melodramatic than that on the other.
Although neither Mr. Heflin nor Ms. Keyes is a particularly strong, charismatic actor, each of them puts in a solid and convincing performance, despite the holes left by the eccentric jump cuts in the narrative. It’s true that in its second half, “The Prowler” involves too many complications for its own good and includes too many coincidences, making it even more exaggerated and hard to believe than necessary; still, they are conditions the viewer has to accept in order to appreciate the rest of the story.
In the end, viewers will no doubt recognize they have seen something out of the ordinary. Some critics have called the film “subversive” in that it deals with topics not usually found in the mainstream cinema of the Forties and Fifties, things like voyeurism, stalking, and subliminal victimization. By comparison, old-fashioned murder seems almost commonplace. While “The Prowler” is not exactly a riveting film, it is different and may have you scratching your head for various reasons.
The film restoration brings the 1.37:1 ratio film back to something like what must have been its original condition, with almost no ticks, lines, specks, fades, or spots anywhere in it. Fortunately, the restorers didn’t try to remove much of the movie’s inherent print grain, though, choosing instead to retain its realistically film-like qualities. The black-and-white contrasts are deep enough most of the time, as is object detail and definition. I doubt that fans of old movies will find anything of concern; the restoration is a reasonable success and looks just fine for standard-def, especially upscaled.
It sounds as though the restorers also cleaned up the audio for the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack. It’s quiet and smooth, with very little background hiss or noise. Of course, there’s is very little dynamic range or frequency response, either, but that was the nature of most movie soundtracks in those days. The only minor issue I had was that like some other VCI releases, the audio on this one is louder than the audio on most other DVD’s and BD’s, louder by about ten decibels. Hence, you might want to turn down the volume a bit before you begin.
There’s a good assortment of extras on the disc, extras that almost surpass the quality of the film they’re analyzing. The first item is an audio commentary by Eddie Muller, writer, film historian, and President of the Film Noir Foundation. While he is knowledgeable and insightful, he probably describes the film as something more important than it really is; still, you can’t complain about his enthusiasm.
Next up, we get several documentary featurettes: “The Cost of Living: Creating The Prowler,” twenty-five minutes, with James Ellroy, crime writer and essayist; Christopher Trumbo, son of the screenwriter; Denise Hamilton, writer and journalist; and Alan K. Rode, film historian, writer, and critic; “Masterpiece in the Margins,” twenty minutes, with French director Bertrand Tavernier; and “On the Prowl: Restoring The Prowler,” about nine minutes.
The extras wrap up with a press-book photo gallery, an original theatrical trailer, twelve scene selections, English as the only spoken language, and English subtitles.
“The Prowler” tries its best to give us a noir crime thriller with some oddball edits to make it seem more surreal than the usual product; however, the cuts make it a little awkward to maintain one’s attention for the entire movie. The Wife-O-Meter, for instance, left the room at the half -hour mark, never to return, saying the film was much more boring than she thought it would be. I stayed the course and was glad I did because, as I’ve said earlier, it does move along pretty well after the script finally dispenses with the initial, admittedly strange and strained courtship rituals.
But, I tell you, so many things happen so fast and out of the blue, it’s hard to take the movie seriously. OK, maybe it’s best not to. Just accept the story as a kind of hallucinatory morality tale, and you’ll enjoy it more.