The Prowler opens on a beautiful woman, Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), looking outside her house into the darkness of night from the theoretical safe point of her bathroom window, seeing a trespasser looking in on her. The camera is positioned from the vantage point of the interloper; in essence, we’re the prowler of the film’s title. Cut, abruptly, to the opening credits. This kind of deliberately disquieting elision will come to govern the film’s unusual editing rhythms. In a matter of seconds, director Joseph Losey and editor Paul Weatherwax establish a mood of eerie, modern dread. Nothing seems to be safe, and that danger is compounded by the blithe insensitivity of the cops who soon arrive on the scene to investigate the trespassing. Bud (John Maxwell) indulges that condescension, evinced by male authority figures, of implicitly blaming the victim for being assaulted, saying that Susan should bathe with the window down so as not to tempt anyone unreasonably. And Bud’s the nice one. Webb (Van Heflin), circling Susan like a spider might a fly (his name isn’t subtle), is so obviously an abusive, resentful creep that it’s uncomfortably amusing.
Remarkably, this tension never dissipates. The Prowler is a claustrophobic hot-house thriller about the traditionally hypocritical traps of contemporary society, most obviously the trip wires of gender and class. Few films are this alive to the profound discomfort of life as a woman in a man’s world, as this is the rare and great noir that’s considerably more sympathetic to the female than the male. It’s hard to pinpoint Susan’s motivations in the conspiracy that follows, but she most decisively isn’t the typical Machiavellian sex-devil of many genre films. We can’t read her because, as a defense mechanism, she can’t allow herself to be read—and that’s assuming she has any idea what she’s doing anyway. Webb is on Susan immediately, exhibiting no sympathy for her brush with a prowler, no respect for the fact that she’s married, nor any consideration of his dual advantages over her: that he’s a man and a cop.
Webb can’t see these advantages for what they are because he’s blinded by envy of Susan’s wealth and status. He’s a worker bee, she’s privileged, and Webb’s psychopathically aware of these differences. Dalton Trumbo’s script is a refutation of sexist noir clichés as well as an acute, devastating illustration of the sensation of powerlessness that abusers often ironically feel toward their victims. This film is quite cognizant of Oscar Wilde’s assertion that everything’s about sex except sex, which is about power. The Prowler is essentially a suffocating two-hander between Webb and Susan as they work through the repressed implications of the experiment of the American nuclear family. Susan’s husband, pointedly unseen until he’s killed, haunts the film as a ghost, his voice floating through their house via the recordings of the radio show he hosts, conveniently, at night.
Much of the film is set at Susan’s house. Too much. One yearns for it to open up so as to relieve us from the intensity of Webb and Susan’s negotiations, and that reaction, of course, is intended. Against probability, Webb seduces Susan, though it isn’t portrayed in a fashion designed to flatter the male ego. Their first sex scene, mostly elided, has a rape connotation that isn’t dispelled by Susan’s eventual loyalty to Webb, which throws him almost as much as it does the audience. Susan’s affection for Webb is the film’s boldest, most debatable narrative gambit (that, and the suggestion that no one seems to care when a cop marries the wife of a man he claims to have accidentally shot—a contrivance that packs a parodic wallop). This relationship isn’t conventionally believable, and it could even be taken as a justification of an insidious male-conqueror fantasy. But the motivations are never that pat for either party, as there’s a sense of erotic mystery to the pairing that defies conveniently political or even emotional rationalization. As sleazy as Webb is, he doesn’t solely assert himself to us as a villain; there’s something twisted, tormented, yet vulnerable about him. And Susan often almost certainly knows—and wants—more than she claims to, as she’s stymied by passions that are further confused by expectations of “decency.”
The Prowler is obsessively abundant in symbolism. Throughout the film, the air is thick with stagnant, thwarted desire. Every scene has a touch that’s ineffably “off,” such as a motel vacancy sign that blinks in and out, casting the lovers in shades of seamy ominousness, or the vast, hallucinatory emptiness of the ghost town that figures in the last act, which finally opens the film up at a time when the screws are contrastingly tightening on the characters. Silence hangs over many scenes, while long, unbroken shots emphasize hallways that appear to embody the unreachable, desolate portals of the protagonists’ minds. There’s also Heflin and Keyes, two under-sung actors who plumb desperation with a degree of unvarnished vitality that’s unusual even for classic noirs. The film earns the scary loneliness of its title, which is tellingly never literalized by the appearance of the stranger who kicks the story off into motion. By the end, it’s understood that Web and Susan are both prowlers, as all of us might be: people wandering, out of understandable need, into realms best left unperturbed.
The image is attractively crisp, particularly the background, which clarifies how shrewdly director Joseph Losey uses all dimensions of the frame to suggest loneliness and alienation. Blacks are deep and subtly varied, and the whites have a pleasingly clean, glare-free sheen. The sound mix is similarly precise, astutely balancing the pronounced silences with the painstakingly minute effects with the bolder flourishes, such as the percussive sounds of the desert storm at the film’s climax. A beautiful transfer of a key American film.
Eddie Muller’s audio commentary thoroughly discusses the film’s dense symbolism, which often boils the lurid implications of the plot down to succinctly suggestive gestures designed to pass muster with the censorship board. Every prop and every action in every image means something, and one of my favorite is the elaborate business of Webb prying open a lockbox belonging to Susan’s husband so as to get at the man’s cigarettes—a gesture that cheekily represents Webb’s invasive sexual seizing of Susan herself. Muller also covers the irony of the censorship board, and how its hypocritical prudishness only intensified the film’s concerns with the same social hypocrisy. Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes’s wonderful performances are honored, as are the contributions of many other legends, including Losey, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (writing under an alias in response to the blacklist), cinematographer Arthur Miller, and producers Sam Spiegel and John Huston. An essential listen. Muller also figures heavily in "On the Prowl: Restoring The Prowler," as a cinephile hero who rescued the film and many other noirs from unjustified obscurity. He’s also on hand, most memorably with author and Prowler fan James Ellroy (who accurately dubs the film a "perv noir"), in the spry, informative featurette "The Cost of Living," which provides introductory coverage of The Prowler’s themes and significance. Rounding out the package is an interview with filmmaker and fan Bertrand Tavernier, the theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery.
One of the most intimate, intense, and suggestively perverse of all American noirs receives a top-notch release that will hopefully continue its rising reputation as a masterpiece of idiosyncratic stealth cinema.