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‘The Prowler’ is a sad, haunting tale of love a lost before it ever begins

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The Prowler

Written by Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler

Directed by Joseph Losey

U.S.A., 1951

Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), alone at home as her husband hosts a late night radio show, undresses in the washroom, only to be shocked at the appearance of a peeping tom through the window. She quickly secures herself inside her house and calls the police, which is how officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) enters her life. He and partner Bud (John Maxwell) inspect the premise, but thankfully the culprit appears to have fled the scene to leave Susan, quite shaken by the experience, in peace. The encounter between her and Webb causes sparks to fly however. Webb is frustrated with his lot in life, resentful by his family background and embittered by his job. Susan is a beacon of light to which he immediately gravitates, seducing her in diabolically manipulative fashion. Clearly there is something going on between Susan and her husband, emboldening Webb’s desire to pursue her. When he stumbles on her hubby’s insurance policy, his scheming reaches a whole new, deadly level.

Jospeh Losey’s ironically titled The Prowler is an effective character piece in which the plot is entirely in service of plodding through the miasma and temporarily bliss its two central figures. The picture is given a significant boost in no small part to two arresting lead performances from Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, each actor portraying a side of human frailty that is either taken advantage of or claims an advantage over the other. Webb, for example, is almost a broken man, but not quite. His familial lower socio-economic has had him believe that his options for professional advancement and status were limited, therefore installing a firm chip on his shoulder from a very early age. In addition, he is not particularly fond of being a police officer, it representing the quintessential thankless, lower middle class type of job that he despises.

Whatever past love life he might have once had, it is clear he is very much alone at this point in time. An angry, dissatisfied man aided by whatever leverage being a police officer can afford him and who sets his sights on a pretty thing like Susan can become a danger for many reasons. Susan, in contrast, is the locked up, prized artifact. In front of Webb she initiallyprofesses her love for the husband, a man mostly known to the audience only as a voice on the radio (that voice belonging to screenwriter Dalton Trumbo). As Webb persists in convincing that together they can build something special, Susan herself comes to realize, or finally admit, that her life is indeed lacking something special. Through Webb she can be freed of the shackles that tether her to a man that is maybe not as loving as she originally thought.

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Apart from the two fine actors on display, The Prowler gets particularly interesting in the manner Webb plays his cards to win over Susan. The more the viewer sees of Webb, the more obviously duplicitous he is revealed to be. Following his early advances, all rebuffed by the apple of his eyes, the officer decides to play hard to get, which actually produces the intended effect as Susan eventually reveals that he and not her current husband are meant to be. What comes next is the coup de grâce that ensures the new lovebirds get to make off and start a new life together, but as in most films of this ilk, fate has other things in store.

For the better part of the picture director Losey succeeds in convincing the audience that Webb is simply a bad apple, a man whose morals and actions are twisted by a darkness that resides within him. In a smart and bold move, during The Prowler’s final confrontation between Webb and Susan as their marriage inevitably goes to hell, there is a brilliant moment reserved for depicting just how frail Webb was after all. The scene in no way forgives him for the vile actions taken to ensnare Susan into his web, but it certainly sheds a completely different light on him than had been the case up until then. While still a villain, humanity is instilled to at least make is villainy somewhat comprehensible. Such a move is akin to playing with fire, for countless times in other pictures the tactic in no way makes the antagonist any more interesting than he or she was. In the case of The Prowler, and in large part to Van Helfin’s shameless performance, the scene works magnificently.

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The director and his team of screenwriters think outside the box to share their story insofar as the location shoot is really limited to only two locations, save for a few fleeting moments occurring elsewhere. More critically, both locations could not be more different. The first is of course Susan’s lush Los Angeles home where Webb comes to spend his evenings in the early days of their passionate if complicated affair. The second is the barn in an abandoned town lost in the desert, which is where much of the action occurs in the final third. It is Webb’s partner Bud who suggests they settle there for a while after the latter retires from the force once he and Susan get hitched. From a purely visual standpoint the set is an unexpected and hauntingly beautiful place for the new family to spend their honeymoon. Snuggled between the hills of the Californian desert, the large shack is the remnant of a ghost town now long dead. There was once vibrancy and activity in the region, but both are lost in the sands of time. It makes for an eerie setting, albeit an apt one for the film’s climax. Webb has Susan and their soon to be arriving baby displaced there to experience love, yet it is a love built on lies. A relationship predicated on falsities is little chance of survival, and just like the ghost town, it too is doomed to perish and be lost forever.

In nutshell, Joseph Losey’s The Prowler is a tragedy involving two figures that fall prey to the desperation that infects any human being when their emotional well being is put at risk for as long as is the case with the film’s protagonists. People can make rash decisions based on emotion when they aren’t in the right mindset. Said decision might feel correct on a gut level at first, but they can easily come back to haunt one in the worst possible way. It makes for a very sag, eerie movie, although a very compelling watch nonetheless.

-Edgar Chaput


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