Thursday, November 10, 2011
The Prowler (1951)
It has been said that there is no such thing as a bad film noir, that even the weakest noirs have something going for them. I used to believe that, until I saw Joseph Losey’s The Prowler.
Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) calls the cops when she spots a prowler outside her bathroom window. One of the cops is Officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). Right from the start we know there is something creepy about Garwood. He’s inclined to be dismissive of the woman’s claims but some time later he calls at her house again, alone, telling her that it’s a routine check. The fact that it’s four in the morning and her husband works nights and she’s all alone in the house might have something to do with his call.
Susan is obviously not all that happily married, and she’s just as obviously keen for male company. Especially when her husband’s not home. It’s not long before she and Officer Garwood get to know each other really well. His nocturnal visits become a regular arrangement. Garwood wants to take things further. It’s not so much Susan he wants though. Snooping around her house he discovers her husband’s will - she stands to inherit a great deal of money if something happens to hubby. The money would be enough to set Garwood and Susan up in a motel. That’s always been Webb Garwood’s dream. He even has the motel picked out, on the road to Las Vegas.
If only Susan’s husband were to meet with an accident Garwood and Susan would be on easy street.
So far it sounds like a Double Indemnity rip-off, which it pretty much is, the difference being that both protagonists in Double Indemnity are equally corrupt and equally guilty (and equally sleazy) whereas in this case Susan could be seen as more or less an innocent party. Perhaps not innocent, but certainly less guilty than Garwood.
Everything would be swell except for one problem, and it’s a big problem. Susan is pregnant, and there’s some awkwardness about the timing. Garwood’s fool-proof plan relies on the fact that their affair has been kept secret. If it were to become obvious that they’d been sleeping together since well before her husband’s unfortunate accident then that might raise very inconvenient questions about this remarkably convenient accident. And the baby can’t be her husband’s since it’s an open secret that he couldn’t have kids.
Now the trap starts to close in.
This really is a horrendous mess of a film. The major problem is Dalton Trumbo’s script. It’s frankly ludicrous. Too many things that don’t add up, that aren’t remotely plausible, too many plot holes where events develop in the way the script requires them to do so even though it doesn’t make any sense. We have to believe that the moment someone realises Susan is pregnant then the whole dirty scheme will be revealed whereas in fact it would certainly take quite a while for anyone to connect up all the dots. As the plot unwinds things get sillier and sillier.
There are problems with the characterisations as well. Susan is all over the place and her abrupt emotional transitions are unconvincing. Whether the blame lies mostly with Evelyn Keyes’ acting or Trumbo’s script is difficult to say. Van Heflin is somewhat better as Garwood but the character is so crudely drawn that it’s hard to take him too seriously. The supporting performances are hammy and embarrassing.
On the plus side it’s a visually impressive film with Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography giving it a nicely paranoid edge.
It’s certainly a sleazy little film. The relationship between Garwood and Susan is perverse to an extreme. He’s so obviously a psycho that no sane person could possibly be taken in by him so we have to conclude that Susan is excited by the idea of carrying on a relationship with a dangerous madman.
Thee are good moments in the movie if you can overlook the extreme silliness of the plot. I suspect this movie has been wildly overpraised because both Trumbo and Losey were targeted by the blacklist thus making them automatically heroes in the eyes of the film school crowd.
VCI have done a splendid job presenting this movie on DVD. The transfer is good and there are extras aplenty. If you’re a connoisseur of bad movies then it’s worth a look.