Cast & Crew
One evening policemen Bud Crocker and Webb Garwood arrive at 1918 Orchid, Los Angeles, to follow up on the report of a prowler. The older, friendly Bud advises house owner and beautiful blonde Susan Gilvray to be careful but later that evening his partner, the younger flirtatious Webb, returns for a check-up call. While Susan and Webb listen to the radio and visit over coffee, Susan explains that she is alone because her wealthy, middle-aged husband John is the late night-disc jockey on the radio. Susan recognizes Webb as a once-famous high school basketball player from Indiana, where she grew up. Webb bitterly recounts his bad breaks since high school, but shares his dream of owning a motel court. Webb returns another evening to visit, and when he asks for a cigarette, Susan explains that her husband keeps both the cigarettes and her locked up. When Webb jimmies the desk drawer lock to retrieve a pack of cigarettes, he spies John's will and surreptitiously reads it. Webb grills Susan about the marriage, and she reluctantly answers that though John provides for her, he has not provided what she really wanted, a baby. Webb makes aggressive advances toward Susan, then one evening, using more subtle moves, finally seduces her, and an affair begins. As the affair develops, Webb threatens to leave Susan if she does not join him on his two-week vacation to Las Vegas. The next evening in Las Vegas, when Susan does not arrive on the appointed flight, Webb returns to Susan's house, where she explains that her husband suspects her of being unfaithful and has threatened to kill her. Webb leaves and after days of pining for him, Susan finally arrives late one night at his hotel room and admits that she asked John for a divorce. Webb coldly cuts the relationship off, and Susan agrees "the quicker the cut the less it hurts" and leaves. Back on the job after his vacation, Webb pretends to be an intruder at Susan's house one night and then returns later to answer the report of a prowler. John comes out of the house with a gun drawn, and Webb, spying him from behind a bush, shoots him in cold blood. At the trial, both Webb and Susan testify that they have not met each other before. Webb claims the shooting was a grave mistake and is acquitted. Later Webb cunningly tries to restore his relationship with Susan by asking gullible William Gilvray, John's brother, to intercede on his behalf and give Webb's life savings of $700 to Susan to help her out. William assures Webb that the money is not needed, and adds that John was not the best husband as he could not provide Susan with a child. Later at Susan's, Webb tells her he has left the police force and given up his gun because of the accident. Vulnerable and confused, Susan is more upset about her adulterous behavior than her husband's death. Webb says he would have killed her husband if it was the only way for them to be together, but begs her to believe it was an accident. She agrees that it was and they embrace. Soon after, the two marry and leave for their new home, a successful Las Vegas motel court that they now own. On the eve of their arrival, Susan happily announces that she is four months pregnant, but Webb is visibly perturbed, as the child is not John's and will reveal that they had slept together long before the trial. To avoid the publicity Webb takes Susan to the ghost town of Calico to have the baby in the utmost secrecy. One evening, as her labor pains begin, Susan becomes despondent upon hearing a recording of her husband's program. Webb leaves with a gun and forces kind Dr. James from a neighboring town to accompany him to Calico. James delivers a healthy baby girl, but then flees with the baby. Susan viciously accuses Webb of murdering her husband and premeditating the murder of the doctor. Furious that his plans are crumbling, Webb blurts that "some do it for a million, some do it for $62,000," the exact amount of John's bequeathal. After Susan's fears are confirmed, Webb frantically drives away to kill the doctor. Police cars approach, however, and Webb speeds back to the house, ditches the car and clambers up a dirt incline in an effort to escape. Two officers shoot him dead and Webb falls, rolling to the bottom of the incline as Susan looks on through a house window.
Betty Jane Howarth
S. P. Eagle
Joseph H. Nadel
The Prowler (1951)
Compared to Joseph Losey's previous films, The Boy with Green Hair (1948) and The Lawless (1950), his third outing switches tone. The first two films were scathing social critiques that explored mob psychology, while The Prowler (1951) is a focused character study on one man. Policeman Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) is shown to be a selfish, murderous wreck, but there is nothing to suggest he is meant to be emblematic of police in general. His psychological cracks are unique, and the other patrolman in the story is portrayed as a gentle old coot, as harmless as they come. If there is a social message underneath this noir tale, it is not in the man but in the man's desires.
"The Prowler to me is, and always has been, a film about false values," explained Losey, "About the means justifying the end and the end justifying the means. '100,000 bucks, a Cadillac, and a blonde' were the sine qua non of American life at that time and it didn't matter how you got them."
Webb's conquest of Susan has ironic consequences for his materialistic dreams. Webb starts courting Susan, although she is not technically free. Her husband is a radio announcer, and every night she listens to his show, awaiting his signature sign-off, "I'll be seeing you, Susan" as the cue to end that night's passion. The affair must be conducted in secret, bounded by the walls of her home, and dictated by radio schedules, but the pair luxuriates in her enormous Spanish-style villa. Webb hits on a bright idea of how to get rid of Susan's husband. By literally becoming the prowler, he sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in the perfect murder, with Susan as his unwitting and unwilling accomplice. Strangely, the one and only time the husband appears in the film is the moment where he is shot dead-he begins as a virtual ghost and ends as a corpse. With the life insurance money of the man he killed, Webb at last can realize his lifelong ambition of owning a motel in Las Vegas (!), where he and Susan can now live as man and wife. Trading up from adultery to marriage also means trading down from opulent furnishings to the functional world of a travelers' pit-stop. There's another step down yet to come, when Susan reveals she is pregnant. The timing is a mess-she's four months pregnant but has only "officially" known Webb a few weeks. To reveal otherwise would threaten his alibi. Yet her late husband was known to be sterile, so the couple flees to a desert ghost town to give birth in secret, hoping to fudge the birth date as the child gets older. Far from the comforts of the dead man's house, they are stranded in an apocalyptic wilderness, where they find the dead man's voice follows them even here.
Each progression in their relationship corresponds to a decline in living standards. It is a cosmic punishment for his greed, but Webb has been his own worst enemy. For all its noir atmosphere, The Prowler inverts the typical noir pattern. Instead of a femme fatale, Losey delivers an homme fatale. Comparisons to Double Indemnity (1944) have often been made (and Losey himself acknowledges the debt of influence), but whereas Billy Wilder's 1944 classic indicts both its lovers for their crime, Losey's film follows Webb on a path of self-destruction that simply drags others down with him.
Losey himself knew a thing or two about self-destruction. He had quickly distinguished himself as an artist of considerable skill, but his combative nature burned bridges behind him as quickly as his talent opened doors ahead of him. His marriage was dissolving around him at the same time. His wife Luisa had hoped a baby might bring them closer together, but Losey's alcohol use had compromised his fertility. Luckily she had gotten pregnant, but then lost the baby to a miscarriage. It sent her spiraling into grief, but Joseph pulled away from her when she needed him most. He grew tired of her talking of nothing but her lost child, and responded by not coming home any more. Instead he spent his nights with Evelyn Keyes-the actress playing Susan in The Prowler. As bad judgment goes, it was a doozy: not only was he cheating on his wife, but he did so with the wife of his producer, John Huston! Evelyn had little sympathy for the distraught Luisa, and callously sniffed that she "was dragging out her sorrow too long after the miscarriage."
Aside from Evelyn's temptation to blame the victim, it is perhaps also the case that Joseph's grief simply took a different form. Rather than express his pain openly, as his wife did, he repackaged it as work: The Prowler ruminates on infertility and pregnancy, difficult births, extramarital affairs, and the death of love. Even the fact that the cuckolded husband worked in radio carried echoes of Losey's personal life, as he had gotten his start making radio dramas, before transitioning into films. Joseph Losey succeeded in converting these fragments of his world into compelling cinema, but failed to keep his own family together.
Divorce was not the only force rending Losey's life apart. For years he had been the subject of intense scrutiny by the FBI. A file as thick as 750 pages sat in J. Edgar Hoover's office, with wiretaps and active surveillance being used to divine if the filmmaker was an active Soviet agent, or if he merely posed a threat by conveying Soviet propaganda in his subversive films. Indeed, the investigation seemed to blur the distinction between these two, to the point that any liberal thinker in Hollywood was equated with enemy espionage. Many of Losey's friends were blacklisted in Hollywood for their political beliefs, and he knew he would soon join them. Not long after The Prowler was released, Losey left Hollywood to start anew in Europe, away from the reach of the Red Scare panic.
In Europe, Losey used The Prowler as his calling card, screening it for potential backers. It won the gushing enthusiasm of Olive Dodds, head of artists' contracts at England's Rank Studios, who proclaimed it "extraordinary, brilliant. I hadn't seen such genius."
The project had begun when independent producer Sam Spiegel (then working under the name "S.P. Eagle") and his partner John Huston contracted an original screen story from writers Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm. Spiegel admired The Boy with Green Hair and The Lawless and decided Losey was an up-and-comer who could be had for cheap. Once Losey was brought onto the production, his first reaction was that the existing screenplay was "pretty awful." Losey handed it to Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler to improve. Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten and as such his contribution would be concealed, his name expunged from the titles. Butler was soon also blacklisted, but managed to eke out this screen credit before that happened. For that matter, the FBI was also compiling a file on writer Thoeren, whom they considered "an active Communist."
Although Trumbo's role in creating the screenplay was hidden, Spiegel and Losey did take the opportunity to thumb their noses at the blacklist by having Trumbo provide the voice of Susan's radio announcer husband, for which the writer received the modest sum of $35.
At least Trumbo got his $35. Both Butler and Losey were left to sue Spiegel for their salaries, which they only received after years of legal wrangling. Losey never lost affection for Spiegel, though, and while the process of extracting payment was a grueling slog, he appreciated how Spiegel let him work in his own idiosyncratic way. Losey assembled a first-rate team of collaborators, including director of photography Arthur Miller, a multi-Oscar® winner accustomed to the traditional approach to lighting Hollywood soundstages. Miller was eager to prove that his skills were adaptable to the faster pace increasingly common in lower budgeted productions, and was happy to show Losey that he could work swiftly.
Losey had developed a good rapport with designer John Hubley, also known for his pioneering experiments in animation. Hubley designed the three key sets of the story (the house, the motel, the ghost town) which were erected several weeks in advance of the shoot, allowing Losey to spend ten days carefully rehearsing with the cast on-set as if preparing for a stage play. While the actors settled into their roles, Losey and Miller mapped out camera positions. By the time rehearsal was over, everyone was so well prepared that the actual production clipped by in a scant 19 days. Keeping with the idea of letting the actors work as if on stage, Losey opted to film scenes in long, sustained takes. Assistant director Robert Aldrich, soon to be a fabled director in his own right, built a lightweight flexible crane for Miller's camera, which could swoop and glide through Hubley's sets with great agility. Rather than break scenes into lots of individual shots, Losey could let his actors perform entire scenes without interruption. Aldrich's crane also came in handy for a wry piece of commentary that Hubley concocted for the wedding scene: as Webb and Susan are married in the foreground, a funeral takes place at an adjacent church in the background.
Losey called such moments of visual symbolism "baroque," and would find himself increasingly turning to theatrical tricks of the sort in the years to come. As he became fussier about his compositions, he tended to look back in disdain at earlier, less self-conscious works. Losey gave an interview to the New York Times in 1968 complaining about how Dalton Trumbo had taken the liberty of writing his own choices of shot selection into the screenplay. Although this was standard practice, Losey described it as an unwelcome insubordination. Trumbo wrote a response defending himself, but the argument was moot. As European critics had hailed him as a great artist, Losey let the praise go to his head, and needed to justify why not all of his works were of equal artistic stature. It was easier to blame his collaborators for any perceived weaknesses. Of The Prowler he would say that it had "a kind of Hollywood polish which I don't admire and don't strive for."
Losey struggled with how to fit The Prowler into his own personal narrative. To call it the high point of his Hollywood phase was, to him, tantamount to calling it the best of the worst. But to praise it on its own terms seemed to denigrate his European career, implicitly challenging whether leaving America was the right call. As he vacillated, his fans in France considered the question settled. The Prowler became a cult hit in France. The influential Cahiers du Cinema dedicated an entire issue to Losey's films, and singled out The Prowler as the moment that Losey became a true auteur.
Producer: S.P. Eagle
Director: Joseph Losey
Screenplay: Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm (story)
Cinematography: Arthur Miller
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Lyn Murray
Film Editing: Paul Weatherwax
Cast: Van Heflin (Webb Garwood), Evelyn Keyes (Susan Gilvray), John Maxwell (Bud Crocker), Katherine Warren (Mrs. Crocker), Emerson Treacy (William Gilvray), Madge Blake (Martha Gilvray), Wheaton Chambers (Doctor James), Robert Osterloh (Coroner), Sherry Hall (John Gilvray), Louise Lorimer (Motel Manager).
by David Kalat
David Caute, Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life
Michel Ciment, Conversations with Losey
Foster Hirsch, Joseph Losey
James Palmer and Michael Riley, The Films of Joseph Losey
Edith de Rham, Joseph Losey
The Prowler (1951)
The Prowler - Joseph Losey's THE PROWLER - 1951 Film Noir Favorite Starring Van Heflin & Evelyn Keyes
And it really is superb. Not only does the movie itself look flawless, but there are abundant extras giving this classic the attention it deserves, which is especially impressive in this era of bare-bones classics releases (when such films are even released at all anymore). More on the extras in a bit.
The Prowler stars Van Heflin as an unhappy policeman, Webb Garwood, and Evelyn Keyes as a bored housewife, Susan Gilvray, who spends her nights alone as her husband hosts a radio show. Susan reports a prowler one night; Webb and his partner (John Maxwell) investigate. They find nothing, but there's something "off" about Webb right off the bat. He snoops around Susan's house more than he needs to, picking up photos, and he talks back to her in a smart-alecky way. It's disquieting to witness a uniformed cop -- a figure of trust -- behaving not just so unprofessionally, but even aggressively, in such a situation. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Webb sees in Susan's house and life a glimpse of upper-middle-class success that he has yearned for, and which he wants immediately. He hatches a long scheme to seduce Susan which must be seen spoiler-free, but suffice it to say that delicious, if not outlandish, plot turns eventually move the action from Susan's lonely, cold house on an otherwise pleasant street, to a lonely, depressing hotel on a Las Vegas highway, and finally to a lonely, desert ghost town in the middle of nowhere. Writer Trumbo and director Losey are smart enough to realize that while the narrative logic may be questionable, the emotional, thematic -- and above all, visual -- logic justifies the plot turns. Each landscape becomes progressively bleaker and more remote, which is a clear comment on the nature of the characters' relationship and the futility of Webb's scheme.
Running through The Prowler is a strong undercurrent of social class tension and a dark, subversive take on the American dream of wealth and success. The unstable Webb is motivated not by lust so much as by Susan's home, trappings, and lifestyle. The fragile and vulnerable Susan, for her part, clearly married her husband to tap into such a world herself, but her boredom indicates that getting to that world is no guarantee of happiness. These ironies are of great interest to Trumbo and Losey, and they lend a fascinating complexity to the characters. Heflin and Keyes give performances that are among their finest work on screen, expressing deep levels of subtext both physically and verbally.
The distrust and unease with established social institutions (like the police force) and with the American dream itself is surely a result of Trumbo's having recently been blacklisted. Certainly he was feeling disillusioned with America after being punished professionally for his apparent personal beliefs. He wrote the screenplay for producers John Huston (uncredited) and Sam Spiegel (who at this time was crediting himself as "S.P. Eagle"), but he used his writer friend Hugo Butler as a front. Not until decades later was Trumbo's involvement widely divulged. Butler would soon be blacklisted himself, as would Losey, who moved to England and worked there for the rest of his life. (That's why many casual fans are under the impression that Losey was British. He was actually from Wisconsin.)
Trumbo can be heard in The Prowler as the radio voice of Susan's husband John, a nice touch. He memorably signs off each broadcast with "I'll be seeing you, Susan!" -- which is meant to be romantic but comes off as threatening and, in the end, haunting.
The Prowler was, impressively, shot in just 20 days. It was cinematographer Arthur Miller's last film. The longtime Fox cameraman had recently parted ways with the studio due to a contract dispute. This was an unusual film for Miller, who lately had been doing more opulent productions such as Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and A Letter to Three Wives (1949). In an interview for the 1970 book Hollywood Cameramen, Miller admitted that he didn't think The Prowler amounted to very much, but he was selling himself (and the movie) short. His work is crisp and beautiful, from the hard-edged night scenes in and around the house to the wide-open, dusty ghost town. Miller was supposed to go on and shoot The African Queen (1951) for John Huston, but he fell ill with tuberculosis and decided to retire from filmmaking.
VCI has worked with the Film Noir Foundation and the video production house Trailer Park to produce a wealth of extras that are of Criterion-level quality. Muller's commentary track is among his best. There's no question Muller knows how to give good commentary; he's done it on many a noir DVD for Warner Brothers and Fox over the years. Here, he stays well-focused on the film and all its players, giving full attention to Losey and Trumbo and the blacklist, relating the ingenious ways Trumbo got around Production Code restrictions, analyzing scenes intelligently, and offering priceless details like the fact that Van Heflin once said he based every performance on a particular animal, here imagining Webb Garwood to be like a panther. Muller also injects a welcome dose of humor now and again, making for a commentary that is very listenable and never drags.
There's also a 25-minute documentary, expertly produced by Trailer Park's Steven Smith, entitled "The Cost of Living: Creating The Prowler," with input from Muller, Alan K. Rode, Christopher Trumbo (son of Dalton), Denise Hamilton and James Ellroy. Trumbo's appearance is poignant because he died not long before this DVD was released. Ellroy, who contributed financially to the restoration, offers wry comments such as "Van Heflin is the biggest perv in film noir history." (He calls The Prowler a prime example of "perv noir.") "The Cost of Living," by the way, was the film's title all the way through production. It was changed at the last minute as a way of increasing the film's marketability.
"On the Prowl: Restoring The Prowler" is an absorbing 9-minute featurette, produced and directed by Patrick Francis, about the restoration process and the partnership between the Film Noir Foundation, UCLA and the Stanford Theatre Film Lab. Technicians explain their work and the challenges involved in the process.
Finally, there's a 20-minute piece with Bertrand Tavernier talking about The Prowler and Losey's significance and influence; a trailer that is in surprisingly good technical shape; and a 3-minute montage of images from the original pressbook. Even the DVD's package design and graphics are beautiful and inviting. All in all, this is a supremely satisfying DVD release of a truly great film noir, and surely will wind up as one of the most notable and important classic-film DVDs of 2011.
For more information about The Prowler, visit VCI Entertainment. To order The Prowler, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
The Prowler - Joseph Losey's THE PROWLER - 1951 Film Noir Favorite Starring Van Heflin & Evelyn Keyes
The working titles for this film were Cost of Living and Cost of Loving. Before the opening credits, Evelyn Keyes, as her character "Susan Gilvray," is seen being startled by someone watching her from outside her bathroom window. The voice of radio announcer "William Gilvray" is heard intermittently throughout the film. Although not listed in the credits, Dalton Trumbo co-wrote the film's screenplay with credited writer Hugo Butler. Trumbo was jailed in 1947 for refusing to testify before HUAC and his credit on the film was officially restored by the WGA in 2000. A modern biography of Trumbo reveals that director Joseph Losey recorded and used Trumbo's voice for the voice of radio announcer "William Gilvray." Art director Boris Leven's surname was misspelled as "Levin" in the onscreen credits.
According to a August 9, 1949 Daily Variety news item, the original story, "The Cost of Living," was bought for $50,000 by Sam Speigel and John Huston and was to be produced by Columbia. A September 21, 1949 Los Angeles Examiner article noted that Dorothy McGuire was interested in starring in the film. According to 1950 Hollywood Reporter news items, "Tiny" Jones had a bit role in the film, but his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Portions of the film were shot on location in Calico Mines, CA, a ghost town near Barstow according to Hollywood Reporter news items.
Memos in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveal that PCA head Joseph I. Breen objected to the low moral tone of the film and insisted that details of the adulterous affair and the pregnancy be kept to a minimum in the script. On April 10, 1950, Breen accepted the script but was consulted throughout the production by assistant director Robert Aldrich on scenes in which moral tone was in question, including acceptable visible signs of the pregnancy.
According to a July 25, 1951 Variety news item, United Artists submitted ads to the PCA that included a picture of Evelyn Keyes draped in a towel. The ad was not approved by PCA, but the PCA did not have jurisdiction over independently owned theaters, and the Criterion Theatre in New York City used the ad. A June 4, 1951 Los Angeles Times news item, as well as other contemporary reviews, warned viewers of the adulterous material and noted that the film presented censorship problems since the woman who commits adultery is not punished in the end. Keyes was borrowed from Columbia for the production.
According to a BHC September 6, 1953 article, publicist Paul MacNamara contended that an improper contract existed between himself and Spiegel regarding "The Prowler," and MacNamara won $2,000 in a suit against Spiegel.
Released in United States Summer May 25, 1951
John Hubley did not get credit as the production designer consultant.
Released in United States Summer May 25, 1951