November ends as it began: with me reviewing The Prowler. This time, however, it is the respected 1951 Joseph Losey noir. It was lurking in the bushes this whole time.
The Prowler is a curious, twisty little film. It was always a bit offbeat, and that quality means that, like many minor classics, it still feels fresh all these years later: cinema as a whole never quite repeated its particular rhythms. It doesn’t have the primal appeal of the best of the genre’s dark fatalism–it never feels universal enough to tell us that we’re all fucked–but it has a bracing cynicism all its own.
The film stars Van Heflin as Webb Garwood, a cop who sees a peeping tom investigation as the perfect time to lay a little groundwork for a steamy affair. He’s instantly drawn to Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes)–Schrodinger’s femme fatale–and her awful radio announcer husband is just a pesky little detail, one that’s easily worked around. When it turns out that the husband has a tidy life insurance policy, that detail goes from pesky to interesting. And Webb’s job is useful: it lets him shoot Gilvray without any real consequences, as long as he can frame it as a public servant’s tragic but justified response, not a private citizen’s cold-blooded murder. (His facility at using his uniform to literally get away with murder is, needless to say, another part of the film that has aged well.)
But The Prowler pushes Webb and Susan further, amplifying the contrast between their private lives and their public story. At the start of the film, the prowler is literal; he’s the catalyst for the two of them meeting, he’s part of Webb’s manufactured “righteous” shooting. But as the plot moves on, the title becomes more of a feeling: an unwanted and uninvited pawing at your home and your secrets, a sense of trespass and scrutiny and paranoia, the sense of a perimeter being checked for weak spots. Susan knows that Webb’s official account of her husband’s death is bullshit, but does she believe the more qualified one he gives her? How much do we believe her? What happens when an affair–conducted behind closed doors–threatens to yield the very public result of a baby? When Gilvray’s family, as it turns out, know that the child couldn’t possibly be his? It’s too late to change their stories now. Susan’s body–to Webb, certainly, but even to herself–becomes a ticking time bomb.
Peculiar, intense, and thoughtful, The Prowler benefits from going its own way, and watching it at the end of Noirvember can remind us of how many interesting films lurk in the nooks and crannies of the genre.
The Prowler is streaming on Tubi.