THE PROWLER is one of the best film noir you've probably never seen.
I first discovered it more than 25 years ago on late night tv in the UK (those were the days when the BBC still screened old movies) and it hooked me right away. The story of illicit passion and murder exuded an incredibly compelling sense of suffocating claustrophobia and barely suppressed tension, and that memory's stuck with me for the ensuing quarter century.
So when I was finally able to get my hands on a VHS copy my concern was that the reality wouldn't live up to the memory, and I'd be left wondering what on earth is was I ever saw in the film.
I watched THE PROWLER again last night all my worries were put to rest. This 1951 film is a five star classic.
Van Heflin stars as Webb Garwood, a police patrolman in an upscale neighborhood in Los Angeles. One night he and his dull as ditchwater partner, Bud Crocker, are called to investigate a prowler at one of the big houses on their beat. They find an attractive young woman, Susan Gilvray, home alone and Webb takes an instant liking to her. Even though she's married and initially resists his advances, Webb determines to seduce her and use her to get what he wants out of life.
Heflin's masterful performance is a major factor in this film's effectiveness. As an actor he often played characters who exuded a certain vulnerability borne of physical or moral weakness, but here he turns it into a strength. Garwood's moral compass has been so eroded by the acidic bitterness of failed dreams that he's no longer restrained by any sense of right and wrong. He targets Susan like a tiger stalking its prey. His cynical and unscrupulous manipulation of her undermines everything that his police uniform represents.
In the hands of Evelyn Keyes, Susan is a not entirely unwilling victim. Looking and acting like a bargain basement Lana Turner, she comes across as only slightly less untrustworthy than her seducer. Trapped in a loveless and controlling marriage to a much older man, she wants to believe that Webb is the solution to her unhappy existence, and at times it's difficult to determine just who is manipulating who.
On a larger scale THE PROWLER is an unsettling indictment of the corrupting influence of materialism on the American Dream. Webb bitterly resents his inability to get ahead yet he's unwilling to put in the honest toil required to bring even his modest ambition of running a motel within his grasp. Susan has more than Webb can ever aspire to yet she lives the life of a bird trapped in a gilded cage, paid for by her husband's syrupy, insincere shilling for the sponsors of his late-night radio show.
What is perhaps most depressing is the lack of viable alternatives offered up by the story. A man in Webb's situation, it says, has no choice but to act boldly and disregard accepted norms of behaviour if he's to avoid being crushed by conformity. The best that the American Dream can offer is the life of mind-numbing soul destroying tedium embodied by Webb's middle-aged partner Bud. The biggest kick in Bud's life is showing off his collection of rocks amassed during his annual vacation to the California desert.
Reportedly shot in just 17 days on a budget of $700,000 THE PROWLER offers up more food for thought than any of the bloated, special effects engorged thrillers which pass for cinematic entertainment these days.
I can't wait for 11 February 2011 and the release of THE PROWLER on DVD. To see the film in its restored version will only enhance its brilliance. Beg, borrow, buy or steal a copy of this film. It will stay with you for life.