Monday, February 14, 2011

The Prowler - 1951 - Film Noir Blogathon

“The Prowler” (1951) was restored by the Film Noir Foundation. This post is part of the Film Noir Blogathon hosted by The Self Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films. The proceeds raised will be in support of the Film Noir Foundation. More on that at the end of this post.

We have come to expect certain stylistic attributes in film noir, though film buffs often argue about whether a particular film belongs in this category. “The Prowler” takes this genre, but seems to step just a little beyond it by carving out its own world, and playing by its own rules, just as the main character does, played by Van Heflin.

Van Heflin is a marvel in this film. He plays a man capable of being both a lowlife, and yet one who captures our fascination, perhaps even our admiration for his dogged grasping at his idealized goals, and certainly at times, our pity for his helpless bungling of his life based on his miserable inability to understand that integrity would save him in a way purchasing or stealing respect, or killing for it, cannot.

The movie plays out as an intriguing puzzle where layer upon layer peels away until we at last see the characters as bare and raw in the harsh glare of the desert landscape of their final showdown. Being film noir, the movie appropriately begins by putting the characters and us, in the dark…in Southern California, probably Los Angeles, at a Spanish-style home in a wealthy neighborhood in the wee hours of the night.

Evelyn Keyes is the wife whose husband works as a nighttime DJ. Home alone, she emerges from her bath to discover a peeping tom at her window. Two cops respond to her call, one older, genial, who tells her to pull her window shade down when she’s bathing. Duh.

The other is younger, somewhat bored, with smirking arrogance, played by Van Heflin. After his shift is over, he returns to her home by himself, just to follow-up, he says. But we see very quickly his nervy attitude as he makes himself at home, and we piece together, though it is never said in the film, that he was the peeping tom. She has no idea. Instantly this breaks the Code rule that police should not be shown in a disrespectful light. Bullying cops or crooked cops are one thing, but a cop pervert is more evil. What is amazing is how we gradually learn more about him so that he does not seem like such a danger, even when he is.

Evelyn Keyes is quick to invite him to stay, but though we may think her foolish, there is such subtlety to her performance that she walks a fine line between being a naïve victim and a woman simply going after what she wants.

She responds to his intrusive questions and insinuating conversation with the haughty defense that she is happily married, and we see she devotedly listens to her husband’s radio program at night. Her name is Susan, and he signs off with his trademark, “I’ll be seeing you, Susan.”

While her husband spins his 78’s, whatever alarm bells she may feel at the cocky cop’s leering attitude seem to dissipate instantly when they discover the coincidence of their both growing up in Terra Haute, Indiana, where he was the star of the rival high school’s basketball team. This is the only accidental device used in the film, and their winsome dual reminiscence of high school days is so genuine, it does not seem as contrived as it is.

It also lays the groundwork for his character. He was a gifted athlete, but lazy and not a team player. Because of his unwillingness to put himself out or work with others, he is bounced off the roster and loses his college scholarship. He laments this as a raw deal done to him, taking from him the eventual cushy high-paying job that he thinks a college degree would have given him. He came to California, (though we are not told how or why) and fell into a job on the police force, which he dismisses with disgust, though we might also believe he must have felt the uniform, and the gun allowed him an outlet for his swagger.

Another layer is peeled back, and they are companionably visiting on successive evenings while her husband is on the radio. She offers Heflin cigarettes, but says her husband keeps them locked in the desk, and allows Heflin to try to pick the lock with a hairpin. Lots of Freud here, but I think we get it. Her husband’s will is also in the desk, and later we learn that when her back is turned, Mr. Heflin reads it and discovers her husband’s worth, which is considerable.

Another layer peeled back. Her husband is older, and only works as a DJ for a lark. He is possessive, locks up his things, and her. She married him after a failed acting career because he seemed decent and could offer her security. She also wanted children, but he could not give her that.

While Keyes and Heflin talk, the large console radio plays in the living room, and it represents her husband’s presence. His voice follows them like a conscience. In this atmosphere, Van Heflin’s rough attempt at seduction fails and she orders him out, but we see she is less disturbed about him than she is about her own desire. He senses this too, and cleverly returns the next night apologetic, kindly, and they talk about good old high school days again, and high school dances. They dance in her living room to the record her husband plays.

This time, Heflin’s seduction is successful, and we have the panning shot from them cozy on the couch, to his police officer’s cap resting jauntily on top of the radio console. Her husband announces the song title, “Stolen Fun.”

Things move faster, start to become slightly chaotic, when Mr. Heflin invites her to join him on his two-week vacation in Las Vegas. He tells her there is a motor court there he always visits, hoping to own it himself one day. She tells him she won’t go with him because she feels guilty, her husband suspects, and she breaks it off.

Next we see Van Heflin in his dingy one-room apartment, and on the wall, a police gun range target he was presumably allowed to keep as a trophy, because he won a medal in marksmanship. The target is the silhouette figure of a man with a clump of bullet holes at his heart.

Evelyn calls him on the phone a couple times, desperate to see him, but he seems uninterested now. There’s a nice bit where as Van Heflin speaks to her, he scratches his cheek with the mouthpiece of the candlestick telephone, brooding and bored. He wants to break off with her. Or, is he just reeling her in? She shows up shortly afterward, telling him fearfully that she asked her husband for a divorce, and he refused. Her husband says he will kill her before ever divorcing her.

But Heflin staves her off with gentle, noble logic that they’re not good for each other and that he thinks they should break it off for the good of everyone. They stand side by side, gripping the footboard of his bed, holding onto it like a railing for support, as they say their goodbyes while absently staring down at his bed.

When she leaves, resigned to her unhappy marriage, he flops on his bed and tosses a clump of paper into the bowl-shaped ceiling light fixture with a light heart and a sense of victory, like when he was a high school basketball star. Two points!

Is he glad to be rid of her? Or does he have a plan?

Another layer is peeled away. He shows up at her house in the middle of the night and sets a crime scene as if a prowler had been trying to get into the house. The noise lures her husband outside, in his bathrobe and carrying his own gun, which Heflin anticipates. The marksman kills the DJ.

At the inquest, Miss Keyes is distraught and confused, and with a sense of guilt over her affair, dramatically accuses Mr. Heflin of murder, but she withholds from the court her relationship with him. He is found not guilty, by reason of shooting in self defense.

His plan is thus far successful, but it’s not over. Now he has to woo her, and her husband’s money, back. He takes the interesting route of appealing to her brother-in-law, who is a local pharmacist. Van Heflin pretends to be grief stricken, tells him he has quit the force, and offers his financial help to the grieving widow, asks that the brother-in-law relay this message to Miss Keyes. The dead DJ’s brother, played by Emerson Treacy, is impressed with Heflin’s phony integrity, and sets up a meeting between them.

Mr. Treacy’s wife, by the way, is played by Madge Blake, who among other minor film and TV roles you may best remember as Larry Mondelo’s hapless, forever fretting, and hilarious mother on “Leave It to Beaver.”

Mr. Treacy does one other thing for Mr. Heflin, and us -- he confides that the marriage between Miss Keyes and his brother was not a happy one, and reiterates that his brother was not able to sire children. This is planted for us to remember later on.

In another marvelous and quite long scene, Van Heflin appeals to her in her living room, while the records play from her husband’s vast collection, and convinces her that the shooting was an accident and he is remorseful, that he cannot even bear to look at a gun again.

They are married. It didn’t really take much convincing.

For the honeymoon in Las Vegas, they head to the very auto court he once dreamed of owning. Now, thanks to her husband’s money, he does.

He is vastly pleased with himself, boyishly enthralled with his combination new business and home. It represents easy money to him, and also respectability in the community. It is a fine combination of comedy and pathos that a man so slick and conniving could be so in love with a cheaply built post-War motel on a highway where traffic barrels outside his door day and night, and the lurid glare of the vacancy sign blinks in the window. This is earthly bliss to him. A man who wants class, and has no idea what it is. A man who wants respectability, and has no notion of integrity. A villain we grow to pity.

His pleasure in this setting is one of the twists and turns of this film that keep us glued and amazed. Van Heflin is not just the creep he seemed at the beginning of the film. He is that, but he’s also vain, resentful, charming, ruthless, and tragically yearning for his days as a high school hero.

Evelyn Keyes is almost as big a collection of contradictions. We may marvel that she was fooled by this guy at every turn. We may find it odd that she would come from a fine home in a wealthy neighborhood, albeit leaving behind the memory of an unhappy marriage, to seemingly share Heflin’s joy and triumph in a manager’s apartment in a motel. She is many things, naïve, lustful, and human, and there are times when we suspect she must be the jaded female, or the femme fatale because that would make sense and explain her actions, but she never quite reaches that, and I think that is what makes her character sympathetic. In her way, she is as much a dreamer and a bungler as he is.

Then she drops a bomb on him. It is their wedding night, and she is four months pregnant.

At first, his reaction is sweet and emotional. He looks humble and pleased, and clutches her, and cries. Another layer is peeled.

Then after a moment, he pulls away, and we see a duality to the tears. His mind is working. He realizes, and eventually she does, too, that it will become known that they were lovers while she was still married, because it is known by others that could not have gotten pregnant by her late husband. She lied at the inquest and said she had never seen Heflin before. He lied, too. The investigation would probably be re-opened and they would both face the consequences of perjury. He would face the gas chamber for murder. Suddenly, a siren blares by on the highway, and they shudder. It is only an ambulance for someone else, but it’s a moment of conscience.

They toss around ideas about what to do, then decide to leave the auto court in the hands of the gum-chewing front desk receptionist, and take long honeymoon, say about five months, out in a lonely desert ghost town.

His former police partner, played by John Maxwell, is a rock hound on his time off, and has described for Heflin trips he has taken with his wife in the desert to hunt for geologic specimens. Mr. Heflin remembers something about an old ghost town where they can hide.

The final scenes of the film take place in a wind-ravaged, sun-bleached barren landscape, where Mr. Heflin and Miss Keyes set up housekeeping in a tumbledown shack. Here, the movie reminds me very much of a kind of “Twilight Zone” setting. Like an episode about the end of mankind except for a modern-day Adam and Eve surviving a nuclear holocaust.

But, they are just on the lam, and they seem strangely contented, as if this dirty shack in the middle of nowhere offers them a chance to start a new life better than the motel would.

She putters at housekeeping in her maternity top. He wipes the dust off his new Cadillac, as if he were a suburban husband Simonizing the car in the driveway of their three-room ranch. It is comfortably familiar, and yet very, very strange. They are away from civilization, that thing that makes life complicated and lousy, and yet they bring civilization with them. It is only natural.

He rigs up the portable record player to a car battery, and they have their music. While the record plays, they stroll contentedly out a few yards from their shack and admire their vast, barren, and private world.

Then they hear her dead husband’s voice.

It is a demo record he made of his radio show that got mixed up with the albums. Heflin and Keyes are horrified, and she runs back to grab the needle off the groove, but too late. He gives his signature sign-off in his announcer’s oily voice,

“I’ll be seeing you, Susan.”

It is a truly creepy moment.

He’s not the only one to interrupt their honeymoon. Van Helfin’s former police partner shows up like a busybody neighbor. Keyes goes into labor. Heflin is genuinely frightened for her, and though they had planned to deliver the baby themselves without help, he panics and brings back a doctor. The lonely desert is suddenly busier than Grand Central.

Keyes, not really a femme fatale, and not really a naïve fool, and not really in love with her late husband, becomes something definite, finally. She sees Van Helfin has brought his old service revolver, this man who said he was sick of guns, and the penny drops. She knows he will kill the doctor to prevent him from reporting the birth, or his suspicions to the police about the odd couple in the desert.

She decides to get off the merry-go-round, and becomes a hero. When the doctor shoos Van Heflin out of the room (it’s the 1950s and a husband can’t be present for the birth of his child), she takes the moment to spill the beans to the doc, tells him to high tail it out for his own safety, and take the baby with him.

Which he does, and when an astonished Van Heflin sees the doc has escaped and his wife has betrayed him, he frantically searches for another way out before the police get here. He bitterly defends himself to his wife with tears in his eyes:

“So what? So, I’m no good. But I’m not worse than anybody else. You work in a store, you hock down on the cash register. A big boss, the income tax. Ward heeler, you sell votes. Lawyer, take bribes. I was a cop. I used a gun.”

The stuff of film noir. Bad mistakes. Getting trapped. Disillusionment. No way out.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the three men most responsible for this story were similarly disillusioned and looking for escape. Dalton Trumbo, the gifted screenwriter who in just a couple years would turn out the enchanting “Roman Holiday”, but would do it under a fake name, had taken himself off to Mexico to wait out the frightening years of the Black List. One of the infamous “Hollywood Ten”, Trumbo served several months in prison for contempt of Congress, and took himself and his family out of Hollywood for the better part of the next decade, but still slipped scripts over the transom, so to speak, under other names. His name was left off the credits of this movie when it opened. His presence lingers, though. That’s his voice you hear as the DJ husband on the radio.

The other screenwriter for this film, Hugo Butler, also took it on the lam to Mexico when he was blacklisted. The director, Joseph Losey, fled to England to avoid being questioned by the House Un-American (such an ironic name for this group) Activities Committee.

Film noir is a style sometimes replicated today, but in its heyday served as an illustration of post-war societal fears and repression, angst and disillusionment that shows us a bit of our own popular culture and history. The Film Noir Foundation’s mission is “to find and preserve films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, and to ensure that high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for theatrical exhibition to future generations.” We can thank them for the restored issue of “The Prowler”.

You can thank them some more, and continue their work on other noir films, by donating to the Film Noir Foundation.  And visit the other blogs participating in this noir blogathon. You’ll find a list of them at The Self-Styled Siren, and Ferdy on Films.


Tinky said...

Another film I'd never seen. I love this blogathon!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Tinky. I agree, it's a great blogathon. So much fun to read the other posts.

John said...

I love this film. Keyes is terrific as is Van Heflin. I have only seen this on a bootleg copy and impatiently await the arrival of my offical copy I just ordered a few days ago.

Mark said...

Nice work Jacqueline!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Enjoy that restored copy, John.

Thanks, Mark. Hat's off to your blog.

KC said...

This is the film that turned me on the Evelyn Keyes. I saw it for the first time at a noir film festival, when it was newly-restored and not yet available on DVD. It was so exciting! Thanks for bringing back those memories with your evocative review.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, K.C. That must have been a great experience to see it at a noir festival.

Joe Thompson said...

Thanks for an interesting discussion. This is a movie I have to see.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Joe. The restoration is some beautiful work.

Fred Theilig said...

The movie sounds cool. Unfortunately, Netflix has never heard of it.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Really? That's a shame. But, since it's restoration I think "The Prowler" is becoming more well known. Maybe one of these days Netflix will come around.

StellaTennantFreak said...

On YouTube now.

Related Products