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The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951)


The Prowler, an underappreciated crime drama from director Joseph Losey, delves into darker places than most noir films of its era. It begins as Webb (Van Heflin), a police officer dissatisfied with his profession, answers the call of a Susan (Evelyn Keyes), a married woman who sees a prowler outside her window. Once the two discover that they share both a hometown and a fundamental disappointment with their current lives, romantic sparks fly, setting off a murder plot that follows the noir template. Before long, the two become prowlers themselves, creeping out of the house to tryst at night. Indeed, once the two naturally begin having a nighttime affair, the tawdry nature of the arrangement is emphasized by the cuckolded husband’s radio show playing in the background. The absent husband and radio personality, for his part, is so impotent that he remains a disembodied voice until the plot demands he appear to get shot down.


In the second half of the film, The Prowler becomes a twisted vision of American entrepreneurship, with the two leads forming a grotesque nuclear family. Forced by paranoia to hide in a desert shack while Susan gives birth, their home is constantly besieged by winds, a testament to the fragile state of their illicit arrangement. Throughout, the intense sexual chemistry between Webb and Susan is desperate and convincing. Indeed, the degree to which the film skirts the demands of the production code is striking. There is no doubt that the two are having sex even before Susan announces that she’s four months’ pregnant on their wedding night.


Losey, as in his later work, is concerned with power relations, emphasizing both class issues and the differential in power between the sexes here. Susan is a particularly pathetic noir heroine, sitting alone at home nights listening to her husband’s radio broadcasts, and Keyes effectively relays her desperation, even after her first husband has been offed. Van Heflin is given one of his sleaziest roles here, and the actor sinks his teeth into it. “So I’m no good,” he snarls at one point, “but I’m no worse than anyone else!” Such is the worldview of The Prowler, a single-minded but singularly disturbing portrait of the American dream gone horribly wrong twice.



Jeremy Heilman