by Alan Rode
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What does a restless Susan Gilvay (Evelyn Keyes) do when her older husband works evenings as a radio disc jockey? She calls the police to investigate when she is startled by a peeping tom. Enter cop as predator: Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). Garwood doesn’t collar the window peeper, but his eyes protrude like golf balls when he sizes up the vulnerable Mrs. Gilvay. Garwood was a Hoosier high school basketball star over a decade ago, but he is currently sleepwalking on the nightshift as one of L.A.P.D. finest. Behind the badge, lurks a sociopath on the make who thinks the world owes him, big time. Susan was ill fated to open her front door to this man in blue.
At the end of his shift, Garwood returns to the Gilvay residence for some heavy-duty trolling. After some preliminary fencing, it is revealed that Mrs. Gilvay’s husband has provided for his wife’s every need, save children. Unspoken, but also apparent, is Susan’s possession of a romantic itch that Officer Garwood is ready enough to scratch. Mrs. Gilvay’s alacrity to tumble for Webb is only exceeded by her breathtaking naivete that would be the dream of every male high school student.
As their nocturnal affair picks up steam, Garwood manipulates Susan skillfully by alternately giving and withholding his affection to the same effect as a dope pusher controlling a recalcitrant junkie. Even though Susan quickly becomes silly-putty in his Machiavellian fingers, it is still not enough for Webb. He must have it all. Nosing around, he finds an insurance policy that would leave him in the driver’s seat with the widowed Susan. After a fashion, Officer Garwood stages a fake burglary and when Mr. Gilvay emerges gun in hand, Webb calmly shoots him dead and writes it off as a tragic accident by a dutiful cop doing his job during a routine burglary call. The distraught Susan isn’t completely sure and ends the romance with Garwood.
After the inquest clears him, Garwood worms his way back in by commiserating with the late husband’s brother and sister-in-law (Emerson Treacy and Madge Blake). He and Susan reunite and Webb pledges both innocence and eternal love. The couple gets married. Webb quits the police department and fulfills his dream: buying a truck stop motel next to a busy freeway in Las Vegas, Nevada! Garwood believes that his ship has finally come in. A closer view reveals that while Webb might be cunning, his revealed ambition is nothing more than a bargain basement stocked with fool’s gold.
Their honeymoon eve in a dump of a room at the hotel becomes a wretched stay in Hades. Susan reveals that she is four months pregnant (This aspect of the story was exceedingly bold for 1951-kudos to Director Joseph Losey). Webb reacts to the news of impending fatherhood by flinching like he was hit in the face by a wet halibut. He reminds Susan that if she has the baby, it will be evident that they knew each other carnally before marriage, before the inquest cleared him and before her ex-husband was killed. Not good. After various options are quickly weighed and discarded, the couple improbably decides to go to a deserted ghost town in the middle of the desert and have the baby unassisted!
What begins like a romantic outing to the ghost town turns into a windblown nightmare as Susan’s pregnancy becomes complicated and Webb has to fetch the local sawbones out of bed to tend to his wife. The doc does his job, but pins Webb as the notorious ex-cop. When the police arrive, Garwood panics, improbably flees up a hill and is shot in the back for his trouble.
This movie is an excellent and moody film noir with fascinating moral ambiguities and ironies. That being said, the absurd ending almost spoiled the film for me. Embarking on an outing with phonograph records, canned soup, and sandwiches to give birth alone in an isolated desert shack left me shaking my head. Having the cops arrive with Garwood fleeing and being shot in the back for no clear reason other than to wrap up the film and satisfy the production code sent me round the bend. Too bad. The Dalton Trumbo script was lively and the inspired direction by Joseph Losey is praiseworthy. The soon-to-be blacklisted Losey fled to Europe soon after this film and resurrected his career with gems such as The Criminal (1960) and The Servant (1967).
Van Heflin’s performance as the upwardly striving sociopath is subtly layered. A supporting Oscar winner for Johnny Eager (1942), and extremely effective in The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers and Act of Violence, Heflin does some of his best work in this film. His portrait of a dysfunctional loser who pretends his way through an inherently amoral existence is simply compelling. Evelyn Keyes was the perfect choice to play the lissome Susan Gilvay. Too good to do in her husband, but too weak to say no to Heflin, her initial appearance, greeting Heflin and his partner while wrapped in a bathrobe, pushed all of the right buttons that remained depressed throughout the film.
The Prowler (1951) is a unique collaboration between a gutsy director and a great screenwriter. Just don’t apply a litmus test to the finale and remember it is a movie.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
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