“So I’m no good, but I’m no worse than anybody else.”
Film gris, noir’s politically apt little brother, typically goes undiscussed within the genre’s wider worldview. Granted, it’s far less sexy than a private eye picture or a femme fatale flick, but gris, a term coined by critic Thom Andersen, tapped into a societal pulse that needed a podium. It seeped up through the pavement in 1947, the result of leftist filmmakers like Edward Dmytryk (Crossfire), Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil), and Jules Dassin (Thieves’ Highway). These Hollywood players had choked on the American Dream for too long, and the regurgitation of its values weren’t plastered on posters, but stirred into the pulp stew, where fictional characters could voice their creators’ disgust.
Classicism, materialism, and capitalism were laid on the chopping block for critique, while pessimistic fingers were pointed at society in lieu of bad seeds and sick individuals. The way Dmytryk and Polonsky spun it, America had planted them in the first place. Congress responded poorly, to say the least, and the aroused paranoia in Hollywood left gris directors subject to Blacklisting and discrimination. The movement was all but dismantled by 1951. It came courtesy of a man who went by many titles: the officer, the athlete, the charmer, but the one that proved most telling, and most indicative of society’s flaws, was The Prowler.
The film’s stark promotional poster.
For now, he’ll go by Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), Los Angeles beat cop. Along with graying partner Bud Crocker (John Maxwell), the affable duo stops in to check on a domestic disturbance call. No Peeping Toms are noted by the time they arrive, but Garwood’s disinterest soon turns flirty, and magnetism towards the domestic in question, Susie Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) is palpable. He decides to stop by after his shift, under the pretense of “following up” on her complaint. Small talk about being from the same hometown in Indiana puts Susie at ease, and before her husband’s radio show comes to a close, the crass copper has worked his way into a torrid love affair.
But adultery isn’t enough for Garwood. He was a football star, a young man intent to take on the world — now, he’s a nobody working the city beat. He figures the world owes him, and Susie is the blonde bank account from which he’ll collect. Garwood manipulates the housewife by pretending to break things off, drawing both her and her husband’s insurance policy progressively closer. A final tidbit on her radio host spouse — his infertility — solidifies the final play. Garwood poses as the Peeping Tom from Susie’s initial call, and upon drawing Mr. Gilvray out in the open, guns him down under “accidental” pretenses. Turning back is officially off the table, and this entitled average joe is riding the Double Indemnity (1944) train straight down the line.
Adultery, deception, and domestic bliss.
Garwood’s goals prove far less cheap than that of Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson: he intends to use Gilvray’s insurance money to marry, have a child, and live an idyllic life in Nevada (where it’s tax free). And yet, it’s precisely this “normal” desire that makes his actions all the more deranged. The story, concocted by Hugo Butler and ghostwriter Dalton Trumbo (who voices Mr. Gilvray in the film), provides a masterstroke of snappy rhetoric, where doom overshadows the danger of any dull preaching. “So I’m no good,” Garwood snaps at the sudden widow, “But I’m no worse than anybody else. You work in a store, you knock down the register; a big boss, the income tax; a lawyer, you take the bribes, I was a cop – I used a gun.” In a matter of mild comparisons, the keeper of the peace makes a twisted case for living beyond his means: everybody does it. Butler and Trumbo curse Garwood with minimal moral fiber, and to him, the scapegoat of society being crooked excuses his antics altogether. He’s a bad seed intent on wreaking havoc to the rest of the garden.
Ruggedly charming, Garwood still lives off his high school popularity. Note the way he sits in bed, shaving while shunning Susie’s calls in the first act — big man on campus, big man off it. The sense of smugness is sickeningly assured, and Van Heflin conveys it without the slightest concern for self-regard. Bug-eyed and quick to banter, Heflin was the rare noir actor who dished out more trouble than he received, serving as the lustful prize for both Barbara Stanwyck (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) and Joan Crawford (Possessed). Something about his beer can simplicity drove dangerous women up the wall. The Oscar winner presents his finest homme fatale in Garwood, a guy whose impatience for middle class ease trumps his morality. That the chips keep stacking up against him is perversely satisfying to watch, especially given that he keeps trying to sneak in chips of his own.
Predator and Prey: Garwood in his scheming element.
Put-upon partner Susie is also delivered with career defining proficiency. A doe-eyed beauty with steady presence, Evelyn Keyes had already gotten her noir card with Johnny O’Clock (1947) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950). Contrary to what her chorus girl origins suggest, however, the Texas actress radiated decency, and nowhere did this penchant prove more potent than in The Prowler. Her Susie is both level-headed and lonely, succumbing to domestic fraud only when she finds herself pregnant. She suspects Garwood killed her husband on purpose, and yet allows herself to be swayed into marriage and a retreat to a desert ghost town. All the while, Keyes performs as if lamenting her own integrity, aware of her self-damnation but too caught up in convenience to stop it.
The film’s irony, of course, is that this mockery of domestic bliss winds up in betrayal and retribution. Susie learns the truth regarding her former husband’s death, and the resulting set-up leaves Garwood shot down at a distance, like a rabid dog. Watching from the window of their hut, Susie stares at Garwood’s dusty corpse — the sheer indifference in her eyes enough to power a dozen films noir. The American Dream, for all its white picket fences and lawn trimming, wound up dead, and desperate, at the hands of its own lawmen. The gris movement appointed a worthy swan song.
“I couldn’t bring myself to touch a gun again as long as I live.”
Prowler’s director, Joseph Losey, had been a major component of this “subversive” cinema. Between 1950-51, he cranked out a critique of Hispanic prejudice (The Lawless), a Red Scare remake (M), and a harrowing account of adolescence (The Big Night), all but smothering the viewer with social commentary. Each was released to varying success (the latter a victim of studio tampering), but it was the mildly received Prowler that would mark Losey’s masterpiece. The film instilled, and continues to instill, a grating sense of mistrust, where pursuit of the perfect nuclear family can lead to self-destruction.
Unfortunately, Losey, along with like-minded compatriot Butler, bore the brunt of their creation. Both were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) within months of the film’s release, joining the already outcast Trumbo. Losey, a Wisconsin native, migrated to Europe and never again set foot on American soil. Oddly enough, his reported guilt echoed that of The Prowler, as he was fingered by an informant who, the director later learned, had an affair with his wife. Film noir may have exaggerated reality, but film gris clearly proved closer to, and in some cases, right from, the home. A+
Horizon Pictures & United Artists
Directed by Joseph Losey
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Screenplay by Hugo Butler and (uncredited) Dalton Trumbo
Based on the story by Robert Thoeren and Hans Wilhelm
Starring Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes, John Maxwell, Katherine Warren, and Emerson Treacy
Cinematography by Arthur C. Miller, A.S.C.
Music by Lyn Murray
TRIVIA: Pulp novelist James Ellroy once called The Prowler his favorite film, and described it as “a masterpiece of sexual creepiness, institutional corruption and suffocating, ugly passion.”
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.