“So I’m no good, but I’m no worse than anybody else.”
Film gris, noir’s political apt little brother, typically goes undiscussed in the industry. Granted, it’s far less sexy than a private eye 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 cracks in 1947, the result of leftists like Edward Dmytryk (Crossfire), Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil), and Jules Dassin (Thieves’ Highway). These filmmakers had choked on the American Dream far too long, and the regurgitation of its values weren’t plastered on posters, but stirred into stories, where characters could voice this disgust.
Classicism, materialism, and capitalism were up for critique, while pessimistic fingers were pointed at society in lieu of the bad seeds. The way Dmytryk and Polonsky spun it, America had planted them in the first place. Congress responded unfavorably to this movement, and the aroused industry paranoia left gris directors subject to Blacklisting and discrimination. Gris was all but dismantled by 1951, barring a final addition. 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, was The Prowler.
For now, he’ll go by Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), Los Angeles beat cop. Garwood and partner Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) check in on a domestic disturbance one night. No threats are noted by the time they arrive, but Garwood’s interest turns towards the domestic in question, Susie Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). 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 puts Susie at ease, and before her husband’s radio show is over, the cop has worked his way into a torrid affair.
But adultery isn’t enough for Garwood. He was a football star, a young man intent on taking on the world — now, he’s a nobody. He figures the world owes him, and Susie is the blonde bank account from which he’ll collect. Garwood manipulates her 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 prowler from Susie’s initial call, and upon drawing Mr. Gilvray out in the open, guns him down. This entitled everyman is riding the Double Indemnity (1944) train straight down the line.
Adultery, deception, and domestic bliss.
Garwood’s goals prove more honorable 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 disturbing. The screenplay by Hugo Butler and ghostwriter Dalton Trumbo (who voices Mr. Gilvray in the film) explores the underbelly of what it means to succeed in America. “So I’m no good,” Garwood snaps, “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 sentences, the keeper of the peace makes a case for living dishonestly: everyone else does it. Butler and Trumbo curse Garwood with low moral fiber, and to him, society excuses his actions altogether. He’s a bad seed intent on wreaking havoc to the rest of the garden.
Garwood is reprehensible all around. Note the way he sits in bed, shaving, while shunning Susie’s phone calls. Van 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 wild. The Oscar winner presents his finest homme fatale in Garwood, a guy whose impatience all but defines him.
Susie is also delivered with career defining proficiency. A blonde 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 was a good girl, and nowhere did this prove more compelling than in The Prowler. Her Susie is both level-headed and lonely, succumbing to Garwood only when she finds herself pregnant. She suspects he killed her husband on purpose, yet allows herself to be swayed into marriage. All the while, Keyes behaves with shame, aware of her errors but too caught up in convenience to stop.
The irony, of course, is that this dream of domestic bliss leads to a violent nightmare. Susie learns the truth, and the subsequent police standoff leaves Garwood shot down at a distance, like a rabid dog. Watching from the window of their shack, Susie stares at Garwood’s corpse — the sheer indifference in her eyes enough to power a dozen films noir. The gris movement was given a worthy swan song.
Director Joseph Losey had been a major component of this “subversive” movement. 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 bombarding the viewer with social critique. Each were released to varying success (the latter a victim of studio tampering), yet it was the mildly received Prowler that remains Losey’s masterpiece. The film instilled, and continues to instill, a stirring sense of mistrust, where pursuit of the perfect nuclear family leads to self-destruction.
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 outcast Trumbo. Losey migrated to Europe and never again set foot on American soil. Oddly enough, his reported guilt mirrored that of The Prowler, as he was fingered by an informant who 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.