1 Hr., 32 Mins.
The Prowler April 9, 2020
he Prowler (1951) is a red herring of a title until it isn't anymore.
Going into the movie, I thought, with no background supporting me, that this was going to be a film about a peeping Tom who eventually gets murderous. (For that, see 1981’s unrelated slasher movie of the same name.) It turns out, though, that the prowler of this 1951 feature, which is written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Joseph
Losey, is an unseen villain who makes only a brief appearance (sort of) at the beginning of the movie. He isn't the primary antagonist. The twist is that the bad guy in The Prowler is the man ostensibly saving a woman from the title
menace. That’s the way its cynical world — in plenty of ways like ours — works.
The bad guy in The Prowler is a cop named Webb (Van Heflin). The woman is Susan (Evelyn Keyes), the stay-at-home wife of a popular radio personality. Webb is handsome and has the athleticism of a former star ballplayer; his good looks obscure his emptiness and dissatisfaction. It’s impressed on us that he became a police officer just because, and that of late the career choice has begun to grate on him. Susan is also unfulfilled. Since her husband mostly works nights, she's usually alone. When he is around, she wishes he wasn’t: It’s hinted that he physically and emotionally abuses her.
As the film opens, Webb and his partner are dispatched to Susan’s place after she calls, in a panic, claiming that she’s just spotted a man gawking at her through the window. Upsettingly, the cops laugh her claims off as if they were delusions; then, later that evening, Webb heads back to Susan’s to flirt with her. Webb continues to come back to her house over the next few nights uninvited. Soon, he’s basically pressured her into a sexual relationship after she's spent much time rebuffing his advances.
The Prowler gets uglier. By the time the third act arrives, there’s been a murder plot gone awry (only think of it as one-sided in a Strangers on a Train way) and even an unplanned pregnancy that leads to a doomed trip to the mountains. Losey later said that this was a movie about the horrors of corner-cutting, and how in America, where the ends typically matter more than the means, dishonesty and corruption as a result are just as inescapable as they are in The Prowler. Here these problems are just more concentrated. What a wonderfully jaundiced move it was on the part of Trumbo, who was by then blacklisted (Losey would be next), to have the lead character be not only a major cheat but also a guy who has a job that exists, on the surface, to make the world a better place. It's laughable to think that in an institution like that you can attain across-the-board morally sound employees, The Prowler
The movie sticks out to me most, though, as a thriller particularly attuned to the #MeToo era, addressing matters of sexual misconduct almost as directly as the movement has worked to. No matter where Susan turns — perhaps even no matter where she moves — she is in some way being harassed, exploited. She's
never at ease. The short run time and the sparse production values of The
Prowler allow for it to be masterfully good and clever without being
comprehensively masterful. But does a film featuring such economically delivered social critique and cruelty have to do more than quickly and effectively jolt to get its points across? B+