Film Noir Classic Restored: The Prowler (1951)

If any movie in the “dark cinema” canon has risen spectacularly in esteem over the past few years it is The Prowler. UCLA and The Film Noir Foundation have restored it for DVD, adding extras that include the original trailer, remarks by critic Bertrand Tavernier, Eddie Mueller’s audio commentary, a photo gallery, “The Cost of Living: Creating The Prowler,” and the restoration procedure.

The film’s director Joseph Losey went on to a distinguished filmmaking career in England (The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between, The Romantic Englishwoman), having left the U.S. to avoid being called before Congress to “name names” in that blacklisting period of Communist paranoia fueled by demagogic politicians. Famously blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was scenarist for The Prowler, using “Hugo Butler” as a pseudonym. Robert Aldrich, future director of tough-as-nails films like Kiss Me Deadly, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Dirty Dozen was serving his apprenticeship here as Assistant Director.

Somewhat oddly for noir, which were hardly big budget affairs, The Prowler had a soundtrack by one of the titans of movie music: Dimitri Tiomkin. The Russian expatriate had been and would be responsible for many full orchestral scores for large-scale American movies, including Lost Horizon (1937), Red River (1948), Giant (1956), The Alamo (1960) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). But he was equally adept at smaller subjects and films. The same year as The Prowler he provided the eerie score for the The Thing from Another World (bad alien) which along with that year’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (good alien) ushered in the golden age of science fiction movies.

Van Heflin, who’d won a Supporting Actor Academy Award as Robert Taylor’s gangster pal in Johnny Eager (1941), was out of his MGM contract by 1950 and was an “independent contractor” working for various studios. Two of his best films would be for Paramount: Shane (1953) and for Columbia the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957). In The Prowler he was both likable and loathsome.

Evelyn Keyes, director John Huston’s wife at the time, had a credible film career if not as illustrious as it should have been. She was notable opposite Robert Montgomery in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and as Larry Parks’ wife in The Jolson Story (1946). She found her most dynamic and quirky roles in The Prowler and 1953’s 99 River Street, in both of which her characters were nuanced and compelling.

As with many noirs, which because of World War II were informed by the knowledge that humanity could devolve easily into insanity and self-destruction, The Prowler revealed that all was not right in the ostensibly moral U.S. of A. Even a policeman could possess sociopathic (then called psychopathic) tendencies: confidence in spades, lack of empathy, willingness to kill to gain his ends.

Of those commenting on The Prowler on the special features, author James Ellroy is most amusing and pointed in his assessment that early on the protagonist should know he will either spend the rest of his life in prison or be shot by a cop at long range while climbing a slag heap.

The Prowler was not always unavailable or forgotten. In one of the first books to provide capsule reviews of feature films shown on television, Steven Scheuer’s TV Key Movie Reviews & Ratings (1961) called it “Strong, gripping melodrama, excellently acted.” The New York Times Guide to Movies on TV (1970) found it “impressive, engrossing stuff, forcefully performed. An ugly business, true, but dignified, credible and often exciting drama.”

by Kim

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