The startling opening of Joseph Losey’s The Prowler finds Susan Gilvray, alone in her home, suddenly alarmed as she looks outside a window and into the camera; believing she sees a prowler, she draws the curtain and calls the police. It is, of course, we whom she imagines are taking advantage of her solitude and vulnerability; it is we the audience who are looking in. Now two police officers arrive. One is married and close to retirement; the other, Webb Garwood, is instantly interested in Susan, whose husband has a late-night radio program that he insists she listens to. In effect, he also is “the prowler” insofar as he will not allow his wife a moment’s peace; Susan married him because she wanted children, but wealth is all that he was able to provide. After driving his partner home, Webb—Susan will become trapped in his lonely life—doubles back on the pretext that such follow-up calls are routine. The two soon become clandestine lowers. One night, Webb becomes “the prowler” for real and shoots Susan’s husband dead, on the pretext of having mistaken him for a prowler, and weds Susan soon after. But when he discovers that she is four months’ pregnant with their child—well, the arithmetic might cast suspicion on him. Webb genuinely loves Susan, however, and when childbirth is imperiling her health, he and “we”—prowlers all—merge as Webb extends our desire for Susan’s safety by reversing his and Susan’s plan for her to give birth without benefit of a doctor.
Although the story and script (by Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm, Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler) seem farfetched until the murder, this is a good little film, thanks to Losey’s visually sensitive direction. Example: Alone, as usual, in his apartment, when Webb joyfully plops into bed facing an overhead camera after meeting Susan, this rupture of both the static image and Webb’s generally repressed, even sour disposition instantly suggests that this linkage of bed and joy is a rare occurrence in Webb’s life. A decade after his Oscar-winning performance in Johnny Eager (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942), as Webb, Van Heflin gives his best performance; the year following her divorce from John Huston, as Susan, Evelyn Keyes gives her best performance.
Fascinating: the imaginative bonds that Losey suggests exist between an audience and the characters in a film.
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