Looking over our PopMatters articles of films directed by Joseph Losey, we seek to correct our unfortunate oversight of The Prowler, even if only in a hasty and perfunctory manner for the record. Restored by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & TV Archive to an almost shockingly crisp state, this Los Angeles noir proved a major rediscovery when issued on DVD in 2011.
Van Heflin gives a great performance as a moral vacuum in a police uniform, griping about his “lousy breaks”. With sinister efficiency, he spies upon, stalks, and manipulates the lonely trophy wife (Evelyn Keyes) until he gets everything he wants. But what of the hell he carries inside? He carries the seeds of his own desperate, grasping, clammy doom as forthrightly as any of the narrators of Jim Thompson’s contemporaneous pulp novels, some of which also feature corrupt lawmen. The less you know before going into this gripping story, the better.
John Maxwell, Katharine Warren, Emerson Treacy and Madge Blake are in the picture as contrastingly happy couples of middle age, though all except Warren’s character are blind to the anti-hero’s faults.
Joseph Losey, the most architectural of directors, frames everyone in windows, doorways, and elongated corridors down which Arthur Miller’s camera glides and pivots lovingly. In an extra, Bertrand Tavernier compares Losey’s psychic use of landscape — especially the final wasteland, which foreshadows Losey’s 1970 film Figures in a Landscape — to Antonioni, and by gum it’s true. Antonioni was already making films, yet we can easily imagine him being drawn to this picture and having its shards stick in his cranium.
While Losey applies his landscape to tension and thrills, Antonioni makes feints in these directions while really exploring lassitude and ennui. Someone might study, if they haven’t already, the increasing Antonioni-ism of Losey projects like Boom (1968) and The Assassination of Trotsky. Say, it would help if those came out on disc so we could all share. But we digress.
Returning to The Prowler, Dalton Trumbo wrote a script credited to “beard” Hugo Butler. As victims of the blacklist, Trumbo and Losey both felt mistrust of the official forces of authority, an attitude that lends force to this depiction of corruption in power. John Huston (Keyes’ husband at the time) and Sam Spiegel produced. Robert Aldrich was assistant director. It can be amazing how many talented people were involved in what were considered minor films.
The DVD extras are useful: commentary by “czar of noir” Eddie Muller, a making-of with James Ellroy and Trumbo’s son, the aforementioned appreciation by Tavernier, a feature on the restoration, and the original trailer, which advertises it as a strange love story. You can say that again.