The whole thing turned on a freak accident. You’ve got to believe that Susan.
The Prowler doesn’t waste a moment of time with its opening credits as we are privy to a woman shrieking from within her bathroom. Why is fairly obvious. There’s a voyeuristic prowler on the loose and the police must be called on the scene. The men on call are Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) the discontent young gun and Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) the genial veteran. They search the premises, meet the flustered gal (Evelyn Keyes) and leave her be with no signs of a prowler remaining.
In fact, from that moment onward the prowler is only a phantom, a figment of the imagination, a convenient scapegoat. But blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo also cleverly uses this “person” to move his story forward seamlessly. The stage has been set. Our young cop has his interest piqued. Here is a beautiful, seemingly lonely woman and he can be her knight in shining armor. He’s taken by her and drops in on her with the pretense of monitoring her safety. In such a way, the narrative progresses into a love affair and an adulterous one at that. Because Susan Gilvray is married to the man who is always on the other end of the radio (ironically voiced by Trumbo himself sneaking his way into the film). He talks to her from far off and rather like the eponymous prowler, he too seems an almost otherworldly phantom haunting both Webb and his girl in their deceit.
It becomes obvious soon enough that Webb is the most crooked cop on record as he sets up a scenario that is tragic and he casts himself as a victim of circumstance. But it’s all orchestrated in such a way that Susan is free of her marriage and Webb receives the sympathies of the general public in the ensuing court proceedings. Soon after the drama has subsided, the pair of clandestine lovebirds turn around and get hitched. The next stop on their journey together is out to the desert as the action gets transplanted. Webb is keen on running a hotel and seeing a bit of the desolate country his former partner was always touting.
It’s in this back half where director Joseph Losey is able to develop his second major locale the ghost town of Calico which becomes the stark backdrop for the final act. It’s in such a setting where the couple looks to flee their misdeeds but they’re already so far gone, caught up in a lie that they cannot hope to mitigate. And that’s the tragedy. Webb cannot help to give up the lie even even with the love that he has found. Worst of all, it never was love at all.
Van Heflin was mostly an earthy, rough-hewn sort of actor but in the Prowler he’s surprisingly slimy and it’s a joy to watch him in that kind of role. Meanwhile, Evelyn Keyes is quite pretty and evocative but there’s almost a weary gauntness to her that’s hard to pinpoint. It hints a little bit at the hollowness and fleeting aspect of this romance that initially enraptures her but leaves her disillusioned. Also, the fact that Webb is surrounded by chummy average Joes like Bud and the dead man’s brother (Emerson Treacy), it just becomes more obvious how corrupted he is. Because it’s these real square, true blue individuals who willingly vouch for his character when he has none. They trust him completely when there’s nothing but deceit within him.
Dalton Trumbo is certainly ripping a few pages out of the likes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he does a master class job to the glory of the B pictures. And he really only seems to falter once. Although it’s a major plot point, a turning point, it somehow hurts the film that we see Susan’s husband in the flesh. It’s only for an instance, but in that instance, he loses that phantom quality. He’s real and far from being haunting, the fact that we know him, makes this story sad really. In the end, we realize The Prowler in the expected sense, never existed. It was all an apparition, a figment of the imagination, simply utility for one man’s avarice.