The Prowler (1951)

the-prowler-1The 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.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

guncrazy2

Bart has an intense obsession with guns. It’s what his life revolves around. It’s the only thing he wants to do as a boy and the only things he seems to think about. It becomes a problem when he breaks a store window, but during the following hearing, his sister and friends vouch for his character. He would never take a human life or kill. That’s not in his nature.

No matter, it is decided Bart should be sent off to a special preparatory school, and he only returns years later as a grown man recently off a stint in the army.  He’s back in his hometown not quite sure what his future plans will be, but his buddies are glad to see him. They shoot some, drink a few beers, and decide to take a jaunt to the carnival for a night of fun.

Their Bart meets the girls of his dreams. There’s a quality to John Dall that makes Bart into a pure victim of his circumstances. He’s quickly infatuated with the gun slinging and sensuous Peggy, who seems to share his one love. A goofy smile is plastered on his face as he faces off against her in an act of skill. He makes her uneasy and ultimately beats her. 

He gets a job with the carnival and spends as much time as he can with her when he’s not shooting guns. They are fed up with their boss and leave the migrant life behind. Marriage is on their radar, and they live it up with the money they have. But Peggy wants more and she wants to keep living the high life. 

She wants to rob a gas station. It’s one little idea that soon blows way out of proportion. They are holding up banks, gas stations, and any place with money that they can lay their hands on. The pair is fugitives with exploits plastered all over the front pages and roadblocks waiting to stop them up. All the while Bart makes Peggy promise not to shoot anything because he still is totally opposed to killing people. 

It seems like things might end peaceably, except once again the gun-toting lovers are nearly flat broke so Peggy coaxes Bart into one last job to end all jobs. For the first time, despite their planning, just enough goes wrong to nearly botch their mission. Bart drives off and Peggy shoots a guard. He’s not the only one. 

 guncrazy1When Bart finds out, after the fact, he realizes they have just stepped up a level with murder stuck on them. The game is winding down and the only place Bart can turn is his hometown where his sister is. For good reason, she cannot stand Bart or Peggy who she sees as poisoning her brother. And it’s true. Bart seems different now, so paralyzed by fear that he even pulls a gun on his old friends.

The last ditch effort of Bart and Peggy is to literally head for the hills. The dragnet is sent out and the hounds are let loose. They hardly have a chance before dropping from exhaustion in a swamp. They’re trapped and a crazed Peggy looks to shoot it out to the death. But for once Bart breaks with her remembering his friends. It doesn’t help him much.

Gun Crazy is a B-film and yet it is easy to forget because the way Joseph H. Lewis constructed this film is so impressive in its economy. One scene that reflects this so beautifully is the long take from the back seat of the car. The camera does not change positioning and so we see a bank job from the outside, and it only helps to build up greater tension.

 We also have enough time to care about certain characters. We have enough time to see Peggy is really no good. Yet with her keen marksmanship, she is a different shade of femme-fatale who is still as deadly as any of her contemporaries. Along with They Live by Night (1948), this is one of the archetypal Bonnie and Clyde-esque films. Thank goodness this film’s title was changed from Deadly is the Female to the more apt Gun Crazy. That it is. 

4/5 Stars