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

99 River Street (1953)

99river4This is a Sam Fuller type crime film that’s not pretty, it’s full of gritty realism, and it ends up being an unassuming little gem that is a great joy. However, instead, this film comes from director Phil Karlson pairing him with John Payne. In film-noir, boxers always seem to take a center stage and it is never (or hardly ever) the champs. It’s the near misses or the bums. Ernie Driscoll (Payne) falls into this category as well.

After his big fight and an unfortunate conclusion to the bout, Driscoll is all washed up and he and his wife know it. He relives the moment in agony and dejectedly takes a job as a taxi driver, while he tries to figure out a future without boxing. You can tell his wife is fed up with this way of life, and she’s getting awfully snappy. Driscoll is unhappy, with his marriage going down the tubes, so his only encouragement comes down at the coffee counter with his buddy Stan and the bubbly actress Linda.

Things get worse when Ernie sees his wife with another man who also happens to be a real thug. Ernie is humiliated and looking for revenge, but on Linda’s bidding, he follows her to the theater because she is in desperate trouble. He obliges and yet again he feels like he’s been made a fool of. He cannot even seem to trust her.

Ernie wants desperately to get back into the ring, against the better judgment of his former manager. But he still is caught up in the whole mess with the cunning tough guy Victor Rawlins who stole Driscoll’s wife. The man shows how little the girl meant to him in comparison to the money and after getting a payoff for a fat load of diamonds, he waits for a freighter to take him away.

Linda wants to help Ernie after what happened on the stage, but she cannot stop Rawlins. It’s up to Ernie to duke it out on the docks, and it turns into a real brawl where he struggles not to get his bell completely rung after a gunshot to the chest. It’s the biggest fight of his career and somehow he wins. Really 99 River Street sounds like a run-of-the-mill noir, but Payne’s performance is rather good. It feels rather like Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street where no one seems to be on his side. However, he does ultimately have two solid allies in the faithful dispatcher Stan and the always vibrant Linda. Ernie finally follows Stan’s earlier advice and whispers sweet nothings into the ear of his love. It’s a happy ending for a noir.

The cast is rounded out nicely by a wonderful group of character actors including Brad Dexter, Jack Lambert, and Jay Adler who all work as the scum of the earth-dwelling in New York. The contrast of the bubbly Evelyn Keyes with the more aloof Peggie Castle was also very effective in the film. Now I need to see Kansas City Confidential as well.

4/5 Stars