Revived for a week at Film Forum in an excellent restored print, The Prowler (1951) may be the creepiest of classic noirs. Joseph Losey’s hard-to-see third feature is a tawdry tale of sexual power relations that anticipates the director’s early-’60s art-house comeback, The Servant.
At the time, Losey’s sordid nocturne was praised for its ambience by hipster critics like Manny Farber (“sociologically sharp”) and Wallace Markfield (“the kind of sneaky, dangerous eroticism, good tabloid melodrama needs”) and, as the story of a wealthy would-be actress trapped in a police state of continual surveillance, it has definite Cold War resonance. The vulnerability of Evelyn Keyes’s wealthy hausfrau is established with pre-credit alarm bells. Called to investigate the Peeping Tom outside her bathroom window, Van Heflin’s predatory cop immediately goes on the prowl himself—stalking Keyes until she’s frightened into betraying her older husband, a late-night DJ who keeps her spellbound by the radio. Keyes walks through the movie in a trance, helplessly in thrall to Van Heflin’s big-faced, self-entitled cop. Spooky as the movie is, the climactic cosmic retribution is fittingly set in a Nevada ghost town.
Like all of Losey’s Hollywood films, The Prowler involved a number of movieland leftists—notably, Dalton Trumbo, who wrote the script with subsequently blacklisted Hugo Butler as his front. As a grim joke (and for an extra $35), Trumbo supplied the DJ’s disembodied voice. The Prowler has its perverse attributes, not the least of which is that—along with similarly fronted quickies Gun Crazy, Rocketship X-M, and Terror in a Texas Town—this is one of Trumbo’s strongest scripts. As a writer, conspiracy brought out the best in him.