The Prowler, 1951. 10/10

Very tense film noir. Van Heflin, as Webb, does a remarkable job as the menacing ‘prowler’ cop on-the-make with Evelyn Keye’s Susan. The way he insinuates himself into her life is a masterful combination of plotting and acting. She’s vulnerable and vaguely dissatisfied. He’s more exciting than her husband, who, intriguingly, is present just as a disembodied radio voice, like a conscience presiding over both Susan and Webb. There’s quite a convenient ‘accident’ that eliminates her husband.

The ‘accidental homicide’ trial verdict neatly wraps up the first part of the movie. This is a bit like the false ending of some sci-fi and horror movies of the same era, in which the monster/vampire (as Webb) is apparently out of action. But then the monster comes back…Susan grudgingly gives him another shot, so to speak. It does seem odd than her brother is so friendly towards the guy who has just caused John’s (the husband’s) death, whether intentionally or not. That point isn’t much of a big deal, though, since John hasn’t really been much of an actual character.

The next dilemma is Susan’s pregnancy. Obviously, that will illuminate Webb’s affair with Susan; which makes John’s death look a lot more suspect. In classic noir fashion, no one escapes their misdeeds, even given some lucky momentum. Escaping to the ghost town is not only a logical, if temporary solution for the newlyweds, it also provides a bleak, haunting noir landscape. It’s a superficial change, as the grit they’ve accumulated can’t be shaken off. Their efforts at domesticity suffer a macabre intrusion from a radio program using John’s recorded voice. Now they have to worry about everything–possibly Webb will kill the doctor…

Fate plays its hand again, as his ex-partner Bud (John Maxwell) shows up at the ghost town, just in time to inadvertently block Webb’s path. This coincidence figures, as Bud’s interest in that spot is established early on. A ‘High Sierra’ style denouement finishes Webb off; the police echoing the “Halt! Halt! Halt!” command he used when shooting John. Fittingly, Web has tried to surmount a sandy hill, and, Sisyphus-like, keeps sliding back until he’s shot. As bitter as Susan is, knowing at last that Webb actually did murder John, she survives. Innocent and now free from danger, she’ll have a new life, represented by her newborn.

As other reviewers have noted, Webb is the only bad guy here. The stereotypical wronged-man; losing his athletic scholarship has stigmatized him as a loser. His justification for his subsequent actions is the “I’m no good, so what?” line. A pitiful rationalization: that anything goes because ‘everyone’ does something shady to get what they want. There is some tragedy to Webb’s character though, as he had a glimpse of a better life.

The Prowler starts off quickly and doesn’t let up. The shadowy interior of Susan’s house makes a claustrophobic den for her trysts with Webb; the sandstorm shaking through and around their hideout is no less confining. This plunge into noir territory is completely convincing. Well-worth recording or having for the noir fan. 10/10.

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