As harsh and gut-wrenching as it is bold and satisfying - Joseph Losey's Bourgeois noir 'The Prowler' lingers long in the memory - and remains one of the genre's most emotionally powerful installments.
When officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) investigates a wee-hours peeping-Tom call with his veteran partner Bud (John Maxwell), he finds himself drawn to the victim - attractive and vulnerable housewife Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes). Dutiful and quietly desperate, Mrs. Gilvray spends evenings listening to her DJ husband John's late-night radio show - which he ends every night by cooing "I'll be seeing you Susan...”
Though no clues are found, she seems relieved and sees the men off – but Webb returns after his shift under the premise that he's "following up". Signals are sent, misread, rejected, and returned - and soon the uncouth cop has insinuated himself into her sad little life - the groundwork laid when they determine that they hail from the same state. An affair begins - and with Webb's virile presence and attentiveness Susan temporarily forgets her passionless, childless marriage. But unbeknownst to her, Webb's motives aren't pure - as he deftly manipulates her emotions by pretending to break things off - drawing his fragile lover and her husband's insurance policy ever-closer. The way Webb sees it - life owes him. This was its chance to make good.
Wanting to amp-up the relationship - and his socioeconomic status – Webb takes things to the next level by staging a fake late-night burglary at Casa de Gilvray. Drawing an armed John out - Webb shoots him dead – then wings himself to make it look like a tragic exchange between two men deceived by darkness. Susan, kept oblivious of the scheme, reacts with understandable suspicion when she finds Webb on the lawn - John splayed at his feet.
When asked at the subsequent inquest if she's familiar with the officer in question, Susan lies and answers no - but the event has rocked her and she severs ties with him. Attempting a reconciliation - he offers her his paltry life savings through her easy-going brother William (Emerson Treacy). The gesture, and some world-class lying do the trick - the two get together, tie the knot, and as newlyweds begin their new life as motor lodge managers in Vegas - the life Webb has longed dreamed of.
Before long, Susan announces that she's four months pregnant - which would mean having known Webb in the biblical sense before their marriage - the fact that John was sterile not helping their case. Fearing he'll be charged with murder, Webb talks Susan into having the baby at a dilapidated shelter out in a desert ghost-town. There, while happily awaiting the arrival and listening to records outside, they accidentally hear a recording of John's DJ show - the ghostly voice echoing across the landscape - seemingly from beyond - shattering their morale.
Pregnancy complications arise - and when Susan watches Webb race into town to find a doctor, she suspects Webb will silence him following the treatment - having discovered that her ex-cop brought his revolver on the trip. A baby girl is born - and with Susan's warning rushed by the doctor back to town and away from Webb who before chasing him hastily explains to Susan that he did whatever he did for her. Backtracking from the police, and Bud and his wife who are all converging on the windswept hideaway - Webb exits his car and scrambles up a dune where he's shot in the back - and killed.
Webb Garwood's Norman Rockwell knock-off is painted with blood - but being a sociopath it's not likely to keep him up at night. As portrayed by Oscar-winner Van Heflin in a nuanced, restrained performance that never evolves into a moustache-twirling stereotype - the character is a blue-collar furnace - seething with resentment, and primed to balance the scales by any means necessary. Unfortunately for him his lunge at middle-class respectability lands him face-first in a pile of rocky earth.
Losey, fond of highlighting class differences and sexual power-plays throughout his career ('The Lawless', 'The Servant') blended, with uncredited screenwriter Dalton Trumbo - those themes, with traditional noir motifs to create a particularly mournful effort - which succeeds on all levels.
Thanks a million to ChiBob who rocketed a DVD-r of 'The Prowler' to me upon learning that my copy was on its last legs. Thanks Bob!