On the Prowl

Revisiting Joseph Losey’s penultimate US film, THE PROWLER, I found it even better than I remembered. Commie filmmakers may not have been allowed to smuggle leftist propaganda into Hollywood (an absurd proposition) but Losey certainly managed to critique capitalism. He called this one a film about “false values” but to the modern eye it’s also about toxic masculinity, daringly embodied by a cop (Van Heflin, really startlingly good).

Called out to investigate the titular peeping Tom (though the title could at times equally apply to him), Heflin becomes obsessed with young married woman Evelyn Keyes (also very strong), whose husband, a DJ, works nights. They start an affair and, yes, things swiftly head in a DOUBLE INDEMNITY direction — but this variation on James M. Cain’s No. 1 plot spins things around agreeably: Heflin doesn’t let Keyes in on his devious plans, and then things unravel spectacularly with a series of disturbing twists.

Heflin is always good, if odd-looking: he resembles a monkey skull eating a child’s spade. Here, he sleazes and skeezes repulsively, gaslights his partner postpartum (with an actual gas lamp in frame), and then melts down spectacularly, Brett Kavanaugh style. We were agape, aghast, agog. Just like watching those damned hearings, where a kind of shrivelled pity vied with revulsion, and lost. Cinephilia meets rubbernecking.

The film has a great climax in a desert ghost town (the remains of the capitalist dream) — it feels positively apocalyptic — but the best locale is the “motor court” Heflin buys with the money Keyes inherits from her husband. His dream of earning money without work is fulfilled, but it’s hellish: the constant rumble of passing cars, the headlights sweeping the rooms, the motel-like shape of the room, with a radio between their beds (symbolism!). A paranoid setting for the disintegrating relationship. Dark, dark stuff. What’s blacker than noir?

8 Responses to “On the Prowl”

  1. It’sreally good but Losey’s Last American film “The Big Night” is even better. John Drew Barrymore stars as a well-meaning but naïve young man who discovers that the bartender father he admires is no who hethinks he is. Also featured in her very last screen appearance, Dorothy Commingore. Yes, “Susan Alexander Kane” was a victim of the blacklist.

  2. Yes, we watched both as a double-bill and they’re both incredibly strong in their own ways. Though noir-like, The Big Night is less of a genre piece, and looks forward to Rebel Without a Cause with its adolescent angst treated seriously and respectfully.

    My earlier review is here: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/04/19/big-bad-night/

  3. BTW I trust y”all will be happy to know that Drew Barrymore took care of her dessicated father in his last years.

  4. The meltdown always seems important to Losey. He doesn’t prepare it in the usual way, which makes it feel scary and out of control.

  5. Yes, it’s it makes you draw back in horror, something Hollywood films rarely did, despite having an entire genre for that.

    Fiona’s been reading up about John Barrymore’s drinking pals, and learned that while the story about Raoul Walsh and company stealing JB from the funeral parlour is fiction, John Drew Barrymore was part of a later attempt to drunkenly exhume the great profile so he could be cremated as per his wishes. This… did not go well.

  6. Brilliant film. Van Heflin’s speech near the end explaining his worldview is the most chilling in any noir–possibly in any film from classic Hollywood.

  7. Margaret Kleist Says:

    These both sound great, will have to check them out.
    The discussion about ‘meltdowns’ in Losey films reminded me of a movie I’ve been thinking about lately, where van Heflin doesn’t have a meltdown per se, but does do a great death scene, held in the arms of Robert Taylor — his beloved ‘buddy’

  8. I think I know the one you mean. Haven’t seen it. Ought to.

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