Directed by Joseph Losey
Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Hugo Butler
Based on a story by Robert Thoeren, Hans Wilhelm
Music by Lyn Murray
Edited by Paul Weatherwax
Cinematography by Arthur C. Miller
Van Heflin as Webb Garwood
Evelyn Keyes as Susan Gilvray
John Maxwell as Bud Crocker
Katherine Warren as Grace Crocker
Emerson Treacy as William Gilvray
Madge Blake as Martha Gilvray
Wheaton Chambers as Dr. William James
Robert Osterloh as the coroner
Louise Lorimer as the motel manager
Sherry Hall as John Gilvray
Dalton Trumbo as the radio voice of John Gilvray (uncredited)
This blog post about The Prowler is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2018 Fall Blogathon: Outlaws.
The Prowler is a very unsettling film, and that very characteristic, one of many, makes it thoroughly noir. The film opens with a woman, Susan Gilvray, dressed in a towel and standing in her bathroom. Susan suddenly notices someone looking in her window and pulls down her shade in alarm. The camera (and thus the viewers) are outside her window looking in, so viewers are put in the position of watching her, just like the prowler who is outside her window. Viewers never see this person, which adds ambiguity to the film and puts a question mark on Susan’s reliability: Did she see a prowler or not?
The credits appear over the window shade that Susan just pulled down. After the credits, two police officers, Webb Garwood and his partner Bud Crocker, arrive to investigate Susan’s report of the prowler outside her bathroom window. Neither officer seems to take her very seriously, which probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many viewers. It’s a common enough reaction today, and I’m sure it was even more common in the 1950s. Here’s the conversation that opens the film, with Susan Gilvray showing Officer Crocker where she was standing in the bathroom when she saw the prowler:
• Bud Crocker: “Well, if I was you, from now on, I’d keep the curtain closed. You ever notice in a bank, they always keep the counting room out of sight so the customers won’t be tempted.”
• Susan Gilvray: “I suppose you’re right. I just didn’t think . . . [startled by Webb] Oh, it’s you.”
• Webb Garwood: [outside the bathroom window smirking and looking in] “No footprints out here. The grass has just been cut, and they’d be kind of hard to spot. Then again, maybe the lady’s just imagining things.”
The audience can see Officer Webb Garwood’s face plainly through the bathroom window, which is presumably the same view Susan had of the prowler. The film cuts to a shot of Officer Webb Garwood outside making his way from the bathroom window to the Gilvrays’ front door, which opens to reveal Officer Bud Crocker and Susan Gilvray. Officer Garwood steps over the threshold to join their conversation.
• Susan Gilvray: “I’m sorry to have caused you all this trouble, but I do get nervous at night, and—”
• Bud Crocker: “That’s our job, ma’am. You always alone at night?”
• Susan Gilvray: “Yes. The maid comes in daytimes, but she leaves right after dinner.”
• Bud Crocker: “Well, from now on, be sure and pull the shades and lock the door.” [steps outside the front door]
• Susan Gilvray: “I will.”
• Webb Garwood: [steps outside the front door and turns his back to the camera] “Think you’ll feel comfortable enough for us to leave now?”
• Susan Gilvray: “Oh, yes, I’m perfectly all right now.”
The creepiness really begins when Officer Webb Garwood decides Susan Gilvray is rich enough to do him some good, and he returns to her home one night under the pretense that he is simply following up for her own safety. Once Susan Gilvray allows Officer Garwood into her home, he begins to insinuate himself into her life with the idea of manipulating her into a relationship with him. Susan Gilvray is a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, and she is vulnerable to Webb Garwood’s advances.
I couldn’t help wondering what Susan sees in Webb, and this might be a big stumbling block to the believability of the narrative. Susan strikes me as an intelligent woman, but perhaps her options were much more limited in 1951 precisely because she is a woman. (I cannot help wondering how this story would be remade in the wake of the Me Too movement.) She is drawn in deeper and deeper by slow degrees, and that approach might help a lot of viewers accept Susan’s actions. I had a tough time believing that Susan would be swayed by all of Webb’s plans and schemes. Webb is a master manipulator, however, and he works hard to get what he wants. Webb Garwood is what makes the story so creepy. That part was definitely believable.
You may be asking yourself, “But how does The Prowler fit the outlaw theme of this blogathon?” And it’s a good question because you might also be thinking, from all I’ve described so far, that nothing about the film seems to be about outlaws.
(This blog post about The Prowler contains spoilers.)
Most of the characters are not outlaws, but Officer Webb Garwood turns into one over the course of the film. All his scheming and plotting puts him outside the law that he is supposed to uphold. He may start the film in a patrol officer’s uniform, but he doesn’t end the film in the same role or wearing the same clothes. He literally leaves it all behind and heads for an abandoned mining town so that he can cover up any circumstantial evidence that points to his role in the death of his wife Susan’s first husband. He takes Susan, who is now pregnant, to the mining town with him after convincing her that he has enough experience as a police officer that he can deliver their child without any outside medical help!
If Webb Garwood has his way, the whole family will be living in isolation, outside society and outside the law. Garwood and his pregnant wife do head for the abandoned town: He convinces Susan that she can live an outlaw life with him. But Webb doesn’t get his way in the end, partly because he cannot keep convincing Susan that he has her best interests at heart and that all of his plans will work out. She realizes that living like an outlaw with a baby and with a husband who cannot be trusted is no way to live.
Webb refuses to give in: He would rather stay on the run. In very noir fashion, he dies a fugitive from the law—an outlaw. He may not fit the conventional definition, but Webb Garwood is an outlaw, one with a very creepy twist.