The Prowler (1951)
The Prowler (1951)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 32 min.

Release Date: May 25th, 1951 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Joseph Losey Actors: Van Heflin, Evelyn Keyes, John Maxwell, Katharine Warren, Emerson Treacy, Madge Blake, Wheaton Chambers




t a sprawling California hacienda, Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) notices a prowler glaring at her from the window as she begins to dress after a bath. Spooked, the peeper flees, leaving Susan calling for the police. “Maybe the lady’s just imagining things,” observes Officer Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) after he investigates the freshly cut grass outside the window, which allows for limited evidence and zero footprints. Partner Charles “Bud” Crocker (John Maxwell) is less skeptical. Garwood also can’t dismiss how attractive the blonde complainant is, making a bit of an excuse to revisit her later that evening – as part of the force’s routine, especially when young women are involved.

“I suppose you’re married …” pushes Webb as he discovers that Susan is happily married to a popular radio show host. After a brief chat, the inquisitive cop also realizes that Susan grew up in the same town in Indiana. Promising to check back on her from time to time segues into regular rendezvouses, frequently involving off-duty meals – which lead to an unfortunate confrontation when Garwood gets too handsy, invading Susan’s sense of propriety.

“I couldn’t leave things the way they were.” What could have been a harmless misunderstanding transforms into a dangerous game of seduction and risk-taking. He’s aggressive and she’s excited by his advances, a combination which, with persistence, soon becomes an uneasy affair. And that affair morphs into dreams of escape – and motives for financial freedoms away from the drudgery of a policeman and a housewife. As a noirish drama of the ’50s, there’s also the dangers of retaliation, especially when divorce is in the hands of the man and murder/suicide is a commonplace solution for spousal betrayal.

Deviously, there’s more to this little thriller than an illicit union and a pesky, unalterable matrimony. Webb’s position in law enforcement creates opportunities for a potent power imbalance, laced with corruption and manipulation and intimidation. As an early example of an edgier crime picture (though notably obscure), the notion of a police stalker bending rules for the sake of controlling a situation and possessing a woman would continue to fuel psychological mind-benders for decades to come (one of the most shocking being “Unlawful Entry”). Here, the combination of gaslighting and fear is quite unsettling, along with the fact that the audience knows of Webb’s crafty deceit, creating a shortage of heroism and an abundance of villainy.

Into this pessimistic mix arrives the complications of Garwood’s ultimate goal and Susan’s dream of having a child. It’s a terribly sticky, sordid scenario – a familial trap neither can cleanly circumvent. Even the peaceful, happy moments are tainted by the thought of justice catching up; just when the idea of overcoming past misdeeds surfaces, Webb’s affinity for lies and continual shifts in mood threaten to destroy any shot at redemption. As a result, the conclusion can only end one way; the hopelessly guilty can’t avoid ruin and doom.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10