Last week's installment, including links to previous weeks, here.
Farber: "A tabloid melodrama of sex and avarice in suburbia, out of Cain by Joe Losey, featuring almost perfect acting by Evelyn Keyes as a hot, dumb, average American babe who, finding the attentions of her disc-jockey husband beginning to pall, takes up with an amoral rookie cop (nicely hammed up by Van Heflin). Sociologically sharp on stray and hitherto untouched items like motels, athletic nostalgia, the impact of nouveau riche furnishings on an ambitious ne'er-do-well, the potentially explosive boredom of the childless, uneducated, well-to-do housewife with too much time on her hands."
This too-little-seen picture still packs something like a scorpion's sting—for all the sensationalism of its content, it's too nuanced overall to wallop the viewer. The setting is not just "suburbia;" it's Los Angeles' suburbia, which is one reason the picture struck such a resonant chord with crime novelist James Ellroy, who calls this "a masterpiece of sexual creepiness, institutional corruption and suffocating, ugly passion." Indeed. What weird power the film retains; that creepiness seems to practically ooze out of the cuts, leaving a weirdly metallic psychic residue, and some might note that it is remarkable that Losey achieved such mastery of this unique tone with just his third feature.
Farber's typically idiosyncratic listing of its highlights is also typically on the money. "Athletic nostalgia?" Well, yes, it's reflected in the creepy narcissism of Heflin's character, a one-time football hero who's now a cop and who spends his off-hours in a shabby single room with his firing-range souvenir and a bunch of muscle magazines.
And there he shaves himself in grim, weird satisfaction, waiting from the call he just knows is gonna come from Keyes' aforementioned dumb, hot, average American babe. For the film's first half, their assignations are at the big hacienda-style house her husband bought for the couple—the house she stays cooped up in every night, listening to said husband's radio show, while Heflin's cop moves in more and more bluntly. When he really clinches the deal, Losey's camera pans to this image of Heflin's police hat sitting atop the radio and the Hi-Fi housing briefcase on which Hubby listens to acetates of his own show—a pithy and distasteful visual metaphor of the sort that Losey would continue to hone throughout his career.
Late in the film, the couple are forced to live as outcasts from civilization, and their dancing takes on a more surreal tinge. It's bizarre, for sure, but nothing in The Prowler ever feels forced; the script, partially by an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, sneaks in a convincing rationale for their ghost-town exile early on. It's a marvelous construction all around. Farber mentions "the impact of nouveau riche furnishings on an ambitious ne'er-do-well," and Losey, in Tom Milne's book-length interview, mentions that he and production designer John Hubley "spent a good deal of time trying to find the right sort of horror for the Spanish house...[and] reducing and particularizing the horror."
The director credits the producer Sam Spiegel—here credited under his frequent pseudonym "S.P. Eagle"—with giving him both the means and latitude to take the proper pains with the picture. "[He] was a marvelous producer. His attitude was, 'You're right for this, but you're not very experienced. I'll give you the best cameraman in Hollywood, the best technicians, the best first assistant. I don't care what I pay, and you do it any way you want to.' This was extraordinary." The proof is in the credits: the DP was Arthur Miller (How Green Was My Valley), the production designer Boris Leven, the assistant director Robert Aldrich. According to biographer David Caute, this was the Hollywood film of which Losey was most proud.
It is also the first film in which the theme that would help establish his auteur status resonates so cleanly. "The feminine role in Losey's world is strictly subordinate because of the histrionic hysteria of his actors," Andrew Sarris notes in his entry on Losey in The American Cinema. "Men simply cannot cope with their lives and social institutions, and they crack up with very lyrical results." Yes. In several respects Heflin's Webb Garwood, who seems to have been cracking up before he has even been introduced to the viewer, is a direct antecedent to Stanley Baker's ruinous Tyvian Jones in Losey's 1962's Eve. To name just one other fragile/brittle male Losey creation.
This is a remarkably rich film on so many levels; hence, it pains me to report it's not yet available on commercial DVD. I owe my latest viewing of it to the kindness of a collector. Varied rumors abound on the interet about the wherefores of its status, but nothing to indicate an imminent release. One hopes this situation changes soon.