As you might infer from the title of this post, spoilers will follow. So when better than now to entreat you, if you haven't yet seen The Prowler, a remarkable film on a number of levels ("the best picture I ever made," according to costar Evelyn Keyes, who makes the pronouncement in a memoir titled Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister, so there), you really have little excuse now that VCI has put the superb UCLA restoration of the film on DVD, complete with a package of nifty extras including a commentary by noir expert Eddie Muller and a documentary featurette on the film featuring the enthusiasms of author James Ellroy, for whom the film was a huge source of inspiration. Among other things, The Prowler is one of the great Los Angeles noirs. When Losey was on, one of the key attractions of his films was just how well he got environments—L.A. in this film, and in The Big Night, and yes, even his rethink of M; Venice in Eve; certain sectors of London in The Servant; and so on. In anyevent, by the finale of The Prowler, we are pretty far from L.A.; we are literally, as it happens, in a ghost town, and it's here that the film's disturbed antihero Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) is to meet his fate.
This film being what it is, generically, the viewer is pretty certain that the goat is gonna get his throat cut for the end of the song, as it were. But the way Losey stages the whole thing that's oddly unusual, and is kind of the cherry on top of a film that, while in a certain sense highly "realistic," brims with touches of irrationality that usefully bleed outside of the accepted outlines of genre. Film noir is a very good enabler in that respect, one might say. In any event, Webb is cornered; the police have been summoned, they're here, they're armed. As he runs, someone shouts, wisely, "You'll never get away with it." An odd thing to say, really, as the presence of the police signals that, for all intents and purposes, he hasn't "gotten away" with anything; it's too late for that. As for actually getting away, that, too, seems unlikely.
With the cops in pursuit, Webb, rather ridiculously when you think about it, opts to go up instead of down. He takes to a hill, what looks to be a man-made one, and scurries up the thing furiously. "Do as they say, Webb!" shouts a friend at the scene. "You'll never make it!" As the unhappy Sisyphus approaches the peak of the desolate grey mound, the question "Make it where, exactly?" springs to mind. Once Webb gets to the top, there's...nothing. Not even a gas leak via which he can immolate himself from the "top of the world," as in White Heat. If Webb makes it to the top, he will literally be no place.
But Webb will not make it to the top. He will be stopped, as he climbs, by a bullet in the back, fired by a policeman's rifle, at a suspect who was by all visible indications not armed. This goes against procedure, as they say. Or at least against proper procedure, at least as I understand it. This flouting of realism and/or plausibility has a dual function of heightening the film's irrationality and underscoring a kind of questioning of authority. Yes, we have our sacrifice, yes, it was good and proper, because the goat, as it were, had it coming; and yet...is this really how it's done? The movie's end title comes up mere seconds after Webb's final fall, leaving that question, and a few more, hanging.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention, 'cause I'm so modest and stuff, that I had given this film some amount of consideration in a prior post, an entry in my series on Manny Farber's favorite films of 1951. Those were fun times, huh?