Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Joseph Losey's noir The Prowler opens with a shot that immediately tweaks the audience by placing the viewer in the voyeuristic position of a creeping pervert. The first shot of the film gazes through a woman's bathroom window as, inside, she dries herself off after a bath, putting on a robe. Her body remains teasingly just out of view beneath the window's frame, which functions like a cinematic frame within the frame, and Losey's camera, tracking slowly in to get a closer look, heightens the voyeuristic sensation of leering in. Then, the woman seems to notice the camera, looking out the window with concern and horror as she realizes that someone is watching her, and she quickly pulls the blinds shut, cutting off the view. It's not the camera she actually sees, of course, but a peeping tom whose perspective the camera had been taking. The titles roll then, and in less than a minute Losey has effectively signaled that, like all films about voyeurism, this too will be about the cinema, about those people out in the audience, watching eagerly from their hidden spots in the dark. The black humor of this set-up is made even more apparent when, after the credits, a pair of cops visit the frightened woman, and one insinuates that maybe she shouldn't have tempted the prowler by offering herself up for view like that, framing herself in the movie screen of the open window. After all, for a culture growing increasingly acclimated to the cinematic experience, peeping in on such living movies is second nature (and the woman herself is a failed actress, used to being watched).
But the real voyeur of the film turns out to be not the unseen prowler outside the window but one of the cops, Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), who is immediately attracted to the prowler's victim Susan (Evelyn Keyes) and begins aggressively courting her at night, after his shift is over. When Webb and his partner Bud (John Maxwell) first come to investigate the incident, Budd questions Susan while Webb remains outside, prowling through the bushes, looking into the house. The compositions suggest that he too is a voyeur, peeking through the windows, watching Susan from afar, and when he appears at the bathroom window, he startles Susan every bit as much as the original prowler had. Webb represents law and order in his crisp police uniform, but really he's an outsider, discontented with his life, feeling like he's watching other people's happiness and success while he's had nothing but "bad breaks."
Susan, it turns out, is from his hometown in Indiana, but while that fact draws the pair closer together, it also awakens a reserve of bad memories for Webb. He'd been a star athlete in high school, but his college scholarship had ended early after a quarrel with a coach, and his youthful dreams evaporated at that time. Unlike Bud, a model of contentment who loves being a cop, loves his wife, and loves his mind-numbingly dull rock-collecting hobby, Webb wants something more and can only dwell on all the missed opportunities and bad luck he's had in his life. Above all, he had the bad luck to be born poor and to grow up poor; while Susan grew up rich and married an even richer man, Webb was from the wrong side of the tracks and had to watch his poor father squander countless opportunities for improvement, settling for stable middle class mediocrity instead. Webb is an outsider in the spacious mansion Susan shares with her radio announcer husband; he looks in and sees the life he wants, the comfort and security he wants, maybe even the woman he wants.
The film's script, by Hugo Butler and an uncredited Dalton Trumbo, isn't exactly a model of sedate realism: it winds through multiple twists and turns and dramatic shifts in mood. The story is melodramatic and blustery, and its central romance goes through so many unconvincing reversals that it's hard to know what to think of the weepy, malleable Susan. A late revelation suggests that maybe this tonal confusion, too, is purposeful, since even Webb doesn't seem to know what he wants. Heflin, with his big, expressive eyes and perpetual hangdog look, is perfectly suited to Webb's chronic dissatisfaction and the sinister undercurrents that occasionally come bubbling up from deep within him, but Keyes delivers a much less satisfying performance that leaps wildly from one emotion to another. The film's shifts in locale and tone, however, are handled adroitly by Losey, whose direction of this lurid, intense material locates the proper balance of absurdity and tension.
Losey has an especially keen grasp of background diegetic sound, which he uses to comment on the images and foreground events of a scene. Susan spends her nights listening to her radio announcer husband, who ends every broadcast with the cheery sign-off, "I'll be seeing you, Susan." This turns out to be very convenient once Webb starts spending his nights with Susan while her husband is at work, since as Webb says, they always know where he is. The two budding lovers canoodle on the couch, lounging around together, laughing and kissing, and all the while the husband's voice murmurs away in the background, his words offering sly commentary on what goes on at his own house while he's at work, unaware. He describes the pleasure he feels when relaxing on an evening at home, being served a snack by his wife, and as he sets the scene, Susan lays out a tray of sandwiches for Webb, who leans back and lights a cigarette, the first tendrils of smoke wafting up into the foreground of the frame just as the announcer describes smoking his own first cigarette of the evening. Webb seems spooked, joking that he feels like the guy is watching them.
The announcer likes to babble on about his wife on the air, describing her cooking and their domestic contentment, and his happy words overlay the images of Susan and Webb having their fun in the time before that final sign-off indicates that the husband is on his way home. Later, the announcer's voice, played back on a record, has an even more sinister meaning, his affectionate sign-off now interrupted with the violent scratch of the turntable's needle being yanked out of the grooves.
It's obvious enough where all this is heading, but the inevitable homicide merely marks the film's halfway point, and the script has plenty of surprises left. Though the shadowy noir cinematography (by Arthur C. Miller) is effective and eerie in the Los Angeles scenes, the film really becomes interesting when the action shifts away from these typical noir locales. At one point, Losey signals the couple's decision to retreat into the desert with a fade to black, which is immediately followed with a gorgeous, haunting image of a car, isolated in the middle of a blank wasteland, kicking up dust in its trail as it cuts through the sand. The rocky western ghost town where the couple holes up is far from the usual noir haunt, and instead of shadows and grimy interiors (like Webb's cheap apartment from earlier in the film, with a silhouette target forebodingly hung on the wall) there's a grim, barren wasteland where nobody visits, "not even the coyotes" that are nevertheless heard howling plaintively at the film's climax. The way that Losey frames scenes of domestic idyll and hopefulness against this rocky and desolate setting suggests just how short-lived the film's cheerier moments are destined to be.
The Prowler is a rich and idiosyncratic noir that explores the archetypal noir themes — greed, violence, ambition — in some unusual ways. The actual prowler of the opening, it turns out, is incidental to the story, a plot device and a red herring. The real prowler, the real creep, is the outsider who so desperately wants what he can only look at from afar, the guy who waits in the darkness, watching and desiring but separated from what he sees by seemingly insurmountable barriers. Webb's voyeurism is a matter of class, primarily; he looks at the wealth and success of others and he wants what they have. Perhaps Losey is suggesting that the cinema works similarly by presenting visions of glamor and beauty to dazzle audiences, who watch from the darkness, voyeurs who desire the purity and wonder of what's up on the screen, the window through which they peer.