Welcome to today’s show, The Prowler (1951), my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast formally known as iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. So please subscribe when you are finished listening. You can also go to classicmovierev.com to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts.
Today’s movie is The Prowler (1951). This Film Noir crime drama starred Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes. The role for Keyes was said to be a divorce present from her ex-husband Director John Huston. This will be a great film to finish our #Noirvember fest with.
An uncredited New York Times movie review upon release said the film was “Surreptitious amour, a rich legacy, and a murder have been pyramided into an impressive drama.” iMDB.com rates this movie at 7.3 while Rotten Tomatoes has it at 100%.
This movie was directed by Joseph Losey. The screenplay was written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and came out under his working alas Hugo Butler. Hugo Butler was later black-listed even though he wasn’t real. Interior designer for the film, John Hubley was also later black-listed.
I’ll talk about HUAC a little later but first, let’s jump into our veteran actors.
Van Heflin was solid as Webb Garwood, a murdering policeman, that was not above a little social climbing. Heflin was first covered as the bad guy in Episode 98 – They Came to Cordura (1959).
Evelyn Keyes played Susan Gilvray, the housewife looking for a little more. Keyes was covered in Episode 38 – 99 River Street (1953).
Herbert Anderson was in the film for just a bit and uncredited as a Reporter. Anderson was covered in Episode 50 – Battleground (1949).
There were two couples that were supporting cast and I find the two women by far the most interesting so I will just cover them. Katherine Warren played Grace Crocker, wife to cop Bud. Katherine was born in 1905 in Detroit. Two notable films she was in are The Caine Mutiny (1954) and All the King’s Men (1949). She died in 1965 at a very young age.
Madge Blake played Martha Gilvray. Madge was born in Kansas in 1899. When World War II broke out Madge went to work supporting the Manhattan Project and had a top-secret clearance. At the age of 50, she left government work and went to the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. This was followed by a 20-year career, the highlights of which, for me, are Aunt Harriet Cooper/Mrs. Cooper on “Batman” 1966-1967 and as Larry Mondello’s mother on “Leave It to Beaver” 1958 -1960. Part of the reason she was on “Batman” so that the two males would be chaperoned. Madge has mostly small roles in television and film. She died in 1969.
Dalton Trumbo was the uncredited radio voice of John Gilvray. He was paid $35 for this work and had to be uncredited because he was blacklisted. Trumbo was part of the Hollywood 10, the first group that was called before the unAmerican House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947. The 10 refused to name names, standing on their 5th Amendment rights. Trumbo was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt.
Trumbo was one of the most successful and sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood. Although he was a member of the communist party, his writing was not overtly political. Trumbo wrote the anti-war book “Johnny Got His Gun” (1939) but had its printing stopped when the Nazi invaded the rest of Europe. Damn Nazis.
Trumbo’s screenwriting includes patriotic films A Guy Named Joe (1943), and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). His more left screenplays include Tender Comrade (1943), starring Ginger Rogers.
After prison, Trumbo lived in Mexico and continued to write screenplays for Hollywood under assumed names or for which other people took credit. Movies during this blacklist period include the Film Noir Gun Crazy (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) which was directed by Otto Preminger.
In 1957, The Brave One (1956), won the best original-story Oscar. It soon leaked out that Trumbo had written the work. When Pierre Boulle, who did not speak or write English, won the Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) screenplay, the fact that blacklisted people were working had to be accepted. This allowed the great man, Kirk Douglas to hire Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus (1960) and insist that Trumbo’s name was listed on the screen and less than great humanitarian Otto Preminger did the same for Exodus (1960) effectively breaking the blacklist.
Post blacklist screenplays include Lonely Are the Brave (1962), The Sandpiper (1965), Hawaii (1966), The Fixer (1968), and Papillon (1973). Trumbo has a small cameo in Papillon (1973). A heavy smoker, Trumbo died in 1976 of a heart attack.
I know this is not a full Dalton Trumbo write-up but I would be remiss if I didn’t include a quote for his eulogy by fellow Hollywood 10 member Ring Lardner Jr. “At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all, who has such a capacity for relating to every sort of human being, who so subordinates his own ego drive to the concerns of others, who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.”
The movie begins with Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) walking around half naked in front of the bathroom window. She looks out and recoils in horror as she sees a prowler. The Los Angeles police respond to her call sending veteran officer Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) and his less than happy rookie partner Webb Garwood (Van Heflin). They make contact with Susan and Webb checks the outside for footprints. Bud’s advice is to keep the curtains closed, same as they keep the counting room out of sight at a bank. Webb checks her out from outside.
Back at the cop car, Webb comments on what a “dish” Susan is. Bud invites Webb to the house to see the rock that he and his wife Grace (Katherine Warren) have collected in the desert. Webb is already obsessed with Susan. Webb drops Bud off at the end of the shift. Instead of going off duty, Webb returns to Susan’s house and says he is there to check and see if everything is okay. Webb makes himself at home and she goes to make coffee. He pilfers around looking at papers and pictures. Webb starts saying how good looking she is and how he wouldn’t leave her alone. She is pretty uncomfortable. She is married to a wealthy night radio show operator. The radio voice of John Gilvray was by Dalton Trumbo. Webb and Susan realize that they know each other from their hometown. Webb is a grief collector complaining that he lost his scholarship because they were out to get him. He then goes into how poor he was growing up.
Sometime later Webb is back at the house in civilian clothes and Susan is making him dinner. Webb complains about being a policeman. Webb shamelessly flirts with Susan and she is still pretty stiff. While getting cigarettes out of a locked cabinet, Webb looks over John Gilvary’s last will and testament. He then starts to needle Susan about why she married John. He tries to kiss her and she pushes away and orders him out. Finally, she has to slap him. It turns into a triple. Webb leaves with a warning not to come back.
Another night Webb returns to Susan’s house in his police uniform. He apologizes and she lets him in. He makes the play to be friends from home alone in the city. Webb badgers Susan into dancing. He starts kissing her and she says no but they start kissing.
Later Webb is over at Bud and Grace’s house looking at rocks after dinner. Bud tells Webb about a ghost-town called Calico. Grace comes to Webb’s rescue and lets him leave for his date. Grace really doesn’t like Webb.
The affair continues between Susan and Webb and they spend a lot of time together. One-night Webb finds a gun on John’s desk. Susan doesn’t want to lose her rich husband and a nice house. Webb tells Susan that he is going to Las Vegas for a two-week vacation. He says there is a motor-court he wants to buy. He gets pissy when she can’t go along. He tries to badger her and expects her to fly to Las Vegas the next night.
In Las Vegas, Webb waits but Susan does not come in on the flight. After his vacation, he starts stalking Susan’s house. Honking and shining his spotlight. He goes to see Susan, and John is also there. Susan and Webb go to his car. John has quit his job and suspects that Susan is having an affair. She wants out of the affair and also says the gun is missing. John comes outside and hollers for Susan. Webb waits in the shadows with his gun.
Back at his crappy one-room apartment, Webb gets a call from Susan and she wants to see him. He says it’s too risky and he wants to quite as well. She keeps calling. Webb keeps refusing to see her. Finally, Susan shows up at Webb’s crash pad. Susan says she has asked for a divorce and John refused. Webb tells her it won’t work because he could never give her the things she wants. When she leaves, Webb smiles because he has a plan.
At the end of a shift, Webb drops Bud off. Webb heads to Susan’s house and parks the patrol car across the street. He goes to the back of the house and cuts the screen door and makes noise with the gate. Webb gets the radio call from dispatch that there is a prowler at Susan’s address. When he gets there, he makes more noise and John comes out with a gun. Webb yells halt and then shoots John. He then fires John’s gun hitting his own arm. Very similar to the beginning of Shield for Murder (1954). Susan comes out and starts hitting Webb. Webb calls for homicide.
An inquest into the shooting is held and Webb gives his phony story. Susan calls him a murder in the hearing. Susan has John’s brother William (Emerson Treacy) and sister in law Martha (Madge Blake) in court with her. Webb has testified that he has never seen Susan before and Bud calls him out. Susan takes the stand and she is given the option to call Webb a murder. She does not. Susan also lies that she does not know Bud or Webb even though they had been at her house two months before when the prowler was there. Susan says she believes the killing was an accident. The jury rules that it was an accidental homicide.
Sometime later, Webb goes to a drug store where William is working and says he is no longer working for the police force. Webb says he wants to make it right with Susan but she won’t see him. He tries to give money and William was quite taken. William then goes into the fact that his brother was hard to get along with and he couldn’t have children and the marriage was unhappy. William agrees to intercede with Susan.
Webb goes to see Susan with the blessing of William and Martha. He tries to embrace her but she demands that he doesn’t come near hear. Webb sticks to his story that it was an accident and she starts to crack. He plays on the “you really thought I was guilty.” He says he will never touch another gun and he sets the hook.
Sometime, less than 4 months later, Susan and Webb get married. Bud and William are there supporting Webb and Susan. A reporter (Herbert Anderson) questions whether they should be married. Susan and Webb head to Las Vegas for their honeymoon. They stay in the motor court that Webb now bought. He has never had any money until now. They check into the owner’s apartment. When Susan unpacks she finds a gun in Webb’s suitcase.
When Webb gets back to the apartment, Susan drops a bomb on him. She is four months pregnant. SURPRISE! At first, he is happy and then realizes his plans will all fall apart. Since her dead husband John could not have kids, the ex-in-laws will know and so will many of the people that followed the news of John’s death.
Susan wants to go away where they are not known. Rocket scientist Webb and Susan comes up with a plan straight out the Acme coyote sales department. They will go away to a place where they are not known and Webb will deliver the baby when the time comes.
When Susan gets closer to her due date, they drive to the ghost town of Calico that Bud told him about. They set-up a living area in one of the derelict structures. There is no real clear indication of time but Susan is wearing maternity gear. They have a record player going and everything is fine right up until a recording of John’s show plays. Susan freaks out when the record says “I’ll be seeing you, Susan,” as John signed off each show. A big sandstorm hits and life in the desert is not so good.
Back in Vegas, Bud and Grace show-up at the motor-court. When Bud finds out that Webb and Susan are on vacation near Barstow, they head out to look for them. Kind of a needle in the haystack adventure.
Susan is suffering as the birth draws nearer. Webb decides he is going to get a doctor. He takes out the gun he would never touch again. On the way, he smears mud on the tag of his shine new green Cadillac. The doctor refuses to go with Webb until Webb shows his old LAPD badge. The doctor follows in his own car to Calico. The doc is pissed that he has been taken so far out of the city.
After the exam, the doctor says it will be about an hour until the baby comes. Susan is freaking out about being caught. She knows Webb is going to kill the doctor after the baby is born. She is now sure that Webb murdered John. A baby girl is born in the morning but Susan is in a post-partum funk, compounded by the murder of her first husband, and the impending murder of the doctor.
Susan has warned the doctor to escape and he does with the baby in tow. Susan has hidden the key to their car. In the fight, Webb says the amount of money and Susan can no longer pretend Webb is not a killer. Webb gets the key from Susan and heads out after the doctor. In a narrow place in the road, he comes up against Bud and Grace. He demands they back up and he starts ramming their car. Webb sees police coming up the road and drives back towards the town. Webb picks the largest slag heap to climb. Just before he gets to the top, the police shoot him in the back. Susan watches with satisfaction from the ghost-town.
World-Famous Short Summary – Rube Goldberg plan goes as expected.
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