|I did it for sixty-two thousand
|Tom Waits, "Diamonds & Gold"|
I don't know if "housewife noir" is the best name I could have picked for the subgenre previously described by The Reckless Moment (1949), Black Angel (1946), and Too Late for Tears (1949), but I'm sticking with it. I just found my fourth example in the wild: Joseph Losey's The Prowler (1951), which I saw at the HFA on Saturday night. It is a beauty of its kind, a pitiless inspection and demolition of American concepts of masculinity and prosperity as seen along the fault lines of gender and class, the lies people tell themselves and the lies people don't even know they've been told. Like the three films mentioned above, The Prowler centers its plot around a married woman who forms a relationship with an element of the criminal world, but instead of being an alternative husband, an alternative to a husband, or an expedient route out of marital life forever, this time he's a demon lover, un homme fatale, and like the Devil of "The House Carpenter" in the shape of a woman's long-lost love, he's going to take her straight to hell along with him.
Directed by Joseph Losey from a script by then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo with Hugo Butler as co-author and/or front, the film affords Van Heflin his tawdriest role yet as Webb Garwood, a discontented Los Angeles beat cop who uses the credibility of his uniform to turn a routine house call—responding to the report of a peeping tom—into an opportunity to mack on Evelyn Keyes' Susan Gilvray, a fragilely attractive ex-aspiring actress in a childless and nearly loveless marriage with a popular radio personality whose late-night show always signs off with the ambiguously affectionate or ominous "I'll be seeing you, Susan." Their physical chemistry is instant and unnerving. He comes back the first night ostensibly to check on the rattled woman, comes back a few nights later for midnight sandwiches and beer, after that comes back for exactly the thing he wanted the first time he saw her. Her husband insists on her feedback after every one of his shows, so they always listen to his broadcasts during their rendezvous, which makes Susan uncomfortable and gives Webb a cocky kick. They share a past that predates her marriage: they both hail from Terre Haute, where they can't remember ever meeting in person, but she used to clip his picture out of the paper every time East Indianapolis trounced Terre Haute High School at basketball. (Where have you been, my long-lost love, these seven long years and more?) He never lets her forget that she came from the right side of the tracks while his father worked the oil fields at "a buck-twenty an hour, union scale," but he parlays the nostalgia of the connection and his attractiveness to her as a man who will push her boundaries—exactly the type she confesses she married her possessive, older husband to get away from—into an affair that culminates in the death of John Gilvray,1 the acquittal of Officer Garwood of anything worse than accidental homicide, and presently the tabloid-making marriage of the disc jockey's widow to the police officer who exchanged fire with her husband before realizing, fatally just too late, that it was a homeowner he'd surprised in the driveway with a gun in his hand, not the prowler who had visited the neighborhood before.
For all his chip-on-the-shoulder grousing about his "lousy breaks," Webb looks then like a man with all the luck. His partner and his precinct back him at the inquest, the dead man's brother makes no bones that the Gilvray marriage was no happily ever after, the whirlwind romance and the wedding subside into local pop culture as just one of those wacky twists of fate. The $62,000 of his new wife's inheritance affords more than enough financial leeway for Webb to buy his dream home of a motor court outside of Las Vegas—"Even when you're sleeping, it'd be making money for you"—and carry his pretty blonde bride across the threshold of the owner's suite with the buoyant smugness of a man who's made the American dream. But the next step in this domestic progression, far from being a blessed event, is the specter of the past that pursues so many noir protagonists to their damnation. The timing is wrong. At the outset of the affair, Webb took pleasure in making love to another man's wife while her husband droned impotently on the radio—literally, since Susan always wanted children and Gilvray couldn't give her any. Now the proof of his superior virility risks giving away the real timing of their relationship, unraveling all of his careful perjury and planning. He doesn't quite suggest an abortion, but the script skirts it so plausibly that Susan proposes a reckless alternative, and soon the lovers are headed for a ghost town in the Mojave that goes by the colorful frontier name of Calico, a trenchant, overlooked reminder of the boom and bust of earlier American dreams. The final scene will find Webb scrabbling alone up a scree heap in a blackly apt epigram of his entire life—Sisyphos of the Truman administration, scrambling and scraping and never making it to the top. Calico was a gold rush town, but mostly what the prospectors found was pyrite. No prizes for guessing who's fool's gold in this movie and who's fool.
I wanted to know what Van Heflin would look like as a heavy; the answer is amazing. In his first appearance, Webb strikes the audience as easy on the eyes—and as dangerous—as he does Susan. Tall and good-looking in a solid, angular way, he has those tight broad shoulders and looks paramilitary in his cross-belted LAPD uniform that on monochrome film stock shows up black; it gives him a slightly fascist air which he would no doubt appreciate if he were able to regard his profession as anything better than a dreary, distant second best to a "nice soft job in one of those big bond houses" and "lunch every day in the university club." The high school hotshot who provoked crushes even from his athletic rivals cratered his career in college with his combative ego: after getting into a fight with his coach over the concept of team play, he lost his scholarship and dropped out to become "just another dumb cop," furiously resenting everything he doesn't have and everyone who seems to have it. "Quite a hacienda," he assesses the Gilvrays' sprawling, Spanish-style residence as he comes up the front walk for the first time; he cases the place like a burglar, then moves through its rooms with deliberate, privacy-disregarding provocation, as if asserting an equal right to the expensive hi-fi, the cigarettes in the roll-top desk, the liquor in the nice cabinet, the woman still wearing her wrapper to open the door to the police. Once invited in, he manipulates her loneliness and her lust with such a head-spinning mix of sexual aggression and apologetic denial that the audience may have trouble deciphering his mixed messages until the film chooses a really nasty scene to drive them home. When Susan refuses his initial invitation to run away with him to Vegas—in no small part because her husband's jealousy has reached the point of buying a gun and threatening murder-suicide if he catches her with another man—Webb reacts by cutting all contact with her. He answers the phone only to tell her it's too risky, then he doesn't answer at all. Finally she tracks him down at his residential hotel, in a cheaply furnished room whose most personal decoration looks like the shooting target hanging on the wall, a faceless human silhouette with a cluster of bullet holes punched through the heart. Looking tired and troubled, Webb admits that she was right the first time, that they have no real future together, that the affair has to end before it does either of them any more harm: "The quicker the cut, the less it hurts." They stand together at the foot of his bed, their hands side-by-side on the iron railing of the bedframe as if it were the parapet of a bridge or a skyscraper, the proper setting for the end of a romantic affair. Susan protests at first, but the plainness and the resolve of his words reaches her: "I'm glad you said it . . . I'd forgotten what it was like to have self-respect." She lays her hand very briefly over his own—his brows wince together—and leaves him staring into imaginary space. As the door closes behind her, he holds the defeated pose for just a beat before his eyes widen and his mouth stretches in a hair-raising expression of suppressed glee, like a kid getting away with something really taboo—he bounds over the railing and bounces onto his back on the bed, his face breaking into the inevitable, tell-tale grin as he pops a crumpled wad of paper into the basket of the hanging lamp as smartly as a three-pointer. The audience has known for half an hour that he can put on the slick persuasive candor just as seamlessly as he can look like a small-town boy out of his depth with love, but never before have we seen it so blatantly, consciously performed. In the auditorium of the HFA, I heard people react. For a film that's been around for sixty-five years, that's not chopped liver.
As with so many antiheroes, though, part of Webb's problem is that he's not purely a cold-blooded calculator. He can plan a murder as soon he catches sight of Gilvray's will in the drawer with the cigarettes, and the audience can feel sinkingly certain that he would never have made a permanent play for Susan without the tantalizing knowledge of the small fortune due her on receipt of widowhood, but he'd be a simpler kind of villain if she were just a meal ticket with nice measurements to him. His feelings for her are too confused with class markers and power games to mitigate his behavior or redeem him from being a selfish, envious creep, but they're real. When she announces her pregnancy on their wedding night, she's starry-eyed and for a moment he catches the mood, pulling her close for an emotional embrace before the implications of the four-month window push him away into figuring the angles again. Just because he'd cheat his way to a partner as he would to any other aspect of the "good life" doesn't mean he doesn't want one. It's most evident once they relocate to Calico. Though life in a ghost town looks like a parody of suburbia's white picket fences—inside an empty-windowed, partly wall-less shack of clapboard and cinderblock, a record plays on Gilvray's fancy set while a heavily pregnant Susan washes dishes in a basin, frontier-style, and Webb in an outdoorsman's plaid shirt polishes the endless desert dust off the Cadillac parked outside—it's the happiest we ever see them together. For once he looks relaxed, playful, sincerely affectionate and attentive to his wife, not putting anything over on either of them. Despite the strain of her physical condition, the tense, opaque look has gone out of her face; she's not making herself accept any stories or repress any facts. They dance together, watch the sun set over the desert they both find beautiful, regret that they'll never be able to tell their child the story of how his birth—Webb's convinced it'll be a boy and swears to give him all the breaks his old man never got—"increased the population of his hometown by thirty-three and one-third percent." Perhaps it works because it's not real: they're playing at keeping house, not really trying to maintain a household in the face of bills and groceries and repairs and neighbors and all the distractions of life outside her gilded cage and his self-pitying fantasies. Quite possibly neither of them is enough of a functional adult to hack it in the real world. Webb repeatedly deplores his father's lack of ambition, but he can't think of anything better to do with two weeks of vacation than slouch around his rented room in his bathrobe, drinking beer, reading muscle magazines, shaving in bed; he blames the unsatisfying trajectory of his life on everything but himself. Susan has a healthier grasp of reality in that she stopped trying to be an actress when she realized that she had the looks but not the talent, but she retains the self-destructive ability to convince herself against her own best interests and the evidence of her mind; she did it when she settled for her first husband and even more so when she chose to testify for her soon-to-be second, overriding her own concerns that there was more to Gilvray's death than a lethally stupid instance of mistaken identity. Living in the domestic wilderness fantasy of Calico, they don't have to face anything about themselves or their circumstances that they don't want to.
Which is just as well, because while Susan can take a bracing hit of self-knowledge when the chips are down, Webb really can't. When his lies come unstrung, when the doctor he fetched for the birth lights out with their newborn daughter at his wife's request,2 when the situation spirals into something he can't control with sex and gaslighting, his brash macho swagger breaks down, shockily and snottily—because seriously, what is the point of casting Van Heflin if sooner or later you can't make him cry—into a self-justifying mess. "So what," he rails at Susan, rummaging wildly through their suitcases, strewing the floor with unpacked clothes, upending her purse in search of the spare set of car keys that she's hiding from him, once again weirdly childish, a terrified temper tantrum, "so I'm no good. I'm no worse than anyone else. You work in a store, you knock down on the cash register. A big boss, the income tax. Ward heeler, you sell votes. A lawyer, take bribes. I was a cop—I used a gun . . . How am I any different from those other guys? Some do it for a million, some for ten. I did it for sixty-two thousand." And upon this confirmation that her new husband knew all along exactly how much her old husband was going to leave her, Susan throws the keys at him and tells him to get out: "You haven't got a chance." On hands and knees beside the bed, tear-smeared, wearing the trenchcoat of a much tougher character, he doesn't even give her the last Orpheus look as he grabs the keys, stumbles to his feet, and lurches out the door toward the getaway he will not survive. Webb Garwood is an even less sympathetic character than his predecessor in the implosion of American success stories, Frank Enley in Act of Violence (1948), but the role works here as there because Heflin is willing to fall apart in ways that don't make him look good, but which signal to the audience real, unmistakable pain. Like Jeff Hartnett said in Johnny Eager (1942), "You can feel sorry for someone you don't like if you've got a heart or soul or decency." Of all the characters I've seen Heflin play, Webb is the one I wouldn't want to let anywhere near my life, but I still appreciate how The Prowler twists close to tragedy with its recognition of the flimsiness of the values his country sold him3 and the acknowledgement that not all of the things he wants are shallow or self-serving or wrong, he just isn't capable of growing enough as a person to get any of them. That's sad. But what he did to Susan was worse, and the film never forgets the reality of her pain, either.
I didn't recognize Keyes despite having seen her in half a dozen movies from Gone with the Wind (1939) to The Seven Year Itch (1955), but Susan is a role I'll remember her for. In some ways she has the trickier part than Heflin, as she doesn't get a big scene to work with until the climax, but she has to convince all the way through or the seduction angle of the plot simply turns silly. Neither a femme fatale nor a co-conspirator, the worst she might be is a half-knowing accomplice, a woman so painfully neglected and controlled that she'll tie herself in mental knots to maintain even the illusion of independent action and reciprocated desire. She's not stupid, even if she contradicts herself and doesn't seem able to finish a sentence without trembling, flushing, or stammering herself to silence; she's accumulating the cognitive dissonance of an abuse victim and her abuser's specific sexual appeal leaves her even more conflictedly vulnerable. After Max Ophüls' Caught (1949), The Prowler is the film noir of my experience that's most attentive to the force of the male gaze. It is never not a threat. The original prowler who prompts Susan's fateful call to the police is personified by the camera, the audience's voyeuristic viewpoint: our first sight in the film is a lit-up window at night, framing as squarely as a viewfinder a woman in an after-shower towel who looks suddenly out at us, cries out, and pulls down the shade, over which the title fades in to caption our culpability in succeeding events. It is not an incidental detail that the police presence that responds to her cry for help dutifully takes down her complaint, but doesn't take it seriously.4 The restless, sarcastic officer we'll come to know as Webb can't resist peeping through the window himself, then suggesting that "maybe the lady's just imagining things." His genial, middle-aged partner looks more sympathetic behind his Coke-bottle glasses, but cautions her not to leave her shades up at night with a telling metaphor: "You ever notice, in a bank, they always keep the counting room out of sight, so the customers won't get tempted?" Webb's later equation of Susan with her husband's carefully hoarded cigarettes is flirtatiously, equally objectifying: "See how silly it is to keep things locked up?" Almost every male-female interaction in the script has something to add to this pattern, whether it's Webb's partner referring to his wife as the "War Department" while giving her a hearty slap on the behind, Gilvray's surveillance habit of quizzing his wife about the content of his nightly shows, or Webb on his wedding night openly eyeing a motel guest as she signs in with a male companion. I have a list of "women's noir" sent me by handful_ofdust to check out, but right now I have trouble imagining a more thoroughly downbeat take on gender relations without crossing genres into horror. I'm happy to take recommendations if I'm wrong.5
It's summer and I should sleep. I don't say it's comfortable to watch, but I'm so glad The Prowler exists and the Film Noir Foundation restored it; it's available on DVD if you're interested and need further evidence that our culture is intersectionally fucked up. This sneak peek brought to you by my ambitious backers at Patreon.
1. In a cleverly distancing touch, the character remains offscreen until the moment of his shooting, when he has the startled face of Sherry Hall. His disembodied voice, repeatedly heard encouraging his listeners to "remember, folks—the cost of living is going down," is played, uncredited, by Dalton Trumbo.
2. They're camping out in a ghost town expressly to avoid any witnesses to the birth, but Susan's in so much pain and distress with her labor—which neither of them knows the first thing about, despite his earlier, uncertainly confident assertion that they're "really prepared for triplets"—that Webb breaks his own rule and goes for help. It's one of the few actions that speaks well of him and it is, of course, the one that screws him to the wall.
3. It is not an indictment of Webb alone that the grand ambition for which he is willing to seduce, scheme, and murder is the ownership of a motel—property at its most transient and anonymous packaged with a promise of affluence for free. "Man's got a place like that," he enthuses to Susan, "it's working for him twenty-four hours a day . . . We could go to the mountains every summer—all summer long—and that motel would still be hauling in the dough." Realizing this upwardly mobile dream comes with an irony to which he is predictably oblivious: as the newly pronounced Garwoods clink glasses for their "honeymoon in their own hotel," the bland, pre-fab surroundings, the constant Doppler rush of cars speeding by on the freeway, and the neon blink of the "Vacancy" sign through the shades combine to make their first night as a lawfully wedded couple look more like a cheap assignation than any of their adulterous trysts among the borrowed class of 1918 Orchid Street.
4. I'm sure it would have packed a stronger punch in the '50's when audiences were not yet used to tracking officer-involved fatal shootings, but I love that while noir as a genre is filled with crooked cops, Webb is scarier than the kind who're just on the take from gangsters. He's the kind who uses his shield to exploit trust and invade privacy, whose license to shoot a man dead for looking suspicious is upheld by a minimum of contrition and the solidarity of the thin blue line. He's the kind who sees a woman who doesn't feel safe in her own home as an opportunity, not a problem. He's not the part of the movie that requires any suspension of disbelief.
5. Also recommendations for film noir criticism in general. I've reached the point with this genre where I think it's only polite to engage with the scholarship, even if I'm pretty sure I disagree with some of it already.