October 13, 2011

Mr Movie Fiend: A Lost Film Noir Classic Comes Out of the Shadows

The Prowler (1951)

Corrupt cops have been a staple of crime and action movies for what seems like forever. From the rampant institutional corruption featured in such films as Serpico (1973), Prince of the City (1981), and Cop Land (1997), to the more individualized, personal corruption (and sometimes, downright manic evil) in movies like Bad Lieutenant (1992), Unlawful Entry (1992) and The Departed (2006), it seems that audiences can never get enough of men in uniform doing bad things to good people. Movies provide a safe means for us to examine age-old questions about authority and its potential for abuse, and be entertained at the same time.

Colorful corrupt cops on the silver screen owe a debt of gratitude to the "film noir" crime dramas of the '40s and '50s. After the brutal reality of World War II, it was much harder to sell movie audiences on the carefully sanitized, fairy tale worlds that were mandated by the Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the Hays code after one of its founders, Will H. Hays).  Among other things, the code dictated that authority figures, including clergy, politicians, judges, and police officers, should be treated with respect in movies (although they could occasionally be portrayed as villains as long as it was clear that the characters were the exception to the rule). Needless to say, this stricture seemed increasingly absurd to sophisticated postwar audiences, and many filmmakers found creative ways to get around and even subvert the code until its well-deserved demise in 1968.

Thankfully for audiences of the time (and classics enthusiasts of today), the filmmakers behind 1951's The Prowler thumbed their noses at the Hays code and moralistic conventions in a variety of ways. The "dirty linen" of amoral cops, oppressive marriages, extramarital affairs, and the ugliness and corrupting influence of money grubbing all get a thorough airing in this long-neglected film noir classic.

The great, rough-hewn "everyman" Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, an L.A. beat cop called to an exclusive neighborhood to investigate a report of a peeping tom prowler at the house of Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), the wife of a radio show host. From the get go, Webb seems inordinately interested with the luxury house and its beautiful occupant. He presses his partner about how much he thinks the house is worth, and who owns it. As the partner interviews the spooked housewife, Webb skulks around the perimeter of the house, suddenly showing up at the kitchen window and startling Susan as she's talking with Webb's partner. Webb looks like a peeping Tom himself as he checks out the pretty blonde.

Later, he makes a follow-up call without his partner. He explains to Susan that he was just passing by, and that "we're generally supposed to make check-up calls, especially where women are concerned … and when they're alone." Uh-huh. Susan's apparently so lonely and bored that this creepy excuse doesn't set off any alarm bells.

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend.

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