Saturday, October 1, 2016
THE PROWLER (1951)
Louis B. Mayer once looked at Van Heflin and said, “You will never get the girl in the end.” This movie supports Mayer’s assessment. Heflin takes another turn playing a scoundrel. A deceiver “disguised” in a policeman’s uniform. His past has been a series of disappointments which led to his career as a disgruntled cop. The viewer is not sure who the prowler is at the beginning of this ninety minute film but the first suspect could very well be Heflin himself. He is not likeable from his first scene to his last. Co-starring with Heflin is the lithe Evelyn Keyes. Her marriage is rocky due to a possessive, jealous husband, nearly twice her age. Keyes timid, hesitant performance makes Heflin seem even more controlling.
Heflin and his squad car companion, John Maxwell, are called to investigate a prowler by Keyes. She is typically alone most nights because her husband is an overnight radio personality. By the way, he is voiced on the radio by screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. Instantly, Heflin starts wondering what her “game” is. As if she is just wanting attention. He becomes completely obsessed with her. After checking the premises, Maxwell suggests she keep the shades drawn until she is fully dressed. There were those who did not have any common sense back then, either.
In the guise of a follow up call to check on Keyes safety the next evening, Heflin comes right in her home and immediately sits down on the couch. Keyes must be thinking, “Please, won’t you have a seat?” She is very uncomfortable with his intrusion, not understanding why he keeps showing up. He apologizes with all the fake sincerity Heflin can muster. In another return visit, he needs a smoke but they are locked in a cabinet for her husband’s use. Heflin simply picks the lock in front of her, with her hairpin, then snoops around the cabinet to discover an insurance policy on the husband's life.
She feels guilty about the possible affair, as well she should, and decides to call it off. It will never work. Heflin knows how to deal with this. As days pass she gets lonely. When she calls him he lets the phone ring extra long before answering. Repeatedly. Everytime she calls. He tells her she is right. Nothing he can do. It will never work out. And hangs up with regrets. Heflin falls back into his bed and a high placed camera catches him with a huge smile. She is hooked. Despite her initial reluctance the two begin an affair in the days to follow. I know. This rarely happens in Hollywood movies.
Heflin concocts a late night scheme at Keyes’ home. In official police uniform, he first slits a screened door, then repeatedly bangs the fence gate to arouse the husband. When Heflin sees him he shouts, “Halt!” then opens fire. The murder becomes “a tragic accident” for the coroner's jury based on Heflin’s well planned phony story. Helping convince the jury is Keyes’ shaky testimony (under fear of Heflin’s glare) that they never met prior to her husband's death. Due to this “tragedy,” Heflin resigns from the police force and never wants to see a gun again. Heflin becomes somewhat of a hero to his friends and associates. Even though Keyes suspects Heflin of foul play, his convincing lies and her naivete convinces he surely is innocent.
They happily marry then the honeymoon surprise. Heflin learns she is four months pregnant. The date of the child's conception would prove the two had lied to cover their previous relationship. It would also nail him for the murder of Keyes’ husband. The final turning point for her is when he blurts out in anger about the life insurance policy he was counting on. Oops.
Having the baby in a hospital would establish a record of the child’s birth. So they hide out for five months in a desert ghost town that his partner, Maxwell, always talked about when gem collecting. Five months! Keyes goes into premature labor and Heflin seeks a doctor in a nearby town. Keyes discovers Heflin’s disavowed gun in his suitcase and realizes he also intends to kill the doctor to keep their secret. She warns the doctor who returns to town with the newborn. Keyes’ makeup is quite effective nearing the child’s birth. She looks positively ill with death a distinct possibility.
Realizing the doctor will send the police, Heflin drives away in panic leaving his beloved in “ghost city.” The gravel road is blocked at a narrow passage by his former partner, Maxwell, who was coming to pay a visit. After a five month disappearing act, he guesses Heflin might be there! Heflin bolts from the car and attempts to run up a one hundred foot mound of steep, loose stone. Not sure where he was planning to go but in that closing metaphor of his life, the harder he tries running up the hill the more futile it becomes. He is as stationary as if on a treadmill. Makes for an easy target.
This might seem like just another oft-told story of greed, a seducer and a co-star who gets entangled in a web of deceit. It is. But with only a few implausible moments, Heflin and Keyes make this film quite watchable. Yet the authorities never did find that prowler.