We’re almost halfway through my 50’s film noir class, and one major theme has emerged, that of the great number of directors and screenwriters, their Hollywood careers shut down by the Communist blacklist, who flocked to noir as an outlet to both make money and vent their feelings about our troubled country. Some of them, like writer Dalton Trumbo, worked in secret for decades writing screenplays that were credited to “front” writers and even watched their work win awards for which they could claim no credit until years after the blacklist ended.
Some directors wiped their hands of film and ventured or returned to the Broadway stage where, more often than not, the curtain rose at 8:30 no matter how controversial the content. And then there were those who packed up and moved to Europe where their careers either burgeoned or died. One of these was Joseph Losey. I always thought he was British because the films with which I associated him included The Servant and The Go-Between. But Losey was born in Wisconsin, went to school with fellow future director Nicholas Ray (I often wonder what sort of person I might have become had I sat between those two in homeroom), and went on to an illustrious career in New York as a director of political theatre. This included an association with German writer-director Bertolt Brecht and a number of productions for the Federal Theatre Project.
Losey’s debut as a film director was in 1947 (The Boy with Green Year), the same year he accompanied Brecht when the latter testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. By 1953, Losey himself was forced to relocate to London when work dried up on either coast. (Ironically, Losey claims he was briefly considered to direct Arthur Miller’s thinly disguised blacklist metaphor, The Crucible, until the producers got cold feet about hiring him.) In that brief period, Losey directed five films, four of which have been placed under the noir umbrella, and two of these, both from 1951, are the focus of our discussion today.
The Prowler, I suppose, is the more interesting feature here because it was written – in secret – by Dalton Trumbo; however, you would be hard pressed to connect the story to any aspect of Trumbo’s experience with the blacklist. This was the last credit for cinematographer Arthur C. Miller, a renowned cameraman who had earned multiple Oscar nominations and won three times (How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette, and Anna and the King of Siam). If there’s something to celebrate about The Prowler, most of it lies with Miller’s work and a few interesting details, especially in the use of sound. Other than that, the film feels like a low-rent version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, even when the two storylines don’t quite mesh.
The film opens in a nicely lurid way as insomniac housewife Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) steps into her bathroom to prepare for a late evening bath and screams when she notices a Peeping Tom in her window. A nice touch is that we never see this peeper; rather, Susan directs her scream at the film audience, craning our necks to get a load of this half-dressed woman. Susan calls the police, and a patrol car arrives with two cops: kindly senior officer Bud Crocker, who we will discover is happily married, a bit dull but a loyal friend, and very fond of big rocks, and his partner Webb Garwood, who we will quickly learn is . . . well, he’s an opportunistic psychopath.
The early section of the film is the best, as it amounts basically to a two-character study of an affair. Susan is not-so-happily married to the older John, a successful late night radio DJ, whose presence in the film consists almost entirely of his voice playing records under each scene between his wife and her new lover. Every night, John signs off with the same tagline – “I’ll be seeing you, Susan” – which clues his wife into how much longer she has before he returns home. This phrase will be used in increasingly eerie ways during the film.
Van Heflin, not traditionally tall, dark and handsome, could have had a career as a character actor but was pushed into leading man status by the studios and filled those shoes quite well, usually as a wise-cracking fellow. Here he is a moody beast, at one moment leering at Mrs. Milvray as if she has invited every lascivious prowler to check in her window, then whining and complaining about how unfairly life has treated him. Heflin pulls it off well, convincingly portraying a true creep, manipulating Susan’s feelings to fever pitch and enjoying the ride as she resists, then falls for, then obsesses over him.
By 1953, Evelyn Keyes’ best days as a contract player were behind her. Her most high profile role as one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters in Gone with the Wind (not that sister, the other one), and she was a supporting player and occasional leading lady through the mid-50’s. Again, she was most interesting in the early part of the film when it was unclear where she would land. Early on, Webb discovers John Gilvray’s will and learns that if he died, marriage to Susan could be profitable enough to pay for that Vegas motel Webb is itching to own. The question at first appears whether Susan will end up going along with a plan to nab that money and create a new life together.
This is not the direction the movie takes. Susan’s stance becomes frustrating for Webb and the audience: too itchy for her lover to give him up, yet too fearful of her husband’s rage to leave him. Part of the problem is that we truly never get to know John, except for what Susan and, later, John’s brother, tell us: he was a difficult, jealous man whose inability to give Susan the one thing she wanted – a child – quickly sours their marriage. Which leaves it up to Webb to play all parties in whatever criminal intrigue will take place, which he does with surprising ease, and before you know it, he and Susan are married.
That’s where the movie really falls apart for me, as the rest consists of a series of bizarre character choices and plot twists that seem to belong to another film (or, preferably, to no film at all). I get that Susan’s pregnancy poses a problem for Webb in terms of the story they have told (that the two of them never knew each other before her husband’s death), but the way they resolve this problem is just . . . stupid. And the events that have to occur in order for the film to end the way it does are increasingly unbelievable. Ultimately, any pleasure in watching The Prowler is largely due to Heflin’s kinda charming, kinda scuzzy take on a noir villain. That, and the pleasure of seeing character actress Madge Blake onscreen. A favorite of mine, Miss Blake could make anything seem better with her presence.
* * * * *
Despite Dalton Trumbo’s work on The Prowler, of more pertinence to our blacklist theme might be the film Losey made earlier that same year – a remake of Fritz Lang’s 1931 masterpiece, M. The original German film is a gorgeous art piece about horrible things, widely considered the first great film of the sound era. It centers around a serial killer of children, played by Peter Lorre in a career-making performance that garners both our horror and our pity. The police want to nab him, of course, but so does the city’s criminal element, smarting from the police crackdown on the city. Everyone is on the search for M, but it is the underworld that manages to nab him and then puts him on trial before a kangaroo court. In a harrowing climax, the killer defends himself before the mob, begging to be turned over to the police for real justice and to end his mental torment. “Who are you criminals to judge me?” he asks, since they choose their abnormal activities while he is insane and has no choice.
The film’s producer, Seymour Nebenzal, saw this story as the perfect metaphor for the mob hysteria that had overtaken Hollywood in the wake of the Blacklist, and he approached Lang with the idea of remaking the film and setting it in Los Angeles. Lang was horrified at the idea that he, or anyone else should attempt to remake what he himself acknowledged to be his masterpiece. After also being turned down by Douglas Sirk, the master of 50’s melodrama, Nebenzal approached Losey, who grabbed at the chance to make the film and even cast actors who, like him, had come under suspicion by HUAC, including Karen Morley, Howard da Silva and Luther Adler.
I think Fritz Lang can rest easy: the remake makes no dent in the reputation of the original. Oh, there are good things about it: at 88 minutes, the film is tauter than the original which is twenty-three minutes longer and sometimes feels it. David Wayne gives a strong performance as the killer, although there is a general sense throughout that his acting and that of everyone else is overwrought. The murders, when they occur, are filmed so similarly to the original that it’s hard to give Losey or his cinematographer Ernest Laszlo enormous credit. Laszlo, in fact, was a master of noir, responsible for the classics D.O.A., Kiss Me Deadly (coming up later in the class) and While the City Sleeps. He also filmed one of my favorite Billy Wilder movies, Stalag 17, one of my favorite B- horror movies, Attack of the Puppet People, and was nominated eight times for the Academy Award, winning for Ship of Fools.
Laszlo beautifully captures the locations of 1951 Los Angeles, and the city itself is probably my favorite character in this very populous movie. The performances are more variable: Martin Gabel – who I know as a frequent panelist on What’s My Line and husband to the fabulous Arlene Francis – shines as the lead gangster, while Jim Backus plays the mayor of L.A. with the combined subtlety of Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell III. Fortunately, his role lasts less than a minute. Unfortunately, Madge Blake (see above) has a role that is even shorter.
Fritz Lang is said to have made the original film to remind parents of the great gift and responsibility of having children. At the end of his film, M is put on trial, and some of the victims’ mothers watch from the gallery, aware that a guilty verdict won’t bring their children back and then turning to the audience and warning them to watch their children more closely. Producer Nebenzal felt the film provided insight into the atmosphere in Germany under Weimar culture. The 1951 version, he believed, could shine a light on HUAC’s influence. Frankly, I think this is portrayed in a heavy-handed matter that may have shocked 1951 audiences but now seems almost laughable. A moment when a father drags his naughty daughter out of the movies and is set upon by another customer who naturally believes that any man accompanying a little girl must be a serial killer is repeated several times.
Losey ends his film as the police drag M away from the mob. The kangaroo court is more brutal, as are the thugs, played by tried-and-true heavies like Raymond Burr, Norman Lloyd and Glenn Anders. A more pivotal role is played by the great stage actor Luther Adler, as Gabel’s alcoholic attorney, who is charged with defending the killer during the kangaroo court. He does too good a job, and in the end, Gabel shoots and kills him. We get the message: there is a right way and a wrong way to effect justice, no matter how slowly grind the mills of real justice. Still, if you want to watch M, I urge you to set aside a little more time and watch the original. It ain’t noir, but it’s a revelation.
* * * * *
At the bottom of our weekly syllabus, Elliot included a link to a bonus film, and I can’t help wondering why it wasn’t our main viewing assignment. Night and the City (1950) was the first film director Jules Dassin made after he fled the United States because of HUAC persecution. Based on a novel by Gerald Kersh, the film stars Richard Widmark as con man and perennial loser Harry Fabian who lies and cheats and steals from everyone he knows, including his devoted girl Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney) and a lot of characters he should have known better than to lie, cheat or steal from. The film is like a doomsday clock as Harry makes one bad deal after another and the net draws ever tighter around him. It’s a film that’s hard to watch, both for the sense of foreboding we feel every time Harry gets a new idea as the results of his last one get slammed in his face, and for the brutal violence of the fight world Harry enters for his final botched attempt at a score.
The acting by a wide range of character actors, including Googie Withers, as an interesting variation on the femme fatale, and American crime drama stalwart Mike Mazurki, as a fighter called, for good reason, The Strangler, is excellent, the cinematography by Mutz Greenbaum (aka Max Greene) is fantastic, and the Franz Waxman score is wonderful. Best of all is Widmark, who excelled at sadists and killers and here shows a more complex side. There’s a photograph as the beginning that Mary shows Harry of the two of them rowing down the Thames in happier times.
“Remember them? Nice people. Nice to know and be with. Remember the plans they used to make? The kind of life they were going to live? Oh, Harry, how did we ever lose track of them? It wasn’t so very long ago, not more than – than a million years ago.”
In the screenplay by Jo Eisinger (a screenplay that critic Bosley Crowther hated so it has to be good) and the performances of Widmark and Tierney, we remember that noir losers had to get that way, that for many of them there was a fork in the road and a path they chose not to take. That knowledge hangs over us – and over Harry – right up till his final fatal moments. My understanding is that Dassin made two endings, one for U.S. noir lovers and a more optimistic one for British audiences. I saw the more downbeat ending. At least at the very end, Harry tries to do right by his girl. It’s something to hold onto because this loser never stood a chance.