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A closer look at classic noir: The Prowler

One of the single  greatest pleasures I’ve had in my time at Scarecrow came when director Bertrand Tavernier visited the store in 1997. He was in town for a SIFF retrospective and premiere of his latest film, and was nudged to stop by the store if he had some free time. He wandered in one afternoon, looked around a little, and then asked to see our film noir section. I was at the counter and gladly accompanied him upstairs, where for the next hour I stood behind him as he rifled through the titles, excitedly pulling out each box, sometimes commenting at length, sometimes not. His enthusiasm was infectious, whether he was declaring (in an extremely thick French accent) “zees ees great” or “zees ees ow-fool.” I can still hear his voice repeating those words with every box he pulled out. Tavernier is both a great filmmaker and a invaluable historian/critic/enthusiast, particularly of American film, so when he speaks, and speaks with such passion, you listen. In particular, he has a deep affection for the directors and screenwriters who were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, so it was no surprise to hear him enthuse about John Berry, Joseph Losey, and Cy Endfield, among others. All were blacklisted, and all moved overseas to find work. In fact, the title in the film noir section he was most excited about was Cy Endfield’s The Sound Of Fury, known in its Republic Video release as Try And Get Me. (It took me asking him three times to repeat the name of the director before I understood who he was referring to. Cy Endfield apparently only has two syllables in French instead of three and sounds more like that fellow who had the long running sitcom, name of Jerry.) He was shocked to hear that I hadn’t seen it, but I took it home that night, as did many of my fellow employees in the days after. Another film he was curious about was Joseph Losey’s The Prowler. Did we have it? We went downstairs to the Losey section and found no Prowler living there, but it was on the list to seek and find ever since that day. Over 10 years later, Eddie Muller entered into the picture. Eddie Muller is, according to the first thing you see on his website, a “writer and cultural archeologist,” the latter description being entirely appropriate here. Muller curates and hosts the annual Noir City fests that travel around the country, introducing new audiences to undiscovered treasures. Like Tavernier, he too was searching for The Prowler. Every year when putting his program together he called on the UCLA Film And Television Archive asking for The Prowler, and every year they said no, they didn’t have a print; except for the last time he asked. They typed in the title and found, to everyone’s surprise, that a print from an obscure European film archive that was shuttering its doors had been donated the year before. The film was still in good enough shape to undertake a restoration, and so the UCLA Film And Television Archive, along with the Film Noir Foundation and the Stanford Theatre Foundation, worked long and hard to restore the film to its original black and white luster, with amazing results. After making the Noir City rounds, VCI released it to home video last month, with a bounty of extras including commentary by Muller and an interview with Tavernier. We can finally rejoice that the wait is over.
The Prowler is really an amazing film. To describe the plot would ruin the film, which has so many turns before going off the rails in a most glorious manner that Tavernier, in a fascinating interview included on the disc wonders, “How can you define the film in one line? You cannot.” What I can say about it is that the talent that worked on this film is beyond incredible, with many involved hitting their career peaks. Evelyn Keyes, who was relegated to role after role of b-girls, shines in an incredibly complex part that then-husband John Huston, who also co-produced, cast her in. Van Heflin, one of the most underrated and sublimely talented actors of the 1950s, brings a wealth of richness to his character, which is good because his character is so creepy that if someone else was playing him it might be hard to make it through the film.
Arthur C. Miller, the cinematographer who shot Young Mr. Lincoln, Man Hunt, and How Green Was My Valley, concentrates mostly on Losey’s suffocating interiors, and made his magic work in a very short 19 day shoot. Dalton Trumbo, under the front Hugo Butler, contributed what may have been his most brilliant screenplay, continuing a run that was preceded by Gun Crazy and followed by He Ran All The Way.  In his interview on the disc, Tavernier, talks at length about Trumbo, musing that someone should put together a “Trumbo Noir” box set. Not a bad idea at all. As far as Losey was concerned, he made this film, which capped a brief but fascinating stop in Dark City preceded by The Lawless and M, before he himself fell victim to the blacklist. He then moved permanently to England, where he continued to work for another 34 brilliant years, but was sadly never again able to walk quite so beautifully and psychotically into the land of film noir.
The Film Noir Foundation is working on another restoration this year of an equally important and previously hard-to-find noir gem. With any luck, we’ll see a print soon, and a DVD to follow. And I’ll bet my hat that Tavernier will show up on the DVD as it’s that other film we were talking about: The Sound Of Fury.