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David Thomson on Films: Two Works of Social Criticism Masquerading as Thrillers

In the last week, my attention has been taken up by two American crime films from the 1950s that have appeared in excellent DVD versions: Joseph Losey’s The Prowler (1951), restored and delivered by a combination of benevolent institutions, the Film Noir Foundation, the U.C.L.A. Archive, and the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, which means the exceptional patron of so many arts, David W. Packard (who also mounted a beautiful production of Mozart’s Idomeneo in San Jose this September); and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), brought to us at last as part of the Criterion Collection.

The lesser known of the two, but the more profound film, is The Prowler. One night in a rather cheesy Spanish-style house in a part of Los Angeles, a wife at home alone, Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), thinks she hears a prowler. So she calls the cops, and along comes Webb Garwood, but he’s bad news, worse than a prowler. Indeed, as the film sinks in, you can even wonder whether Garwood was himself the prowler, setting up the whole situation. He’s big and manly and he says he was a basketball player, but he’s insecure, boastful, intrusive, and self-pitying. He’s Van Heflin, one of our most interesting actors at playing weak men. So he makes a play for Susan, whose husband is at work—he’s actually speaking on the radio with Garwood in his house.

This was a B picture, but it had uncommon advantages: not just Losey beginning to find himself as a director (he was over forty and he’d done a lot in theatre first), but S.P. Eagle as a producer (soon to be Sam Spiegel), John Huston as an adviser (he was married to Keyes at the time), Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo on the script, and John Hubley as a consultant on the art direction. Eagle gave Losey a ten-day rehearsal period in which they built elaborate sets and worked out a plan for extended camera set-ups—long takes—as well as getting the actors into the mood of a what Losey called “false values. About the means justifying the end and the end justifying the means. ‘100,000 bucks, a Cadillac, and a blonde’ were the sine qua non of American life at that time and it didn’t matter how you got them—whether you stole the girl from somebody else, stole the money and got the Cadillac from corruption.”

It’s no more than a 92-minute picture, noir if you like (though I doubt Losey knew the word at the time), but it’s really a quick, deft analysis of a kind of world where corruption and easy answers are on the advance. Van Heflin was nearly a big star then—he had won a supporting Oscar and he would be the father in Shane in a couple of years, but remarkably here he’s ready to be a creep, a killer, and the kind of guy you’d rather not have in the police force. Of course, he had shown his broken side in Act of Violence and it would come again in 3.10 to Yuma. But what Heflin is serving here is a brand of social criticism that one seldom hears or sees today. In a few years, Losey, Butler, Trumbo and Hubley would all be victimized by the Black List. But let’s remember they had earned that black mark honorably, because they knew in their bones that something was rotten in America.

The Killing is brilliant, smartass, and full of itself: It’s the work of a precocious young man, Kubrick, who was still short of thirty, and who had so dark a view of human nature and the plans of men that he never noticed society. It’s the story of a race-track heist (shot at Bay Meadows in Santa Clara) and the group of men who put the job together: Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the leader and nearly the hero, but he’s a chump, and his cohorts played by Elisha Cook Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Joe Sawyer, Timothy Carey and Kola Kwarian. As written by Kubrick and the novelist Jim Thompson from a Lionel White novel, it is a showy switchback on time, with a narrator’s voice recounting the ins and outs of the timing of the robbery. This form is intoxicating but it’s subtly mocking of the endeavor and early on we see all the cracks opening in the plan—not least the way the Cook character has so loathsome and treacherous a wife, fabulously delivered by Marie Windsor.

The forlorn ending to what seems like early success waits for you on the DVD, but it’s hardly a surprise, for Kubrick has something between pity and scorn for these hustling low-lifes and he offers us the prospect of the scam as a way of dashing our hopes. After all, in movies, if you show a planned robbery, the audience becomes automatically complicit in the operation. As a film, The Killing is faultless and enjoyable, but its lip-smacking meticulousness is at odds with the summation—that all human designs are futile and frustrating. So you feel that Kubrick has cut himself off from both his characters and the consequences of the action.

That’s not true in The Prowler. Losey may not like Webb Garwood, but he understands the way the guy has gone astray. Susan may behave foolishly in the action, but finally Keyes makes her touching and believable. And as the movie shifts from the house to the desert and the ghost town of Calico, Losey is starting to grasp the affinity between place and action that will distinguish his later films—like The Servant, The Go Between, and Mr. Klein.

So there are two ways of celebrating film noir at issue here, and that label can’t be shifted now. But there are noiristas happy to resurrect any film that might bear the name, and then ready to gloat at the tough act, the fatalism, and the misogyny. However, another truth is proved by The Prowler—and by films like Kiss Me Deadly—that the genre came into being not just as a stylish response to B Picture economies but in the spirit of necessary social criticism. So it’s worth recalling that Robert Aldrich, director of Kiss Me Deadly, was learning his craft as an assistant director on The Prowler.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.