Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Prowler

From director Allison Shoemaker

Hello, new Ruckus blog! It’s so nice to meet you! I had intended to write a long and gushing blog-type-thing about The Wire and how it’s the closest thing we have to authentic noir in this decade, but then I got my ass kicked by The Prowler. McNulty, Stringer Bell and Omar (OMAR COMIN!) will have to wait while I wax noir-stalgic for a bit.

Check it: last night I was lucky enough to catch a showing of The Prowler at the Noir City: Chicago’ film festival that the Music Box is hosting this week. I have to tell you, Chicago is incredibly fortunate to be the latest Noir City. These festivals, curated and sponsored by the Film Noir Foundation, offer a rare opportunity to see some of the greatest films of the 30s, 40s and 50s on the big screen -- and many of them are the last, or one of the last, prints in existence. About the Film Noir Foundation, created by writer and historian Eddie Muller:

The Film Noir Foundation is a non-profit public benefit corporation created as an educational resource regarding the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of film noir as an original American cinematic movement. It is our mission to find and preserve films in danger of being lost or irreparably damaged, and to ensure that high quality prints of these classic films remain in circulation for theatrical exhibition to future generations.

That's the high-toned legalese. Here are the facts: Even as the high-tech revolution lets us own vast film libraries on DVD, the risk grows greater all the time that 35mm prints of some films will fall into disuse and eventually disintegrate—especially lesser-known titles that have slipped through the cultural cracks, but are worthy of rediscovery.

As a focal point of the classic film noir revival, the Foundation serves as a conduit between film companies and repertory cinemas still eager to screen these films in 35mm. Revenues generated by ticket sales encourage studios film archives to strike new prints of films that are at risk of disappearing from public view, either through neglect or scarcity.

With rehearsals and work and everything else going on as we gear up for HEIST PLAY, I didn’t think I was going to get the chance to see any of the remarkable films being shown this week, but I was able to dash in to The Prowler at the last minute. It was two hours and ten dollars very well spent. The Prowler was restored only recently and is rarely shown. The film was fascinating, but perhaps even more compelling was the backstory shared with us prior to showtime by Muller and renowned Noir scholar Foster Hirsch. Produced in 1951 in the shadow of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, many of the people involved in the film’s making could not attach their names to it. It is billed as ‘A Horizon Films Production’ -- a moniker John Huston came up with to mask his involvement. The film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, is listed as ‘S. P. Eagle.‘ Most importantly, while the screenplay is credited to Hugo Butler, it was originally written by Dalton Trumbo.

After being blacklisted, Trumbo continued to work as a screenwriter, and had a ‘front’ stand in for him. Other such films include Spartacus, Gun Crazy, The Brave One and Roman Holiday, for which he received an Oscar posthumously. The producers of The Prowler were determined to get Trumbo’s signature on their film, come hell or highwater, so they did the only sensible thing. They cast him in it.

One of the creepiest and coolest elements of The Prowler is the presence of a radio (and later a record player) through which we hear the voice of Susan Gilvray’s husband. Susan was played by Evelyn Keyes in a really stellar performance -- Keyes was in the thick of a truly bizarre marriage to John Huston at the time, and while there is no way her situation was as strange as Susan’s in The Prowler; I’d imagine she had some great stuff to pull from. Quick synopsis: left alone throughout the day by her ‘ordinary’ radio announcer husband, Susan sees, or thinks she sees, a prowler at the window, and calls the police. All seems to be well at the house, but one of the cops, Webb Garwood, played by Van Heflin (TOTALLY AWESOME in this movie, by the way -- terrifying and wildly funny) has other ideas. His attempts at seduction are frequently put off by the voice of Susan’s husband, who is always in the house thanks to his daily radio program. Susan stops Webb from turning the radio off, saying her husband quizzes her on what he talked about. The unseen husband also signs off every night with a little charming ‘I’ll be seeing you, Susan,’ a phrase that becomes creepier and creepier as the movie goes on. We see Mr. Gilvray once in the movie, and in that scene he’s played by an actor, but every recording of Gilvray’s radio program is Dalton Trumbo, talking right to us, signing his movie the only way he can.

Muller and Hirsch really know their stuff, and their passion and wealth of knowledge were infectious. In talking about Spiegel, Huston and Trumbo, both scholars talked about the culture of fear in which the late noir films were made. It really is apparent in The Prowler, which focuses both on class war and, most prominently, on the ability of one human being to control and manipulate another using fear, guilt and shame as his tools. Webb Garwood is a real piece of work, and watching him twist and mold Susan, his friends and her family is fascinating, terrifying and sometimes very funny. That culture of fear really does permeate the film, particularly in those scenes where we watch Susan get deeper and deeper into his hornet’s nest without even realizing.

Webb is a terrifying, manipulative, calculating machine -- but he’s also a product of a society where he’s gotten a lot of bad breaks. The difference between Webb and Susan can be summed up in this: he thinks his life has been nothing but bad breaks keeping him from the life he deserves, and when he tells her this, she says ‘Well, everyone has bad breaks.’ Webb doesn’t see it that way. He wants Susan, and her big house, and her husband’s money, and to not be a cop anymore, but he doesn’t want to work for a dime of it. Hirsch, in the discussion following the movie, said that the truly bad guys or doomed people in film noir movies are the Joes and Janes ‘that want things and need things, but don’t feel they should have to work for them -- they’re entitled to them, and someone or something is standing in their way.’

Does this play into HEIST PLAY? You bet your fedora it does.

Here’s the point of all of this: if you’ve got time this week, run, don’t walk, to the Music Box and see one of the remarkable films they’re showing this week: Double Indemnity, The Killers, The Lady From Shanghai and many others. Make sure to get there early enough to hear the film introduced by these two really knowledgeable and fascinating guys. And make sure to get popcorn. I didn’t. It was the wrong choice. Always get the popcorn.

No comments: