This long-unseen feature by the often-underestimated Joseph Losey counts among its fans such esteemed critical voices as Dave Kehr and Manny Farber, not to mention the great crime novelist James Ellroy. For the film’s first half, it’s easy to see the appeal: Uniformed cop Webb Garwood (Heflin) answers a break-in call from unhappily married blond Susan Gilvray (Keyes). After some small talk and a follow-up visit, an attraction develops, though par for the course with Losey—most notably in his Harold Pinter collaborations (The Servant; Accident; The Go-Between)—it’s of the sadomasochistic variety.
The Prowler is truly terrific in these early scenes, with Heflin cocking a virile strut and Keyes passively submitting to his testosterone-sodden spell. But as the plot, concocted in part by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, gets more and more outlandish—moving through a murder and an unwanted pregnancy, before climaxing in a desert ghost town—Garwood loses his degenerate luster. This flimsy character turn might have stemmed from the censorious atmosphere fostered by the ’50s morality brigade, and it’s a shame. The way Heflin plays this rake, you never think for a second that he’d be cowed by a guilty conscience. He’s a defiantly charismatic brute who turns, unconvincingly, into a wet noodle.—Keith Uhlich