Saturday, February 16, 2008

Noir City Northwest: The Prowler (1951)/Gun Crazy (1949)

Night one of Noir City was a tribute to a man not credited on either movie on the bill, the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

The Prowler is a film rich with secret history, not only because of Trumbo’s involvement and that of John Huston as a shadow producer, but because it essentially disappeared for decades. Only a single print remained in limited circulation. Die-hard noir enthusiasts, among them James Ellroy, would speak of it in hushed tones. I’d given up hope of seeing it myself, until a second copy of the original elements turned up in France and Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation stepped in.

Van Heflin plays a disgruntled Los Angeles beat cop, a one-time athlete seemingly fated for bigger things until “lousy breaks” brought him low. He investigates a call at the home of Evelyn Keyes, a woman who knew him when back in Indiana. She had dreams of making it as an actress. Now she’s settled for a dreary marriage with a wee-hours disc jockey (dulcet tones provided, in an in-joke, by Trumbo). Heflin thinks the two of them together could turn their bad fortune around. The only thing standing in the way is that voice in the night.

The first half of the film charts a course through James M. Cain territory. Heflin and Keyes give it their all, but the psychology of their characters never rang completely true to me. The second half of the film takes some borderline-surreal plot twists that would be hard to swallow even if you did accept what leads up to them.

For me, The Prowler is a fascinating movie that doesn’t work. In his comments on the film Eddie Muller praised not only the subversive elements of Trumbo’s script – he’s right to say that many of the story choices were bold for 1951 – but its sheer unpredictability. “You don’t know where this movie is going to go,” he said. I only wish I could have gone with it.

As for Gun Crazy, what is there to say? It’s a landmark film that sixty years on hasn’t lost any of its vitality or its edge of danger. Every movie about young outlaws on the run and in love dwells in its shadow. Even the lousy dialogue shoehorned in by the Production Code can’t diminish its impact. I’ve seen it many times, but never before on the big screen. It was worth the wait.