Joseph Losey, one of those vanguards of cinema whose career was forever misshapen by the HUAC era, abandoned Hollywood barely a decade after beginning his career there, leaving behind several crucial portraits of a Los Angeles baring the imprint of the Second World War. None are as lonely as 1951's The Prowler—currently being revived by the Film Forum in a restored print—a solemn duet of Angelinos played by Evelyn Keys and Van Heflin, each left hanging after the war, hanging in a moral vacuum of existential malaise behind the carefully maintained respectability of Southern California hacienda mansions and the post-War craze for the proper policing of the world's greatest country.
Loitering within suburban walls is Keys' housewife, sitting up late at night listening to her radio-announcer husband's voice purr from across the wide living room, her ears and his voice each a phantom marital check on the other, guaranteeing nothing amiss in their airwave marriage. Loitering outside the walls, and trying to stomach his repulsion for the work and moral decency of being a beat cop, is Heflin, who responds to Keys' call of a prowler. With no prowler in sight, a looming Californian palace in front of him and a beautiful woman alone inside, Heflin sees an opportunity and decides to take on the titular role without even changing out of his uniform. With banal, darkly obvious intentions he forces himself into the lone woman's living room and doesn't stop talking—combining the imperative of cop and the nostalgia of a fellow out-of-stater ("No one's a native Californian")—until he's invited back for dinner. Inevitability and inertia are the key forces here, where the singular loneliness and grounded despair of these ciphers—you can't call them characters, they are wandering souls, reconfigured after the war, stuck in their roles and lost in our country—puts them on a track to adultery and murder.
The track of fatalism, so common to noirs—which The Prowler is easily misconstrued as, though baring many of its marks—explains away how illogical it is for a guarded woman to invite an aggressive man back after his first rough attempt to seduce her, and how implausible the couple's aphorisms of love are once the seduction is complete. In a film of two essential locations, a lazy, open hacienda living room and a desert ghost town, with a husband as a disembodied voice and our hero's biggest ambition is to do absolutely nothing, the forces of apathy and disinterested sin are a cozy magnet. The Prowler's first and final reels are the best, the beginning with the husband's radio program playing out over the unease, seduction, and infidelity going on in his absence, Heflin fiddling with police lights, touching and using the L.A. mansion like its richness, its propriety doesn't matter when one takes on a uniform and thinks nothing of what comes with it. In the finale, an escape of the lovers to the abandoned shanties covering the site of an old Indian massacre (echoes of Nicholas Ray's perpetually on-the-run lovers, and the city to country movement of On Dangerous Ground), crumples and reveals the plastic mise-en-scène of affluent Los Angeles for what it really was, a site of murders and ruin, untethered by the goals of the war, losing itself in a search for facile contentment. It is not hard to see a desire to flee in the film, flee even further than the dead set The Prowler ends on, to get away from all the pettiness, and escape the stench of an empowered society's shiny-new but deeply impoverished ideas of duty, pleasure, and happiness.