Noir City Hollywood
Saturday at the Egyptian saw a triple bill of Joseph Losey’s Los Angeles based film noir, The Prowler, M and The Big Night, all from 1951. As host Eddie Muller said in his introduction, Losey was cranking out films in 1950 and 1951 at a rapid clip, one step ahead of HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist. The director eventually found refuge in England where he became so successful with movies like The Go-Between (1971) that today he’s often thought of as a British director. Not true. He came to Hollywood from the American Midwest.
The Prowler starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, was restored by the Film Noir Foundation with UCLA. As Muller noted, blacklisted Dalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay but, of course, couldn’t be credited. Filmed by Arthur C. Miller ]The Razor’s Edge (1946), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)], the moody musical score is by Lyn Murray.
Heflin plays patrolman Webb Garwood. Unlike his older, straight arrow partner Bud (John Maxwell) Webb doesn’t like being a cop and sees himself as executive material. He got into college but couldn’t get along with the football coach. That set a pattern for his life. Now, instead of working his way up the ranks in the department, he blames everyone but himself for a stalled career. But, there are perks to the job. He has relatively easy access to the attractive, wealthy women who live on his beat. He meets Susan Gilvray (Keyes) when she calls in to report a prowler in her suburban neighborhood. Webb makes a follow-up call, this time without his partner. Her husband hosts a late night radio program which leaves her alone most evenings. The husband (voiced offscreen by Dalton Trumbo) is a commentator and pitch man in the vein of John Cameron Swayze and signs off his broadcast with “I’ll be seeing you, Susan.”
Webb makes a clumsy play for her and understandably gets rebuffed. This is the repressed early 1950s, don’t forget. He’s a clever manipulator, though, and eventually has a good thing going until the husband gets suspicious. From there, the plot gets increasingly bizarre and implausible with the couple winding up on the lam in a ghost town. There’s some excitement in the last act but most of the fun happens early on while the creepy cop insinuates himself.
Evelyn Keyes is the one to watch for. When Muller contacted her for a guest appearance in the early days of the festival, he surprised her by asking about The Prowler, a film she fondly remembered and not Gone With The Wind (1939), her best known role.
While The Prowler is entertaining, Losey’s M is a revelation. A retelling of Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic with Peter Lorre as child killer Hans Beckert, it’s essentially the same story, with some variations. David Wayne plays the killer. It makes one wonder if Lorre was considered for the remake. Perhaps, his face and voice would’ve been too familiar by then. Wayne gives a terrific performance along with a virtual rogues gallery of a cast, including Howard Da Silva, Steve Brodie, Norman Lloyd and Raymond Burr. Like Losey, Da Silva was blacklisted shortly after and didn’t appear onscreen again for nearly a decade..
As in the original, a city is under siege by a killer of children who’s on the loose, leaving behind only the shoes of the little girls he’s murdered. Desperate to capture him, the police, in this case the Los Angeles Police Department, starts rounding up every parolee and petty criminal they can think of. It’s bad for business for the well-organized syndicate that runs the town. Crime boss Charlie Marshall (Martin Gabel) comes up with an ingenious plan. Catch the killer themselves. They enlist every grifter, numbers runner and small time crook. Every man, woman and child on the take joins in the search.
Luther Adler is riveting as dipsomaniac lawyer Dan Langley, a character in the original given added depth in Norman Reilly Raine and Leo Katcher’s screenplay and realized in Adler’s poignant performance. Adler began in Yiddish theater in the early 1900s. He was the brother of famed acting coach Stella Adler and was once married to Sylvia Sidney. When David Harrow (Wayne) is finally caught, Langley gives him an impassioned defense in front of an enraged jury of Harrow’s lowlife peers.
Shot by Ernest Lazlo, the downtown locations, including Angel’s Flight on Bunker Hill and the Bradbury Building help make this one of the great Los Angeles noir films.
The Big Night stars John Drew Barrymore as George La Main, the bespectacled son of a bartender named Andy played by Preston Foster. George starts the movie bullied by other teenagers. The bar is George’s refuge, where he feels protected and loved. While celebrating George’s birthday, Andy is cane whipped by sports columnist Al Judge (Howard St. John) in an especially brutal scene. Late in the film, it’s explained that Judge is the brother of a woman Andy was dating. Bent on revenge, George spends the rest of the “big night” roaming the city with a borrowed gun looking for the newspaperman.
On his journey, he goes to a nightclub and hears a sultry jazz singer (Mauri Lynn). Outside the club, he awkwardly tries to compliment her but winds up saying something insensitive. Along the way, he meets Dr. Lloyd Cooper (Philip Bourneuf), a drunken professor and his girlfriend Marion Rostina (Joan Lorring). He later winds up with Marion’s sister, Julie. She’s played by Dorothy Comingore who starred in Citizen Kane (1941) and was later blacklisted. There’s an age difference so Julie isn’t expecting anything but finds the young man hard to resist. The couple’s scenes together are emotional and moving. There’s a turmoil beneath the surface undoubtedly drawn from their real lives.
George is a moody rebel reminiscent of James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The son of John Barrymore, young Barrymore shows tremendous potential in the role but had an uneven career hampered by a troubled personal life. The senior Barrymore was an absent father and junior repeated the pattern according to his daughter Drew.