In 1951, American film director Joseph Losey, who had made just a handful of features (including The Prowler and a fascinating, though decidedly inferior, remake of Fritz Lang’s M), was named in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which issued him a subpoena. Losey immediately took off for Europe, and while he later made one tentative attempt to return to Hollywood, his career there turned out to be permanently over—all his subsequent features, up to his death in 1984, were made abroad. As it happened, his initial flight from HUAC landed him in Italy smack in the middle of the neo-realist movement. Losey wasn’t one to sit around idle, so he promptly made his own neo-realist movie, hooking up with semi-retired American movie star Paul Muni for Imbarco A Mezzanotte, which translates as Boarding At Midnight, but was titled Stranger On The Prowl in America. Alas, that backstory is considerably more interesting than the film itself, which offers some of neo-realism’s flavor, but little of its soul.
Right from the jump, Stranger On The Prowl looks weirdly muddled. As was customary at the time, the opening credits are enormous, taking up the entire screen; trouble is, they’re superimposed not over a decorative background or establishing shots, but over important action, which is barely visible beneath the names. Eventually, it becomes clear that a stowaway (Muni) is being kicked off of a ship, though the captain agrees to let this homeless-looking man ride in the hold if he can come up with a hunk of cash before they set sail late that night. The hapless hero never gets a name, but the credits call him The Stranger With A Gun, because he has one, which he attempts in vain to sell so he can leave town, or at least get a bite to eat. When he accidentally kills a shopkeeper, however (suffocating her while trying to prevent her from screaming), he winds up on the run from the police, aided by a young boy, Giacomo (Vittorio Manunta) who mistakenly believes the cops are after him for stealing a jug of milk. Together, they hole up in an empty apartment and try to figure out a way to get to the waiting ship.
Like many Italian neo-realist works, Stranger On The Prowl derives much of its power from various bombed-out post-war locations, which provide a vivid sense of desolation and ruin. But Muni’s presence undermines that authenticity at every turn. While it’s fascinating to see him in middle age—he was 57 at the time, and appeared in only one more film before his death 15 years later—his theatrical performance style, which served him well in 1930s classics like Scarface and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, is more or less the antithesis of neo-realism. Rather than quietly embodying a desperate victim of poverty and indifference, he aggressively depicts one, making it difficult to empathize with the Man’s plight; the killing of the shopkeeper, in particular, involves so much manufactured panic and distress that its accidental nature winds up largely obscured. It doesn’t help that the screenplay, written by Ben Barzman (another blacklist victim—both he and Losey were originally credited under a single pseudonym), has the Man repeatedly compare himself to an old, tired horse Giacomo witnessed being sold to a butcher shop, calling undue attention to symbolism that was already pretty clumsy.
Also, while Olive Films deserves tons of praise for its commitment to releasing lesser-known catalog titles on Blu-ray, it must be said that Stranger On The Prowl is one of the company’s shabbier releases, visually and aurally speaking. No doubt the best source material available was used, but it’s rare to see high-definition treatment of a film that’s in such terrible shape: scratches and missing frames are omnipresent, audio hiss is obtrusively loud from start to finish, and at times, the sound is clearly at the wrong speed, so that Giulio Cesare Sonzogno’s score seems to be emanating from a broken record player. Then again, the film is so little-known (and so likely to stay that way) that holding out for a restoration would be quixotic. It’s a tiny footnote in cinema history—of interest to Losey and Muni completists, and maybe somebody writing about the effects of the Hollywood blacklist, but otherwise a low cinephile priority.