Man on the Prowl is a surprisingly intense film from 1957.
Doug Gerhardt (played by James Best) is an overly friendly young man with a pompadour and a quick smile. Doug works as a deliveryman for a car dealership and he seems like a nice enough person. He’s maybe a little bit goofy and, if you talked to him, you might think that he’s a little bit slow. Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in his endless enthusiasm. Doug is a very friendly man and he certainly does seem eager to help everyone that he meets.
Of course, Doug is also a sociopathic murderer. He’s just been released from a mental hospital and, as we see when he strangles his date during the first few minutes of the movie, he’s still got some issues. However, no one ever seems to really notice, just because he is so friendly and kind of dorky. Even though his own mother (Vivi Janiss) tries to warn people that Doug is not well, most people just think that he’s a little bit eccentric.
When Doug nearly runs over Marian Wood (Mala Powers) and her son, Marian is not very happy with him. Doug apologizes for driving too fast and he even insists on helping Marian carry in her groceries. Marian goes from hating Doug to being somewhat forgiving of his reckless driving. That’s the power of Doug’s charm. He can go from nearly killing someone to making a new friend in just a matter of minutes.
Marian is married to Woody (Jerry Paris), though it’s not a particularly happy marriage. Woody is always traveling on business, leaving Marian to take care of the house on her own. Seeing an opening, Doug starts to casually drop by so that he can do things like help Marian fix the washing machine. Of course, it’s hinted that Doug might be the one who broke the washing machine in the first place. Doug is determined to replace Woody in Marian’s life. When it turns out that Marian isn’t ready for husband to be replaced by a delivery boy (even if that delivery boy can fix a washing machine) …. well, Doug doesn’t take it well.
Man on the Prowl really took me by surprise. For a film made in 1957, the story didn’t feel particularly dated, beyond a few things that couldn’t be helped. (Doug’s pompadour comes to mind.) If anything the film feels refreshingly honest in its willingness to admit that not all marriages are happy and not all wives are content with the idea of just sitting at home and waiting for their husband to return. However, the thing that really took me by surprise was how Doug was portrayed. Considering that the term “serial killer” wouldn’t be coined until 23 years after this film was originally released, Man on the Prowl is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of a serial killer. Doug is someone who is empty on the inside but who keeps the world from noticing by deploying a charming smile and a friendly manner. He’s Ted Bundy, decades before Bundy became a household symbol of evil. As played by James Best, Doug is a very realistic and very frightening modern monster.
In many ways, Man on the Prowl is a prophetic film. In 1957, someone like Doug was probably seen as being an aberration, a once-in-a-lifetime example of the natural order of things getting screwed up. Now, however, we know that the world is full of Doug Gerhardts. And we all feel a little less safe as a result.