The Night The Prowler Review
Sydney, “sometime in the late Nineteen Sixties”. Feliciity Bannister (Kerry Walker) is an only child, totally dominated by her mother Doris (Ruth Cracknell). Then one night an intruder breaks into her room, but what actually happened isn't as straightforward as first appears...and the experience drives Felicity finally to find her own identity...
The Night The Prowler is a strange film, and one that always has and always will divide audiences. It's a black comedy made in a heightened, somewhat camp, somewhat literary style that's at once piercingly funny and also disturbing, possibly more disturbing now than it was at the time of its making due to the way our sensibilities have shifted. It's also significant in that, until very recently, it was the only cinematic representation of the work of one of the twentieth century's great writers.
Patrick White (1912-1990) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, becoming the first and so far only Australian to do so. In novels such as The Aunt's Story, The Tree of Man and Voss, he described characters who pursued a vision of something higher, greater and more transcendent, even at the risk of madness, against what White saw as the stifling conformity and snobbery of society, particularly the Sydney society he knew. However, while White was a film fan, always attending the Sydney Film Festival, until the release of The Eye of the Storm (directed by Fred Schepisi, released 2011) none of his novels had been filmed. Voss came the nearest, with Joseph Losey in place to direct from a David Mercer script and Maximilian Schell due to play the eponymous German explorer out to cross the Australian desert. (My mid-1980s dream casting would have been Klaus Maria Brandauer in the title role, with Judy Davis as Laura Trevelyan, the young woman who has a strange, possibly psychic, connection with him.) But that project was never made. His play A Cheery Soul was adapted for the BBC as a Wednesday Play in 1966, now lost from the archives, while other stage plays Big Toys and The Ham Funeral were shot for Australian television in 1980 and 1990 respectively. That leaves The Night the Prowler. The original story (at some 16,000 words by my estimate, more accurately described as a novella) was published in 1974 in White's collection The Cockatoos, and the film is White's only screenplay. It follows the story very closely, with much of the dialogue transferred word for word. The use of flashbacks is the same, as is the shift halfway through from an emphasis on Doris, into to Felicity's night world. This is something of an awkward transition, though to be fair to the film it is in the story as well.
Jim Sharman (born 1945) is a rebuttal to the auteur theory in that his best-known film is very well known indeed, but not for his direction. He began and remains mostly a stage director, making his name with the original Australian production of Hair. Although a filmgoer since childhood – with a particular love of Douglas Sirk's highly-coloured melodramas from the 1950s (whose influence can be seen on The Night The Prowler, especially in his bold use of colours in some scenes) - his introduction to the cinema industry came from a meeting with Tony Richardson and work on the location shoot of Ned Kelly. Sharman went on to direct two low-budget films, the 16mm production Shirley Thompson versus The Aliens (1972), a SF musical comedy, and the barely-shown Summer of Secrets (1976). Meanwhile, Sharman worked in London, directing the original London production of Jesus Christ Superstar. He met Richard O'Brien and the result was The Rocky Horror Show, which led to Sharman directing the film version which has done quite well over the years. (Sharman later directed the sequel, Shock Treatment, in 1982, his last cinema credit to date.) Back in Sydney, Sharman directed White's play Season at Sarsaparilla and thus began an association and friendship with the writer.
Sharman and producer Anthony Buckley found financing The Night The Prowler difficult, resulting in the film being shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for cinema release – a decision Sharman and DP David Sanderson embraced, as the grain gave the film a gritty quality, counterpointing the would-be elegance of the Bannisters' house and social circle. The principle cast all came from theatrical backgrounds. Ruth Cracknell had made her big-screen debut in one of the few Australian features made in the 1950s, the family film Smiley Gets a Gun (1958) but had mostly appeared on stage and television up to then. She gives an astonishing performance, both monstrous and hilarious, just this side of going over the top. She continued to act until her death at age seventy-seven in 2002, including title roles in Spider & Rose and Lilian's Story. She had appeared in Gillian Armstrong's 50-minute short feature The Singer and the Dancer, which also featured the screen debut of Kerry Walker. White's description of Felicity is hardly flattering - “lumpish” and “healthy rather than pretty” - but Walker's performance is precise in what must have been a difficult role to pull off. John Frawley (who died in 1999, age unknown), had worked in England in the 1960s (you can see him in episodes of Emergency Ward 10, Ghost Squad and The Prisoner) before returning to his native Australia. His role is outwardly buffoonish and non-understanding, but there is a dark, almost incestuous overtone to the father-daughter relationship, which is no doubt fully intended. In the smaller role of the prowler is Terry Camilleri, the lead in Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris. White suggested that he play the old man that Felicity meets in the final scene himself, but this role was taken by Harry Neilson, who had a heart attack partway through filming and who checked himself out of hospital to finish the scene.
The Night The Prowler premiered at the 1978 Sydney Film Festival to a critical reception that was largely negative, though then and later it has had its strong supporters. It then sat on the shelf for a year before a sparsely-attended two week commercial run. Ruth Cracknell was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Actress but (along with Judy Davis for My Brilliant Career) lost to Michele Fawdon in Cathy's Child. It never had a UK cinema release nor as far as I can trace a television showing, though it did have a BBFC certification for video release in 1986. The film was unavailable for many years due to rights issues, prior to this 2005 DVD release.
As with many writers, Patrick White went out of fashion after his death. However, The Vivisector was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010. Schepisi's film of The Eye of the Storm (no UK release date known as I write this, though it was released in Australian cinemas on 15 September 2011) and White's centenary in 2012, should hopefully renew interest in White's work, so now is a good time to look at this earlier film. The Rocky Horror Picture Show can take care of itself, but it's a pity that Sharman's earlier features are unavailable and that he hasn't directed a film in the last three decades.
The Night The Prowler is released by Roadshow on a single-layered DVD encoded for Region 4 only.
The DVD transfer is 4:3 non-anamorphic. While it's not impossible for a 16mm-originated film to be composed for Academy Ratio (see for example Stork), The Night The Prowler was always intended to be blown up to 35mm for commercial distribution, and what we have here is open-matte – not least because a microphone appears at the top of the frame nineteen minutes in. This source states that the intended ratio is 1.85:1, so I would suggest that owners of widescreen televisions zoom the picture to 16:9. As the transfer, grain you would expect and some softness, but not to this extent – not to mention a fair amount of ghosting, which was more noticeable on my PC monitor than it was on a CRT television set. There is the occasional reel-change mark and some minor print damage but nothing too distracting. This wasn't a great transfer by 2005 standards, let alone today's.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and the dialogue is clear and easy to follow. Roadshow have provided subtitles for the hard of hearing, for the feature only.
The commentary is a joint effort between Jim Sharman and Kerry Walker, who both look back fondly on this film, and also on Patrick White who was a friend to them both. Walker especially draws on the original story in her comments on the film. Oddly, this commentary finishes ten minutes before the film does.
Other extras are an eleven-page text biography of Patrick White, filmographies of Jim Sharman, Ruth Cracknell, Kerry Walker, John Frawley and Anthony Buckley, and the theatrical trailer (2:26) which has much emphasis on White's name as a selling point.
Many Roadshow DVDs of this time (2005) included as an extra a short film from the Australian Film Television and Radio School. This time it's Freestyle (11:20), written and directed in 1996 by David Lowe, and presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. A woman is questioned by the police. She was in a swimming pool at the time a murder was committed...so how come she didn't see anything? An effective short.
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