The Night the Prowler

(aka Patrick White's The Night the Prowler, Jim Sharman, Australia, 1978)


So often, the self is an enclosed and solitary thing. But a transition can occur whereby an individual enters society and establishes relations with others. It happens when he or she catches their reflection in a mirror – i.e., for a moment, they can step outside and see themself as someone else. This pivotal moment occurs often in films crossed by various shades of the fantastique and the Gothic. An individual can never be analysed separately from Others, for it is with them that he or she develops a particular configuration of need, demand and desire. All of us are caught in our image as created and projected by others – a veritable Lacanian nightmare!

A particularly thoughtful and complex use of this mirror-phase image appears in Jim Sharman’s The Night the Prowler, a Gothic psychodrama scripted by celebrated Australian novelist Patrick White. Felicity (Kerry Walker) is confronted with a mirror image not only literally, but also symbolically – in the form of a dying man (Harry Neilson) who has withdrawn from contact with others. In her aggressive rebellion against the norms of a middle-class family, Felicity sees that she, too, may be drying up emotionally. Thus, in the final scene when the police ask her about the old man – “Did you know him?” – she replies, “I knew him ... as I know myself.” Her mother (Ruth Cracknell), by contrast, is constantly looking in the mirror, but never seeing herself as she really is.

The family is the fundamental social unit. The Night the Prowler is among the most ambitious Australian films involving family relationships. Felicity’s sexuality has been denied and repressed by her parents, leading to the other extreme: an inverted neurosis. Fantasy turns (to again use the language of psychoanalysis) into phantasy; scenarios loom up and swallow individual “subjects” whole.

Felicity longs to be raped by “a real man”, a prowler in the night. Later, she herself becomes a prowler: the intrusion of the repressed into the homes of a middle-class neighbourhood. It may weary you to read this, for so-called art films written and directed by men about the supposed rape fantasies and “dangerous desires” of modern, young women can be a dubious proposition.

This case, however, is different. The link between the family and Felicity’s unleashed violence is made through repeated emphasis on certain objects: she cuts her 16th birthday cake with a knife; later, as a prowler, she slashes and defaces a family portrait.

But Felicity’s violence is futile, for who is to blame? Each member of the family has, in a way, been forced into a role that conceals the free expression of desire. The film reverberates with many hinted-at sexual possibilities: Felicity desires her father, the mother imagines herself for a moment being raped.

It is a pity that, toward the end, the film changes direction abruptly, so that Felicity’s dilemma is presented as being purely individual (“I know myself”), and no longer related to the family seen as a R.W. Fassbinder-like personal/political unit. In this, The Night the Prowler is a slightly blinkered product of its particular time, place and sensibility. Perhaps Sharman needed a vision wider than the one White could give him as source material, on this occasion, to encompass any larger possibilities.

MORE Sharman: Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens

© Adrian Martin December 1979

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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