The Night the Prowler: 'Felicity is a girl of delicate sensibility'

The Night the Prowler: 'Felicity is a girl of delicate sensibility'
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In a flashback, Doris (Ruth Cracknell) plots the marriage of her daughter Felicity (Kerry Walker) to a rising young Canberra diplomat, John (John Derum). Felicity is late home, so Doris tries to entice John with her home-cooked duck. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

Cracknell is hilarious as the determined and slightly deranged Doris, the mother from hell, but the scene is vicious in its satire. Several critics at the time thought it was too bitter to be really funny, or enjoyable for an audience.


The Night the Prowler synopsis

In a wealthy part of Sydney, Felicity Bannister (Kerry Walker) pretends she has been raped by a prowler, in order to take control of her own life. Her neurotic mother (Ruth Cracknell) is more worried about her daughter’s upcoming wedding. Her father (John Frawley) is concerned that she’s no longer a virgin. As the family’s fragile structure crumbles, Felicity becomes a prowler herself.


The Night the Prowler curator's notes

The Night the Prowler is based on a short story by Patrick White, one of the greatest novelists Australia has produced, but this was his first screenplay and it shows, in a tendency toward over-statement. The film is a savage satire on the neuroses of the privileged of Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where White lived, and the director Jim Sharman grew up. Much of the satire verges on invective, and the film was criticised for being ponderous, pretentious and condescending. Parts of it are like that – especially some of the dialogue – but the film also has some moments where everything works.

White’s bitter humour is then matched by Jim Sharman’s playfully surreal visual sense, and the fine performances of Kerry Walker and Ruth Cracknell. The film also had its defenders, who saw a lot of truth in its depiction of a dysfunctional family. ‘The Night the Prowler is the most ambitious film involving family relationships yet produced in Australia’, wrote critic Adrian Martin in 1980.

Notes by Paul Byrnes


Education Notes

This clip shows Doris Bannister (Ruth Cracknell) on the phone, discussing the prospect of the marriage of her daughter Felicity (Kerry Walker) to John (John Derum), a rising young diplomat. When Felicity arrives home, Doris tries to discover when John is coming to visit. Later that night, Doris again tries to get a response from Felicity, who deliberately refuses to indulge her manipulative mother. When John finally does visit, Doris fusses about and then contrives to leave him alone with Felicity while she gets dinner.

Educational value points

  • The clip raises issues about family relationships, expectations and pressure. Family expectations and pressure can be positive influences, helping to challenge or motivate an individual. If however they are unrealistic, or are not what the individual desires for themselves, then expectations can have an negative effect, as in the case of Felicity whose mother wants her to marry a man in whom she has no interest.
  • The Night the Prowler is an example of tragicomedy, also known as black comedy, a blending of the genres of tragedy and comedy that was popularised in the mid-20th century, particularly in British theatre. Well-known exponents include Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter.
  • The Night the Prowler is based on a short story by Patrick White, one of Australia’s greatest authors. White (1912–90) was twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award, and was the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medallist on three occasions. He is the only Australian writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1973, for The Eye of the Storm). His extensive body of literature includes novels, poetry, short fiction and plays, including The Aunt’s StoryThe Burnt OnesBig ToysThe VivisectorThe Tree of ManVossThe Solid Mandala: A Novel and Riders in the Chariot.
  • The clip features Ruth Cracknell, one of Australia’s most celebrated actors. Cracknell (1925–2002) was much loved for her signature role as Maggie Beare in the long-running ABC television series Mother and Son. Her acting career spanned more than 50 years and included radio, revue, theatre, television and film. Her film credits include Lillian’s StorySpider and RoseEmerald CityThe Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (for which she won a Sammy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1977). Television credits include The DismissalThe Importance of Being EarnestAlice to Nowhere and Seven Little Australians.
  • Director Jim Sharman deliberately increased the colour grading of this film to emphasise the colours in a generally subdued suburban interior, and the golden hues, pinks and oranges in the day scenes balance the rich blues that predominate in the night scene. Sharman is well known for his international stage productions, including Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Chariot Films
Anthony Buckley
Jim Sharman
Patrick White
Based on the short story by:
Patrick White

Doris Bannister is on the phone in her house. She looks pleased with herself.
Doris Bannister Department of External Affairs.
The voice that answers back is heard from Doris’s point of view so it is just a crackle on the phone line.
Doris Yes, Madge. Between posts.
Madge’s voice crackles back.
Doris John never mentions it but I know from a reliable source the prime minister has taken him up.
Madge’s voice crackles back.
Doris Oh, I shan’t presume to hope. Time will show.
Madge’s voice crackles back. Doris glances down the hallway.
Doris No, she hasn’t given me a single clue. I wouldn’t ask. Felicity is a girl of delicate sensibility.
Doris hangs up the phone quickly as Felicity walks in the front door.
Doris That letter from John this morning, was it to say he’s coming?
Felicity begins to walk up the stairs, not stopping as she talks to her mother.
Felicity Bannister He did say he’d be in Sydney this week.
Doris rushes to the stairs. Her voice is shrill and panicked.
Doris But he’ll be more more precise, surely?
Felicity Expect so. He wants to see us.
Doris goes to exit the hallway one way and then changes her mind and heads in another direction.

Doris is sewing on her sewing machine while her husband reads the paper.
Doris But such a charming and, in every way, desirable young man.
Mr Bannister lowers the newspaper so he can see Doris.
Mr Bannister Isn’t it Felicity’s business to decide?
Doris Pah. Such lack of enthusiasm.

Felicity is brushing her hair in front of her mirror. Her mother also stands in the bedroom. Both women are in their nighties.
Doris But you must surely be a little bit fond?
Felicity doesn’t respond, crossing the room to her bed.
Doris All those letters he writes to you … You must both be fond. 
Felicity gets into bed, reaching for the light.
Felicity We could be penfriends, couldn’t we?
She turns out the light. Doris exits the room in a huff.

Doris is in the sitting room with John. They are both drinking.
Doris I’ve always so much enjoyed our little talks.
She offers him a sweet. He takes it.
John Thank you.
Doris gets up to look out the window.
Doris Wretched girl. She must have been held up at work.
She heads back towards John.
Doris But you’ll stay, won’t you? There’s a perfectly delicious canard aux olives, prepared by my own hands.
Doris perches over John who gets up and reaches for the ashtray on the mantelpiece.
John Sorry, I’m dining with a chap who’s leaving for Rome. 
Doris Oh, dear. She will be disappointed. Tomorrow, perhaps?
John Oh, I’ve got to be back.
Doris In Canberra?
John smiles nervously.
Doris So cold? Empty, I’ve always found.
Doris looks out the window again. Felicity comes in through the front gate. Doris purses her lips and drops the curtain.
Doris Of course, there are the lovely trees but one can’t live with trees alone. Not indefinitely, anyway.

Felicity comes up the steps. Doris opens the door and pulls her inside. She ushers John and Felicity onto the balcony.
Doris I’ll leave you two together. Otherwise my duck will be a disaster.

John and Felicity sit on the balcony. Doris comes to water the garden with a watering can.
Doris Well, perhaps you’ll change your mind?
John Change? How?
Doris You’ll stay and try my canard aux olives?
Doris laughs a little manically and rushes inside, closing the door behind her. Inside the kitchen she opens the oven and stabs at the cooking duck.