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Mark Lewis, works as a focus puller in a British film studio. On his off hours, he supplies a local porno shop with cheesecake photos and also dabbles in filmmaking. A lonely, unfriendly, sexually repressed fellow, Mark is obsessed with the effects of fear and how they are registered on the face and behavior of the frightened. This obsession dates from the time when, as a child, he served as the subject of some cold-blooded experiments in the psychology of terror conducted by his own scientist father. As a grown man, Mark becomes a compulsive murderer who kills women and records their contorted features and dying gasps on film. His ongoing project is a documentary on fear. With 16mm camera in hand, he accompanies a prostitute to her room and stabs her with a blade concealed in his tripod, all the while photographing her contorted face in the throes of terror and death. Alone in his room, he surrounds himself with the sights and sounds of terror: taped screams, black-and-white "home ... Written by
In these supposed enlightened times, director Michael Powell is considered a genius of British cinema. Emerging during the War as one of Britain's finest craftsmen, Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger created the undisputed classics The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).
But despite critical and commercial success, his career was in tatters by the early 1960's. The abrupt death of Powell's career can virtually be pinned down to one film, his most uncompromising portrait of madness, 1960's Peeping Tom.
Powell's infamous shocker opens with a movie camera-wielding Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) following a prostitute to her boarding house room. Once inside, he slides a spike from his tripod leg and films her action of terror before stabbing her to death. As the credits roll, we find Mark alone in his apartment, replaying the footage with wide-eyed fascination.
As the film progresses, Mark is revealed as a stuttering loner whose sex drive has been somehow twisted into a murderous voyeuristic mania - working at a movie studio by day, he moonlights as a glamour' photographer above a seedy newsagents. His blonde buxom model (Pamela Green), constantly taunting his virility, is the embodiment of the female he despises. The inquisitive girl downstairs, on the other hand, becomes his ideal and his possible salvation. Ultimately she is doomed by her altruistic attraction when she insists Mark must show her one of his 'films'. Horrified, she watches Mark as a child, tortured by his father's camera experiment of recording a child's reaction to fear. Mark's own experiment of filming his murder victims leads him on a downward spiral of insanity to the film's tragic conclusion.
Despite Peeping Tom's sensational subject matter, Powell's intention was deadly serious: to make a sober study of sexual violence, as well as a meditation on the audience's role of voyeur. Powell's camera positions us directly behind Mark and his spectators so that we become his unwilling accomplices - the audience watches Mark watching his films. Carl Boehm as Mark gives a chilling performance, at once icy reserve and murderous rage. Powell creates a garish red and pale blue twilight landscape of backstreet London in perfect detail.
At the film's completion, Powell believed he had made a masterpiece. Peeping Tom is certainly a personal film; Powell and his co-scriptwriter toiled for months until they had mastered a sympathetic three-dimensional serial killer. In later years, Powell would remain tight-lipped about his real reasons for making the film. But Britain's premiere 'glamour' pinup queen Pamela Green - Peeping Tom's photo-model and penultimate victim - would offer clues to Powell's hidden agenda.
Green became his leading choice for the role, although she had not appeared outside 8mm stag films, after seeing a life-sized nude portrait in her business partner Harrison Mark's studio. Her initial reception on the set was one of polite British reserve - until Powell unleashed his Jekyll and Hyde personality and she became one among many targets for his boorish, intimidating manner. On the day of Green's death scene, Powell changed his former plans of prudence and demanded she sprawl topless across her bed before she is skewered with Mark's tripod leg. She reluctantly gave in. Mid-shot she looked across the studio in horror. Beneath Powell's camera were his two pre-teen sons, watching unwaveringly according to their father's instructions. This incident brought a chill over Powell's casting of his son as Mark junior and of himself as Mark's father.
Whatever reasons drove Powell to make Peeping Tom, he had effectively signed his career's death warrant. The film opened to scathing reviews in April 1960, just months after the similarly-themed Psycho. Ironically, Hitchcock floated out of the controversy surrounding Psycho as the consummate old trickster, and saved his slowly sinking career. The time seemed ripe for Peeping Tom among audiences and critics alike. Unfortunately for Powell, the critics could find none of Psycho's black humour in his sober tome. 'Sick' and vile' were a small sample of their vitriol. The papers were outraged that a filmmaker of Powell's calibre could sink his talents into material so vulgar and perverse. Powell hoped the distributor would weather the storm and allow the audience to find the film on its own merits. Instead, the plug was pulled on Peeping Tom after five days and at least in Britain the film was buried.
The print was sold to the American Roadshow circuit, with a lurid ad campaign designed to sell the film to a jaded American public. Shorn of twenty minutes footage, the film was considered too 'British' and was shelved after a limited run. There it sat, gathering dust for almost 20 years. Then in 1978 a cabal of admiring filmmakers led by Martin Scorsese (himself no stranger to controversy) rescued a complete print from Britain. Peeping Tom was thus relaunched in 1979 at the prestigious New York Film Festival to a predictably mixed reception. Correct-minded commentators grudgingly accepted its 'masterpiece' tag but were nonplussed with the Film's treatment of its sexual violence.
As for Powell, the British film industry no longer considered him bankable after Peeping Tom. He made one more film in Britain before exiling himself to Australia. The antipodean They're A Weird Mob (1966) was on of his final films before his death in 1984. Luckily for Powell, the film he considers his masterpiece is still revered and reviled, but no longer ignored.
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