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In these supposed enlightened times, director Michael Powell is considered a
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
Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes
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.
To understand the stir that Peeping Tom caused when it was released in
1960, you need to think about what audiences at that time were
accustomed to when they went to the cinema. Innocent love stories,
historical epics, action-packed westerns and colourful musicals were
the staple cinematic diet of the time, certainly not dark, disturbing
and intensely violent murder thrillers like this. What probably
unsettled contemporary film-goers even more was the fact that a film of
this kind could come from a much-loved and revered director like
Michael Powell. In modern times, the equivalent would be if Steven
Spielberg were to make a graphic and reviled film about paedophilia or
bestiality, consequently never being allowed to stand behind a movie
camera again. When Peeping Tom hit the big screen, it was rejected by
the public and crucified by the critics, and left Powell's hitherto
glorious career in ruin.
A film cameraman, Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm), displays psychotic tendencies as he murders women with a spiked tripod attached to the bottom of his camera, capturing on celluloid their final screams of agony. It is revealed that when he was a child, Mark was used as a guinea pig by his father (Michael Powell) in a series of psychoanalytical experiments about the symptoms of fear. Among other things, Mark's delightful dad would wake him throughout the night and shine lights in his eyes, drop lizards into his bed, and on one occasion even forced him to pose for photographs next to the dead body of his mother. As a result, Mark has an unhealthy obsession with fear and, in particular, the expression that people have on their face during moments of fear.
Peeping Tom is one of the few films that still has the power to shock all these years on. Psycho, released roughly at the same time, is still a great film but its shock value has been diminished by years of repeat viewings and increasing permissiveness in the cinema. But Peeping Tom is an altogether more disturbing piece of work. Boehm is excellent as the killer whose entire outlook has been skewed by his father's experiments. Also impressive is Anna Massey as the killer's fragile and unsuspecting fiancée. Powell directs the film brilliantly, using bold and dazzling colours to disguise the horrific atrocities that punctuate his film. It is understandable that the film was met with revulsion and rejection at that time, but in retrospect it is a film of real importance and power. In a 21st century world bombarded and desensitised by harrowing images on the news and in the movies, the theme of losing one's grasp on what is and isn't morally acceptable is more pertinent than ever. This is not easy viewing, but it IS essential viewing.
Peeping Tom is a philosophical movie that investigates the nature of
perception, rather than an edge-of-the seat thriller. The phrase "snuff
films" hadn't even been invented in 1960, nor did videotape cameras exist,
so the movie was far in advance of its time. You might be disappointed if
you looking for pure excitement, you have to be willing to examine deeper
Carl Bohm is perfect in the role of the killer, and his faint German accent (which might be interpreted as a. psychogenic speech defect) adds to the creepiness of his character. Instead of an over-the-top maniac (Jack Nicholson, are you listening?), he portrays a frightened and insecure little person who can only relate to the world by looking at it, preferably through a camera lens. It is easy to condemn him for his obsession with peeping, but -um- aren't we doing the same thing by watching this movie, or any movie? The most interesting movies are those that provoke such questions in us. This aspect also helps explain why Peeping Tom was so fiercely condemned in 1960.
(The scenes between Bohm and Massey remind me of those between Gustav Diesel and Louise Brooks in the last part of Pandora's Box (1928), and you can bet the Michael Powell was familiar with Pabst's work.)
The idea that scrutiny = punishment was explored by Michel Foucault in his book Surveiller et Punir, which I happened to read a long time ago. We will be finding out more about this as the "National Security State" draws closer. Anyway, here you have a powerless little guy who tries to feel the same sense of control by turning his camera - literally - into a murder-weapon. The technical details of this contrivance seem unrealistic, but the symbolism is so powerful they scarcely matter.
The hard-edged sound of late-50s cool jazz works very nicely in setting the atmosphere, similar to Town Without Pity (1960). Nowadays we tend to think of that era as idyllic, so its useful to remind ourselves of the dark edges that existed.
Michael Powell, the distinguished English director, probably
contributed to his own demise from the film industry with "Peeping
Tom", a movie that proved to be well ahead of its times and a
masterpiece by this man who gave so much to enhance the industry in
Great Britain. In fact, it's a shame this was almost the last film he
directed before going on to a kind of exile in Australia.
"Peeping Tom" is an exercise in voyeurism Mr. Powell, and his screen writer, Leo Marks, created to prove to what extent how one is capable of watching things one shouldn't watch. At the same time, Mr. Powell created a psychological essay about what makes Mark Lewis, the central character of the film, act the way he acted. Mark has been scarred for life thanks to what his own father did to him during a period of his growing years that formed his character into the reclusive man who feels at home doing the despicable crimes he commits.
One of the strengths of the film is the amazing portrayal of Mark Lewis by the German actor, Carl Boehm, who made a superb contribution to the movie. Mr. Boehm is perfect because by just looking at him, one would never guess what's inside his soul, or what motivates him to kill and record his crimes.
Mr. Powell brought together an amazing cast that shines in the film. Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxime Audley, Brenda Bruce, Bartlett Mullins, are among the most prominent players one sees in the film.
The newly restored copy we saw as part of the retrospective shown at the Walter Reade this year has been enhanced in ways one didn't think would be possible and it's a tribute to the great director, who should have been proud of how today's audiences are reacting when they discover his movies that seem will live forever.
It's ironic that Mr. Powell didn't get the recognition he deserved during his lifetime.
Despite a long and distinguished career the production team of Powell and
Pressberger were effectively ruined by the furore of criticism and demands
for censorship generated by this film.
'Peeping Tom' is a great film and one that modern film makers could learn from. Even good films like 'Seven' and 'Silence of the Lambs' have a regretable tendency toward melodrama and gross overacting in the portrayal of serial killers. 'John Doe' (Kevin Spacey) and 'Buffalo Bill' (Ted Levine) are laughable travesties of their real life counterparts, who seem harmless when approaching or luring a potential victim.
One of the things that critics of his time could not forgive Powell is that he makes his killer 'Mark Lewis' (Karl Boehm) human and likeable. a sensitive and intelligent young man, he is the product of bestial cruelty inflicted upon him in childhood (the scenes showing film of him being tortured as a boy by his scientist father are horrifying in the true sense of the word)
This is a sophisticated film demanding of the viewer that he or she not only takes part in watching a compelling thriller but are also provoked into contemplating the forces that work on a man who commits such crimes.
After watching 'Peeping Tom' one does not have the customary closure common in such thrillers of seeing a 'monster' the viewer could not emphasise with destroyed and the world made safe again, (much the theory behind the justification of capital punishment). Rather we have the experience of seeing the tragic self destruction of a man arguably as much a victim as those he killed.
To critics this was reprehensible - 'siding with the murderer'. The man who wrote the script, however, knew at first hand what makes a killer - since he was responsible for selecting secret agents to fight behind enemy lines in World War 2. He had to choose men - and women - who would not hesitate to kill. How many writers can claim this level of insight?
'Peeping Tom' is a classic and I rate it an eye catching 9 out of 10
I'll admit it: I was completely stumped; for almost all of the running time
I had no idea where Michael Powell was going with this one. (Not that there
are any twists in the plot - my uncertainty was of a different kind.) I
think this made me all the more delighted when I at last found
Although it was made without co-archer Emeric Pressburger, we see the old Archers' logo at the start; except that this time it's overlaid with `A Michael Powell Production' - in tiny letters. This gave me a pang of sadness. `Peeping Tom' all but completely destroyed Powell's career; and however much and for whatever reasons critics and audiences may have loathed the film, this simply ought not have happened - especially since, good or bad, it's manifestly the work of a director at the height of his powers. The photography is wonderfully assured, the colours are as bright and stark and controlled and fantastic as ever, the script is clever and trusts to our intelligence, and Powell still knows how to keep our minds glued to the screen even when our eyes tell us that nothing much is happening. Every scene is unsettling. Most are creepy.
I could go on about the technical details - the use of sound and music is amazingly innovative, too - but what really elevates `Peeping Tom', what makes so many of the contemporary criticisms absurd, is its compassion. There's none of that watered-down Freudian guff we encounter in `Psycho'. Powell makes us feel for his serial killer - not so much by showing us that he feels pain but by showing us that he has ordinary, likeable human qualities as well as madness. A number of Powell's war-time said the same thing about Nazis. It's clear that he really meant it.
Not that this is an overt message of `Peeping Tom', and not that there aren't a lot of other things going on as well. I not only recommend, I BEG, that any admirer of Powell's earlier work give this one a try as well. Since Powell is striking out in a new direction there's an excellent chance you won't like it; but it deserves to be tried.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The first time I saw Peeping Tom, it was exhilarating. The clever films
within the film, puns, raw Freudian imagery, the bold acting and the way the
plot unfolds as logically as a fable kept me enthralled through to the end.
I tried watching it again last night and I couldn't shake an absolutely
crushing sadness that emanates from Mark Lewis. He's like some aborted twin
of the director in 8 1/2. But whereas Guido's creative instinct and drive
emerged from a house full of women pampering him and a magical incantation
that he was told will animate an ominous painting, Mark's is a murderous
urge to have some of the control and power denied him by his father. Like a
record stuck playing the same sound over and over, Mark has grown into an
emotional cul-de-sac where he watches the story of his torture and his
revenge every night.
Mark is trying to work his way out of this loop by filming a documentary. If he can create a record of sadistic control over everything around himself, maybe the act of making a story out of his life will at least give him an end to his suffering. The frenzied excitement, practically joy, of his suicide is a miserable thing to contemplate. He says that he's spent a long time preparing his walkway of cameras to capture his final rush to meet the fate he inflicted on so many others. At previous points in the film, he's noted that he expected to get caught and it's clear he's very happy to have been revealed in exactly the circumstances he staged. His documentary is a success.
Mark tries to develop a world outside of the documentary that he knows will kill him. He talks to the psychologist about getting help and his expression clearly indicates that he just can't see giving years of therapy a chance. Mark's clumsy and sincere attempts to develop a normal relationship with Helen fall into the same category - it would be so nice, but he's got something he has to do. Something creative, albeit monstrous, hardwired into Mark has to express itself `regardless of the consequences.'
As with other Michael Powell films, it's not for all audiences. Powell tells his stories with lavish color-coded signals, revels in dramatic extremes, and is unapologetic about pulling dirty tricks like dragging out Moira Shearer's death scene to the point where 1) you fully realize that Mark is an exacting composer and 2) you long for him to get on with it and kill her already.
Like everything else filmed before 1999 (when The Matrix set the current standard for believable CGI and HBO programming made R-rated material ho-hum), the fx/gore do not live up to contemporary expectations.
It's difficult to imagine the effect that this film had on critics and
audiences when first shown as in the 90's we have become desensitized by the
violence and cruelty of slasher movies.
Yet even today this film is deeply disturbing. The lead character is portrayed in a sympathetic light, thanks to a stunning performance from Carl Boem. He is a victim of a cruel and abusive father, desperate to escape the curse that has been handed down to him. There are some memorable scenes: the home movie showing him and his father (played by Michael Powell and his own son), the shot of the beautiful model turning round and showing her hare lip and the projection of one of the murders to the blind mother, with part of the frame projecting onto the murderer.
This is a deeply unnerving film but brilliantly made. Go see.
I've watched Michael Powell['s PEEPING TOM a couple of times on TV but I've yet to give my Criterion DVD a spin. Certainly one of the most original, challenging and bleakest films ever made and to have come from a British film-maker, albeit an iconoclastic one, makes the achievement all the more remarkable. While I do think that comparisons to its contemporary PSYCHO (1960) are a bit tenuous, it has to be said that both films can be thought of as belonging to the horror genre in fact, PEEPING TOM was the third British "slasher" movie in a row, following HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959) and CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1960) - but can also lay claim to being a very dark sort of black comedy. Besides, both films feature dysfunctional, immature, adult male protagonists haunted by a terrible upbringing which vents itself in a series of murders. Furthermore, while both films have been harshly reviled by critics when first released, in time, they have had their reputations make a complete about face and nowadays are numbered among their respective directors' unassailable masterpieces!
The film that did a large amount of damage to Michael Powell's film career
remains as a prime example of an intellectual British horror film. It has
certainly retained the power to shock over four decades later, and leaves
the viewer with more questions than have been answered during the fairly
short running time.
Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, a focus puller at a film studio who feeds his voyeuristic tendencies by filming people everyone he goes. This preoccupation takes a disturbing twist in his need to kill, and film women as he kills them. So far, so unsavoury. Mark appears on the surface as a personable young man who just has this dangerous, psychotic tendency he can't always keep in check. The audience is thus invited to have some sympathy with him, especially after the discovery that the young Mark was the focus for his father's experiments on the nature of fear in children (show in part as the film within the film featuring Michael Powell and his son Columba), and was filmed and recorded for the whole of his young life. No wonder, the film is saying, that he has grown into this disturbed person who has no real life away from either recording things on a camera, or watching the results in his darkened room.
Anna Massey has perhaps the prime female role in the film, as Mark's downstairs neighbour Helen Stephens. She is both repelled and attracted by Mark's movie-making, and perhaps she is closer to him that she would herself admit. It is a restrained performance of considerable power. Moira Shearer has a brief appearance as the studio stand-in who becomes his victim, while Shirley Anne Field provides light relief as the film actress who can never get her lines right and doesn't know how to faint on camera.
Peeping Tom' is a clever piece of work which perhaps came too soon to be acceptable to the establishment. After all, during Powell's collaborations with Emeric Pressburger, they often pushed their luck with their subject matter and the way they presented it. This film was the natural progression of that anarchistic spirit. It is humorous in places Mark is not presented as a one-dimensional monster while being a very dark and disturbing psychological thriller throughout.
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