‘Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?’
Karlheinz Bohm, Anna Massey, Moira Sheaer, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Jack Watson, Pamela Green / Screenplay Leo Marks / Soundtrack Brian Easdale / Cinematography Otto Heller / Produced & Directed Michael Powell
Whilst Britain dragged it’s feet through a monotony of drab, ‘keep the home fires burning’ war stories, Powell & Pressburger almost singlehandedly kept the British Film Industry afloat with a series of bold masterpieces. Despite a wealth of literary, theatrical and poetic traditions to draw inspiration from, British cinema had begun to idle in a routine of dusty, formulaic productions, with just the occasional flashes of inspiration from the likes of David Lean and a certain Mr.Hitchcock. Director Michael Powell & Hungarian Producer Emerick Pressburger confronted this lingering malaise with a series of passionate films that luxuriated in gorgeous colour experiments and provocative subject matter: ‘A Matter of Life & Death’, ‘Colonel Blimp’, ‘The Red Shoes’, ‘Black Narcissus’, and most subversive of all, Powell’s solo project ‘Peeping Tom’ (1959). With the New Wave set to engulf the entire world’s artistic communities, the transition for a still somewhat Victorian Britain would not be an easy one, and Powell would ultimately pay the price for his creative efforts.
Screenwriter Leo Marks approached Powell with the initial idea for Peeping Tom, a short story about a voyeur who kills what he observes. Grounded quite literally in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey .. ‘For let it be known, that each man kills the thing he loves. Some do it with a bitter tongue, some with a flattering word. The coward does it with a kiss. The brave man with a sword.’ Powell had been seeking a pet project to sink his teeth into, and took the project to heart. Understand, that for Powell to even consider such a topic was shocking. P&P may have been a groundbreaking team, but they were nonetheless solidly rooted in the establishment. Inevitably the critics were going to ask why a Director of such quality would waste his time on such trash? But, as with Chaplin’s ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ & Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, nothing of any worth has ever been produced by taking the easy path.
The screenplay presents us with cameraman, Mark Lewis who kills his subjects in search of capturing their most extreme moments of fear.. an attempt to make the ultimate snuff film. The product of an abusive childhood at the hands of his Psychiatrist father, a sociopath who used his son as a test subject in his studies into the human fear response. Filming his son’s every childhood moment, inducing fearful situations & ultimately imprinting upon the son his own Scoptophiliac voyeuristic obsession. Powell makes Mark a very modern madman though – quite unlike any Norman Bates or other such character of the period, being in full possession of his faculties and most importantly, the knowledge of how his compulsion came about. He explains to Helen (Anna Massey) and thusly to us his observers what his father did to him, and we feel sympathy for his case..that if only the right girl came along, then he wouldn’t have to do all this unpleasant killing.. then our minds chastise us for sympathising with this murderer. This is essentially what worked the critics up into such a sweat, and at the same time casts it in such a modern light. The lines are blurred, forcing the audience to recognize the grey area wherein the killer is also the victim..that monsters aren’t born, but are rather a product of the worlds in which they find themselves.
Mark’s lair, to which he brings his prized films for processing is the loft of a suburban house where he lives a secretive existance, seperate from the fellow residents who unbenownst to them is actually their landlord. ‘..but you walk about as if you haven’t paid the rent.’ exclaims a puzzled but intrigued Helen from the groundfloor flat. In Helen we have a rational attempt to probe the killer’s psyche. ‘I like to understand what I’m shown.’ she urges, drawn in by the mystery that we ourselves have a horrible fascination for. ‘This is..well..so many things..it’s so..completely unexpected.’ Helen’s mother is a blind, house bound Maxine Audley, prone to drunkeness, and instant threat to Mark’s visual bias. She bids Mark take her to his cinema.. and being that his films are silent, he is briefly able to project his secrets before an unknowing audience, but her closeness to Helen protects her from any serious harm. Moira Shearer doesn’t fare quite so well, falling prey to Mark’s killing camera. Her fate mirrored by her role in the earlier P&P film ‘The Red Shoes’, where she again dies for art’s sake.
The childhood incarnation of Mark, as shown to us by way of home movies was portrayed by Powell’s own son, and Powell himself is momentarily seen in turn as Mark’s father. The effect is somewhat autobiographical then, and provided more fuel for the film’s critics upon release. On the cabinet in Mark’s dark room sits Powell’s first camera, and Mark’s name is merely Leo Mark’s surname (the author of the screenplay). Such interactions between life & art are commonplace in cinema today..fuel for the DVD featurettes. The revelation that Mel Gibson insisted it be his own hands to hammer the nails for the crucifiction scene in his ‘The Passion’ is infinately more suspect to me than Powell’s use of his own son for a scene or two, that seems more disturbing on film than it was no doubt to act.
Shot in wonderful old Eastman colour by Otto Heller (Ipcress File, Ladykillers, Alfie..) Peeping Tom has more tricks up it’s sleeve than a blog can fairly explore: A biting criticism of Studio System production; Early prediction of the importance of street, hand held filmmaking (Cinema Verite); Use of overheard soundtrack (borrowing from incidental record players, tape recorders & street sounds), later used to high effect in Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’.. and so on.. At the time though, all the critics could see was an attack on their cosy cinematic world, and they lashed out with a tirade of vitriolic abuse for Powell and his creation that verged on the hysterical. With the revolutions of the 60’s just around the corner, their last act was to consign Peeping Tom to the scrapheap & oust Powell from British cinema. The filmset that Mark works at in ‘Peeping Tom’ is shooting a film by the precient title of ‘The Walls are Closing in’.. For Powell & the 1950’s.
The film’s influences on later cinema are numerous, from Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up’ & Brian DePalma’s ‘Body Double’..Hywell Bennett’s whistling killer in ‘Twisted Nerve’ (which in turn found it’s way into Tarantino’s Kill Bill) and Scorsese sights Powell as a major influence on his development (personally paying for Peeping Tom’s re-release after nearly 40 years in obscurity).
I’ll leave the finale of ‘Peeping Tom’ a secret for those who have yet to experience ‘..what the most frightening thing in the world is.’
‘In the three and a half months since my name last appeared at the
head of this page I have carted my travel-stained carcase to (among
other places) some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But
nothing, nothing, nothing – neither the hopeless leper colonies of East
Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta – has
left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week
while sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom..’
Daily Express – 8th April 1960
‘The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom
would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest
sewer. Even then the stench would remain.’
THE TRIBUNE 29th April 1960
Sunday Times 1994 apology
‘Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country’s most distinguished film-makers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise. Something more than a change of taste must exist. The original story and screenplay come from Leo Marks; at their centre is a cameraman (played by Carl Boehm) whose scientist father used him in childhood in a study of fear. The boy grows up obsessed by images of the human face frozen in extremes of terror. He multiplies them by himself photographing death, and, in fact, becoming a multiple killer. With so gifted a director this can hardly be anything but a frightening movie, but its object is the examination of emotion and not titillation. Interesting that it should be revived now when there has been much concern about the influence of cinema. All the more reason to distinguish between the serious and the merely sensational horror. Reading now what I wrote in 1960 I find that, despite my efforts to express revulsion, nearly everything I said conceals the extraordinary quality of Peeping Tom.’