Sunday, May 31, 2020


I Am a Camera...and, apparently, so are you

If Rocky Balboa and Martha Stewart have taught us anything, it’s that everybody loves a good underdog story. In fact, when it comes to pop culture consumption, the American public has something of a God Complex: we enjoy resuscitating failed TV shows, put-out-to-pasture celebrities, and critically-lambasted movies far more than we do investing in the minimally open-minded effort it would have taken to appreciate these things during their first go-round.

The late director Michael Powell (1905–1990) was one of Britain’s more prolific—if uneven—wartime filmmakers before overwhelmingly negative critical response to his film Peeping Tom brought his career to an abrupt and grinding halt in 1960. Powell, in collaboration with longtime screenwriting/producing partner Emeric Pressburger, was responsible for many enduring and well-regarded works of British cinema—The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). But when the pair dissolved their partnership in 1957 and Powell ventured out on his own, no one expected the director of such colorfully humanistic fare to return with such a dark and morbid deviation from type.
Peeping Tom, a lurid horror-thriller about a voyeuristically-inclined serial killer obsessed with filming his victims in the final throes of death, was deemed so offensive, the film was promptly pulled from theaters, its distribution rights sold off, and Powell’s reputation went from paragon to pariah virtually overnight. Peeping Tom didn’t fare much better on this side of the pond, either, flopping at the boxoffice and disappearing quickly after a meager initial release.
Powell, self-exiled to Australia where he went on to make a handful of movies and TV shows, saw his name fall to the forgotten fringes of film history. Meanwhile, Peeping Tom, MIA from movie screens since its release, had begun to develop a mystique as the must-see film no one had ever actually seen.
Ad appearing in a 1981 college newspaper. By this time Peeping Tom
had become the darling of the college/midnight-movie circuit 

Jump to 1978. Enter director Martin Scorsese, the New Hollywood hotshot of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore whose own string-of-hits ascendance had taken a recent brickbat hit with the expensive flop of New York, NewYork (1977). A devoted cineaste and lifelong fan of Powell’s work, Scorsese’s high-profile interest in Peeping Tom was instrumental in retrieving the film from obscurity and getting it screened at the 1979 New York Film Festival. With the subsequent theatrical release of the now 20-year-old film, the once-reviled Peeping Tom was introduced to a new generation quick to reevaluate, revere, and hail the film as a lost masterpiece and Michael Powell an underappreciated genius. (The “Martin Scorsese and Corinth films present” credit served double-duty as a marketing device and a kind of film geek Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.)
Carl Boehm / Karlheinz Bohm as Mark Lewis
Anna Massey as Helen Stephens
Moira Shearer as Vivian
Maxine Audley as Mrs. Stephens
Mark (Carl Boehm) is an assistant cameraman at a London movie studio and a part-time photographer of cheesecake models for racy magazines (“Those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls”). As a child, Mark’s psychologist father used him as a guinea pig in filmed, highly sadistic experiments exploring the effects of fear on the nervous system. The trauma of having spent an entire childhood under the unblinking scrutiny of a camera lens has left Mark with a severely damaged psyche plagued by homicidal compulsions. Withdrawn and socially awkward, Mark’s only way of connecting emotionally to the world is from a distance…through the viewfinder of his own ever-present movie camera.
"But you walk about as if you haven't paid the rent!"
Helen discovers that the shy fellow tiptoeing about and
peeking through windows is actually her landlord 

Helen (Anna Massey) and her blind mother (Maxine Audley) are roomers in the house Mark inherited from his father. Helen is a librarian and budding author who has written a children's book about a magic camera that photographs adults as they were as children. Visiting Mark on the occasion of her 21st birthday, she finds herself attracted to his timid, gentle, nature. A constrained demeanor owing as much to his warped upbringing as it is indicative of the effort Mark must exert over himself to suppress and conceal his madness from others.
The victimized object of his father's relentless gaze as a child, the adult Mark seeks to reclaim himself by asserting the dominance of his own gaze. Rarely taken notice of and never photographed, Mark is unsettled by Helen's blind mother "seeing" his face.

The first time I saw Peeping Tom was as recently as 2010. I’m not sure what took me so long to get with the program (I even missed a 1982 TV broadcast of Peeping Tom on Elvira Mistress of the Dark), but I tend to associate its “Martin Scorsese Presents” 1979 theatrical run with a time when—ironically enough—my life was moving away from observation (three years of film school) to participation (studying dance). After years of being one of those “wonderful people out there in the dark,” movies occupied a less prominent place in my life and Peeping Tom just sort of fell through the cracks and stayed there for a couple of decades. 
When I did finally get around to seeing Peeping Tom, it was on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, at which time the film had spent more years hailed as a masterpiece than as a career-killing flop. But Peeping Tom is nothing is not one of cinema’s most triumphant underdog stories, so with each rerelease, reissue, or digital restoration, the resurrection of the film’s calamitous past remains a necessary and intractable part of Peeping Tom’s mystique and, more importantly, its marketing.
Even Powell appeared to understand this, seeing fit to reference Peeping Tom in his 2nd autobiography Million Dollar Movie (1995) simply by reproducing the very worst of the 1960 reviews, tacitly letting the film's ultimate success do the rest of the talking.
“This is a sick film, sick and nasty.”  The Sunday Express 
“The film is frankly, beastly”            The Financial Times 
“The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing.” The Spectator 
“It is crude, unhealthy sensation at its worst”  The Sunday Dispatch
Pamela Green as Milly
When cast in Peeping Tom, Green was already a popular '50s nude glamour model with her own pin-up photography studio and publishing company. She is credited with being the first woman to appear nude in a British feature film, its explicitness later reduced after the film's initial screening 

My first time seeing Peeping Tom was largely motivated by a curiosity to find out just what it was about the film that could possibly have gotten so many 1960 British knickers in a knot.  
Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and later, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)—both being films that dramatize the obsessive gaze—Peeping Tom begins with a shot of an open, startled eye. This is followed by an establishing shot of a stylized recreation of a street in London’s Soho district that looks like a set for a stage production of Threepenny Opera. A bored prostitute in a scorchingly red skirt is staring abstractedly at a store window display of objectified parts of the female anatomy by way of a segmented mannequin. A male figure enters the frame, a swift change of angle revealing that he is concealing a movie camera within his jacket. As he advances, the lens of the camera fills the screen until we, the viewer, have been swallowed up into the darkness of the camera itself. Suddenly our view of events ceases to be objective, we are now privy only to what is visible through the eye of the camera's viewfinder. And it’s horrific. 
Columba Powell as young Mark Lewis
Michael Powell's son portrayed Mark as a psychologically abused child, while Powell himself played the sadistic father. The late Pamela Green tells the tale on her website of how Powell obliged her request for a closed set for her nude scene. Come time for the shoot, she discovers Powell has allowed his two sons (ages 8 and 14) to observe. 

Powell introduced a situation of prurient sexual interest and swiftly subverted my expectations by forcing me to witness an act of violence through the eyes of a killer whose anonymity provoked the disquieting phenomenon of voyeuristic complicity. By effectively peeling away the myth of the objective gaze, Michael Powell fashioned a very dangerous film. And thus, in the space of fewer than 5 minutes, I came to completely understand why Peeping Tom struck such a nerve back in 1960.

When I was a teenager, the movie Jaws sneak-previewed at the theater where I worked as an usher. Making my usual rounds that night, I remember walking up the theater's center aisle sometime during the scene when Amity Beach is reopening following a series of deadly shark attacks. It’s about an hour or so into the film, the audience is completely on edge, and due to it being a sunny exterior shot, a considerable amount of light is coming from the screen behind me, illuminating the entire auditorium.

As bright light brought the audience’s faces into view, what I recall most vividly that the clearer they got, the more invisible I felt as I looked out at row after row of upturned faces staring beyond me …through me…to the movie screen. Different faces, but all with roughly the same expression: a kind of rapt, hyper-attentive stare that’s equal parts voracious scrutiny and blinkered immersion. 

And there I stood, my face most likely wearing the exact same expression, lost in the process of watching people engaged in the act of watching.

That’s what it felt like seeing Peeping Tom for the first time.

Looking Violence in the Eye
Mark's macabre method of murder is to film his victims and have them witness their deaths in a distortion mirror attached to a spiked tripod. An idea borrowed by director Donald Cammell (Performance) in his thriller White of the Eye (1987).

In my opinion, it's close to impossible to be a true cineaste and film buff without also being a bit of an obsessive and possessed of a slight voyeuristic streak. Perhaps that’s why the film fan set embraced Peeping Tom for its insight into compulsion while the general public took umbrage at being asked to empathize with a necrophilic nosey parker.

The act of watching is what Peeping Tom is all about. Under the guise of making a psychological thriller, Michael Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks (Twisted Nerve -1968) crafted a disturbing film exploring the dark side of the obsessive power of the gaze. A film whose subtext examines the dysfunctional side of the synergistic relationship between filmmaker and the audience. The filmmaker: in attempting to reveal life’s truths, can, in the end, only reveal themselves; what we are shown always reveals more about the individual holding the camera than it does the events recorded. The audience: the presumptive seeker of truth who, should the filmmaker flatter their self-perceptions enough, is usually satisfied just being the person who sees themselves seeing themselves.

Seeking Something Authentic in the Artificial
Film is not fact and images are not truth. But the feelings films can sometimes evoke are genuine and part of one's emotional reality. Which makes looking at films a tempting (and risky) substitute for human experience. 

While all these incisive subthemes serve to enrich an already arrestingly provocative film experience, I doubt any of them could have taken root had Michael Powell & Co.—the contributions of cinematographer Otto Heller and composer Brian Easdale are invaluable—had not been so successful in crafting Peeping Tom into such an intoxicatingly creepy, visually breathtaking horror-thriller masterpiece. A Filled with scenes of vivid color and dynamic lighting that overwhelms even while one is made to feel increasingly discomfited, Peeping Tom also boasts a great deal of dark humor and displays an unexpectedly gentle attitude towards its characters. 
Shirley Anne Field (still with us at 83) as Pauline Shields, and, still with us at age 88, an
unbilled Roland Curram (Julie Christie's gay pal in Darling - 1965) as Young Man in Sports Car

Austrian actor Carl Boehm is haunting and heartbreaking as the psychotic Mark; his character depicted in a sympathetic light (a cliché now, but novel then) being one of the more consistent complaints levied at the film at the time. It’s no small benefit to both the film and the character that Boehm so reminds me so much of one of those Von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music. His soft, accented voice underscore Mark’s “otherness” while his indistinct, overgrown-infant features suggest a kind of trauma-based arrested emotional development that has come to settle on the surface.

Anna Massey is essentially the film's heart and hope. She's also its sole tether to normalcy and she has several scenes, largely silent, in which she is remarkably good. One in particular, the camera stays on her face as she watches a film, her expression going from curiosity to disquiet, to fear, to outrage. Brilliant.

When I saw Peeping Tom I hadn't yet seen Moira Shearer in Powell-Pressburger's
classic The Red Shoes: her film debut and legacy. 

It's surprising to think Peeping Tom turns 60 this year. No longer a cause for scandal, it nevertheless remains a magnificent achievement and a very powerful film. Peeping Tom may not be to everyone’s taste as entertainment, but I can’t imagine anyone interested in cinema and film culture not finding something intriguing and compelling in Peeping Tom’s ideas...if not its execution(s).

"The sky is the limit. Art is worth dying for."
In 1986 Michael Powell appeared on an episode of the arts-related Britsh TV program
  The South Bank Show devoted to him and his works with Emeric Pressburger. 

You can't keep this guy away from cameras or London's Soho district.
Carl Boehm played a reporter doing a story on strip clubs in the 1960
Jayne Mansfield film Too Hot to Handle (U.S. title: Playgirl After Dark).

"Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?"

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020