course it's not just an animated recruiting poster
– in fact its
An optimistic Michael Powell on what was to be his
next movie in the U.K. during the critical furor
and political hand wringing over Peeping Tom.
But we now know that the superb 1960's Peeping Tom was effectively Powell's swan-song as a credible and revered director in his homeland – an artistic and creative loss that beggars belief. Here was one of the best at the height of his directorial power and the man could not raise a smile never mind a budget in the UK. There was subsequent work in Germany and for TV (can you imagine Alfred Hitchcock – oh wait. He did TV too). But Powell was lost to the film community as a tour de force movie director. In a letter to the Guardian in March 2000, Evening Standard stalwart reviewer Alexander Walker (whose opinions diverge from my own in quite spectacular ways) suggests that political infighting inside the distribution company was the cause of Powell's downfall. If you're intrigued, you can find this letter at this rather excellent P&P resource:
Let's be grateful for the body of work with his (and Emeric Preßburger's) name on it. Granted, Peeping Tom is not an Archers production (despite the arrow hitting the target logo) but it still resonates with Powell's mastery of form. Powell went on to work in Australia and directed a number of TV dramas but never regained his pre-eminence as one of the UK's most glorious talents. It's thanks to the likes of the so-called 70s movie brats (Scorsese in particular) that Powell enjoys a well deserved reputation of a master film maker.
There is a wonderful moment in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice when shrunk to miniature, the harrassed married couple, Geena Davies and Alex Baldwin, are negotiating terms with their diminutive ghost exorcist, Michael Keaton. Mr. K is on terrific form as a deranged crazy spirit. It's clear all he wants to do is cop a feel and make the best offer he can make for himself – in that order. During Baldwin's reasoning (you do not reason with Mr. K), Keaton picks up a stick and with its tip, raises Davies' skirt to take a peek. Baldwin stops this and as indignant as any creature has no right to be, Mr. K comes out with "What?", a bark of an exclamation, an unapologetic sneer which seemed to be saying "...but this is what I do, who I am, who are you to judge me?" It's also very funny. For a review of a movie about a twisted soul who kills with sharpened objects I am taking my time to get to the point. Here it is. Peeping Tom is Michael Powell's "What?" movie. And what a movie.
It's a film about a subject that does not exploit its subject or stand firm in agreement with its subject, something Daily Mail editorials on Oliver Stone often fail to grasp. This has been a point of debate and fierce opinion sharing in my own relationship with on screen horrors. I was accused of being sick (as in perverted) because I had seen David Fincher's Se7en eight times or so. How could I watch that sickening horror more than once? Because I appreciate and revel in the craft and artistry brought to the film. The fact that the subject matter is deeply horrific is neither here nor there. I wondered what sort of a person I'd be judged as being having admitted I'd seen Close Encounters about twenty odd times – and each screening in the cinema on its first run. It did not make me want to fly off in a city-sized chandelier with Richard Dreyfuss wishing on a star. It simply made me hugely satisfied and deeply moved as an audience member. The conclusion of Se7en – the second time I saw it – made my hands sweat even more. That's craft...
Peeping Tom is the story of Mark Lewis, an obsessive 16mm film enthusiast who is a focus puller by day (someone responsible for the correct focussing of the huge 35mm Mitchell movie cameras) and by night, a bored ultra-soft porno stills photographer (deeply shocking in 1960, laughable in 2007) and when his psychotic urge commands, a serial killer photographing his victims as they die screaming. He owns a house in which lodgers pay him rent but his footfalls are soft and unassuming in his upstairs chambers. He grew up – in the same house – with a biologist father who had a life scarring intellectual passion. Mark's father wanted to study the effect of fear upon childhood. Would you relish having a father like that? No, neither did Mark.
Mark, as a child, was filmed asleep, woken up by lights in the eyes and had lizards placed on his lap, scaring him to tears and planting the black seed of a very real and profound psychosis. But the element of Mark's twisted psyche that is most interesting is that he knows he's sick, the outsider, the peeping Tom. Historical note; Tom was apparently the name of the witness at the ride through town of the unclothed Lady Godiva. Let it never be said we inform you of nothing on this site. Mark has royally prepared for the moment when the word (and arrest warrant) is out and that is singular in this genre of film-making to say the least. Most cinematic psychos are not that self-aware.
As Scorsese's Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) was brought out of himself by a beautiful woman, so is Mark's psyche teased out by his fascination and affection for one of his tenants, the 21 year-old Helen. The daughter of Raymond Massey (see A Matter Of Life Or Death for the connection between Powell and the actor), Anna Massey plays Ms. Stephens, the innocent of the piece whose attraction to Mark seems more like the allure of the dangerous and unknown attracting almost prurient interest from the more conventional. Anna Massey is more known to modern audiences as Radio 4's voice of ‘This Sceptred Isle', but she has been very busy throughout a damn fine career including a turn 12 years later in Hitchcock's similarly lurid murder movie Frenzy.
Karl Böhm, (that's him at the top of this page clutching the camera in the mast-head of DVD Outsider) plays Mark Lewis with no mention or explanation of why anyone called Mark Lewis would have a faint but very definite Austrian accent. It's another aspect of his character that keeps him apart from the others. There were other actors in the frame for the part but Böhm's twitchy and yet assuredly sympathetic turn as the father-made psycho is a treat. Convincing an audience that you are so utterly beyond redemption because of the sins of the father – and that you have the audience's sympathies – is a juggling act that only very deft performers can pull off.
Peeping Tom's narrative spine (an examination of the effects of fear and the denial of our baser instincts) can be nullified by the 21st century's most ubiquitous and far-reaching technologies. Mark would not be Mark if he had access to the internet. Or perhaps (my God, yes!) he would have become an über-Mark, coursing through chat rooms and setting up victims in anonymity. But what detractors of the film have failed to appreciate is the movie's sly humour and real intelligence. Powell rarely lets a scene go by without a referential nod to his past career or a swipe at the power players in the industry at the time. Self referential aspects of any film made after 1985 tend to be tired, "Oh, Steven, we love you!" reassurances, artistically invalid insertions and cumbersome cringe-worthy schlock. But Powell had points to make.
Seeing the film again in 2007 reminds us of two things; one, how Peeping Tom's society was on the turn developing a more liberal stance regarding our baser instincts (the sixties were about to swing) and two; how quaint the early sixties were sans internet pornography and access to almost anything anyone desired at the click of a mouse. I am not sure how the latter has skewed us as a society but I for one am glad all this stuff is available – we are what we do. We can now do anything albeit virtually. So is it now easier to define who we are? Who are we?
The biggest subject of psychological and academic discussion about the movie has been that of the casting of Mark's father in black and white flashback via Mark's home movies. Not only does director Powell play the father who inflicts these terrors onto his son but his fictional son is played by his real son Columba. Let's not even go down the road that tells us that the dead wife was played by Powell's real – living – wife at the time. In retrospect, no lasting damage done (see the Extra Features, particularly a photo in the Gallery of a laughing father and son on set). What critics and academics seem to fail to realise repeatedly (obviously this depends on the academic) is that movies are not real (duh) and the lizard dropped on to Mark/Columba's bed was probably a pet or if not, a lizard thoroughly vetted by the Powell family. Acting is acting. It's make-believe that you believe at your peril. I'm still reminded of the actor who played a crippled Sandy in the 70s' soap opera Crossroads who was beaten with a umbrella toting woman on a train platform (he was standing up unaided by props) because his wheelchair status was obviously a ruse he used to ensnare women. How can 'normal' people believe what they see on TV? What part of their minds are switched off or on, the parts that allow them to fix the invented as truth? Hullo, American politics!
There are many stand-out instances in Peeping Tom that bring out tugs of appreciation. As Mark and Helen's relationship develops over a meal at a restaurant, the raw footage of his latest murder develops in fluid back at his digs. The knife-ended tripod is phallically comic when Mark raises it only to quickly lower it when he is questioned by Moira Shearer, the flaming red head so hypnotic in Powell's masterpiece The Red Shoes. The camera Mark carries with him at all times (the exception being the date with Helen) has three lenses harking back to George Pal's and Byron Haskin's Martian's ocular capacity in the original War of the Worlds. Is Mark that alien a creature? Fluids cut to fluids in at least two instances, one to a whisky bottle delivering its contents to Helen's blind mother.
Her blindness is of course in stark contrast to Mark's all-seeing (three) eyes but Helen's mother is the one who ironically sees him most clearly and Maxine Audley is tremendous in the role, both commanding and vulnerable. The stand out scene for me is the one in which she confronts Mark in his own womb-like cinema. Here is a woman looking out for her daughter who knows that the object of Helen's affections is a deeply damaged and dangerous soul. But she still confronts him and afraid for her life she has all of her fears vindicated.
Peeping Tom preceded Halloween by almost 20 years (the first person killer as point of view camera). Its amorality is tamer than a cage full of hamsters (we are, after all, nearly half a century away from its context). But still this movie has a raw power, the power of madness communicated by intelligence, like the whispered translation of a scream of fury. Powell is and will always be up there with Hitchcock and Lean. It just needed a movie brat to remind the rest of the world...
Finally, may I just say what an odd but comforting honour it is to review a movie that inspired this site's terrific logo. You don't get more outsider than Mark Lewis with his camera and seeing him at the mast-head of the site always gives me a warm (and let's not forget severely twisted) glow.
|sound and vision|
Any real fan of Peeping Tom will be aware that the film was released on DVD in the US as a part of the Criterion Collection, which usually sets a standard that others are going to struggle to equal (there are, it has to be said, some notable exceptions). The Criterion Peeping Tom featured a fine anamorphic transfer, but Optimum come very close to matching it. Detail, colour and contrast are all very pleasing, although there are some occasional variances in picture sharpness and clarity, as if some shots had been restored from lesser quality prints. It's only on close inspection that the differences between the two transfers are really visible, with detail and contrast just a shade stronger on the Criterion disc, and the colour in some shots feels a little more true. The framing is 1.78:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.
It seems appropriate to call to attention a very odd aspect of the film's DVD debut on R2. There is a one frame bit of sparkle under Nat Cohen's credit (in the middle of the ‘e') at the front credits of the movie. The same dot of sparkle appears on both the Criterion DVD print and the Optimum version. This could, of course, be the fact that the original negative from which both inter-positives were struck had the same sparkle on it but I just throw it into the arena for argument's sake. I noticed the opening of Peeping Tom on the Criterion disc has a lot more dirt and dust.
The mono soundtrack is as good as you'd expect from a British film of this vintage, clear enough but with a restricted dynamic range typical of the period.
On playing the movie, you have a choice to have the Martin Scorsese introduction or not. Have it. This man has the passion. If Michael Powell had a guardian angel, his name would be Scorsese. He may have slowed down in the intervening years but the passion is still there. Take it away Marty!
Eye of the Beholder
An 18 minute, 46 second look at the production from those involved and those affected by the movie. It's fairly solid and features Scorsese, film writer and academic Ian Christie and Micky Powell's son, Columba, putting paid to fears that he was irrevocably damaged by his participation in the film.
The Strange Gaze of Mark Lewis
A love letter to Michael Powell from French film-maker Betrand Tavernier. Let's face it, the French – as a true film-making nation – can recognise genius! It's almost 25 minutes long and a treat to hear how bloody nice Powell really was. But then in my limited minutes with the great man, he was courtesy personified.
Thelma Schoonmaker is certainly one of the most famous and revered film editors in the world. If film editing had a star system, Walter Murch would be Tom Hanks but Thelma would shine as Julia Roberts... I'm not sure Thelma would be too pleased about that comparison but she comes across as someone who really cares. As Powell's ex-wife, she also is keeping her late husband's reputation alive in the best and most provocative sense. At just over 10 minutes, the interview is succinct and she comes across as being extremely earthy and real.
[As someone who met and briefly spoke to Thelma Schoonmaker about the cinema of Michael Powell, I can confirm that that she is just as she appears in the interview, and a true enthusiast for cinema – Slarek]
14 stills from the production – all in black and white and one of them (mentioned above) is a classic. Freudians note – movies are make believe!!!
"Fear him but pity him also!" You have to love the original trailers, like some historical nugget unearthed. At 2 minutes, 25 seconds, Peeping Tom being bigged up for a late 50s audience. I would have gone to see it...
To Optimum's credit, they have advertised their other outsider-themed DVD releases with the original trailers of The Wicker Man, Don't Look Now and The Quatermass Experiment. All power to that creative decision. They understand context and curiosity...
Ian Christie (author of a splendid book on The Archers) and film academic takes us through the film methodically and succinctly. His background stories and historical information are always informative and entertaining but there is a slight whinge. In order to give us some background, he has to deliver some foreground and those who have seen the film know the foreground. It's a bit odd to be told that "As Mark is doing 'x' and Helen is doing 'y'..." while we see both Mark and Helen at their 'x' and 'y's. First rule of any commentary is not to describe what is being seen. A small quibble as I'd probably make the same assumptions. But for informative content alone, the commentary gets a 9 out of 10.
Possibly featuring a cleaner print that the R1 Criterion disc, this version of Peeping Tom shines. If Micky Powell were around today, he'd have applauded the efforts to get one of his most singular works more widely appreciated in the U.K. Terrific stuff.