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Submitted by Terry Hanstock

Is the Filmgoer the Murderer?
Michael Powell's notorious film is more gruesome than its reputation,
but more ingratiating as well

David Ehrenstein
New Times Los Angeles
March 25, 1999

    "There are some films whose existence makes the world a worse place to live, and this is one of them." So wrote Kenneth Turan in the L.A. Times of 8mm, the Nicholas Cage-starred, Joel Schumacher-directed thriller about snuff films--those porno loops that urban legend would have it record a woman's actual death. Going on to call the movie, which briefly topped the box-office charts a few weeks ago, "a tawdry piece of work whose only raison d'Etre is making the skin crawl in the name of box-office profit," Turan appears intent on breaking the world's record in critical brickbat-tossing. But to those familiar with the movies, such barbs have an eerily familiar ring. Back in 1960, an entire squadron of British film scribes dive-bombed a similarly themed but far less graphically enacted thriller called Peeping Tom, by the celebrated director Michael Powell.

    "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom," wrote London Tribune's critic at the time, "would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." The Observer was equally harsh: "I don't propose to name the players of this beastly picture," wrote its critic. The Daily Worker's reviewer fulminated over how Tom "wallows in the diseased urges of a homicidal pervert and actually romanticizes his pornographic brutality," with director Powell "befouling the screen with such perverted nonsense."

    Indeed, many were taken aback at the sight of Powell--the man who made The Thief of Bagdad, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus, and the much-beloved dance drama The Red Shoes--directing a film about a curiously ingratiating serial killer (Carl Boehm) whose weapon of choice is a knife concealed in the tripod of a camera that records his victim's death agonies. Unlike Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, and the other Hammer films those same critics were decrying, Tom offered scarcely a trace of blood or gore. Powell discreetly cut to the next scene whenever a "kill" was in the offing. Nor does the film feature any verbal musings on serial-killing technique--so popular these days in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs and Seven.

    What got under its critics' skins was the uncanny way that Tom--whose ancestors include Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger and Fritz Lang's M--addressed the process of moviemaking and moviegoing themselves. Audiences want to see something horrible happen--even if only to peek at it from behind frightened fingers. They don't want to feel responsibility for desiring what they're seeing; as Powell and his screenwriter, Leo Marks, insist we do. And Powell made the entire process doubly personal by casting himself as the killer's evil psychologist father, whose experiments with frightening and then filming his son turned him into a monster. To top it off, Powell's own son, Columba, plays the killer as a child.

    Odd that at the very moment of Tom's making, Hitchcock was engaged in Psycho, a far less decorous film about an equally simpatico slasher who carves up his victims in a motel shower. Like Tom, Psycho opened to unfavorable (but nowhere near as scathing) notices. But while Powell's film made some money, Hitchcock's was a blockbuster. Its fame both climaxed its maker's career and founded a new genre of horror film, whose derivatives run from the Friday the 13th and Halloween to Kevin Williamson's Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer to Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake, right up to the Turan-excoriated 8mm.

    Peeping Tom, by contrast, brought Powell's career to a screeching halt. After completing the character drama The Queen's Guard, which had begun shooting when Tom was released, Powell never made another film in his native country again. Emigrating to Australia, he shot several features, including Helen Mirren's debut film, Age of Consent, and the children's television film The Boy Who Turned Yellow. TV served as something of a professional refuge, employing him for such series as Espionage, The Defenders, and The Nurses. It was a far cry from the glory days of Tales of Hoffmann and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but it was work.

    Unlike Psycho, Peeping Tom had no imitators, save for the obscure 1992 Brian DePalma thriller Raising Cain. It did, however, gather a number of admirers over the years, including Roman Polanski, Jean-Pierre Melville, and--most important of all--Martin Scorsese. Long a Powell enthusiast thanks to repeated viewings of his key films on late-night TV in New York, Scorsese and Powell became correspondents after Powell saw, and greatly enjoyed, Scorsese's Mean Streets. A mutual admiration society developed, with Powell becoming part of Scorsese's extended family through marriage to Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker in 1984. The film-savvy can spot references to Powell in New York New York (Robert DeNiro checks into a hotel under Powell's name) and in the "Life Lessons" episode of New York Stories. (Powell can be seen enjoying himself at a Soho party.)

    Scorsese has made the resurrection of Powell's reputation in general, and that of Peeping Tom in particular, a very personal project. Acquiring U.S. distribution rights, he repremiered Tom at the 1979 New York Film Festival to much acclaim. Powell bloomed under the sun Scorsese was providing for him, going on to write a memoir, A Life in Movies (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), and its posthumously published sequel, Million Dollar Movie (Random House, 1995). (Powell died in 1990.) The latter volume is the most extraordinary autobiography since Josef Von Sternberg's equally idiosyncratic Fun in a Chinese Laundry. Powell called these two books "social history." When he came to L.A. in 1987 to celebrate the release of A Life in the Movies, he described himself as "a serious young man."

    "I gave my whole life to the movies," he said, "and I wanted to put on record that it was worthwhile."

    Powell was pleased that a new generation had come to understand what he and his collaborators were trying to do in the face of a hostile industry. "No matter what they say to you, behind it you can hear: 'We don't like it because to us it's an art film, and we don't understand a word of it. And therefore the public won't understand a word of it.' That's how these bastards work. They look at a film like Stairway to Heaven, and they don't say, 'It's a wonderful film,' or 'I hate it.' They just say, 'How are we going to sell this film?' Because they can't imagine that anybody would want to buy a ticket."

    But he was confident that his movie would find an audience. "The public knows," he said. "It always knows. And when we make a film as basically difficult as Peeping Tom, the public knows what it's all about."

    Yet, does today's public "know" about the films it goes to see? It knows enough to steer clear of the likes of 8mm once the bad word of mouth gets out. Yet it still lines up for Armageddon--an equally grotesque monstrosity whose technical sophistication fails to mask a "story" more primitive than that of The Great Train Robbery. What such viewers will make of Peeping Tom--provided they can be lured inside the Nuart's doors--is an open question. The repulsion Powell's critics felt in 1960 has long subsided in the wake of shockers as diverse as Pasolino's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Caspar Noe's about-to-be-released I Stand Alone. Yet the clinical calm with which Powell dissects our darkest and most desperate thoughts is as unsettling as ever.

    Tom has none of the gallows humor that was Hitchcock's stock-in-trade. Instead it shows how a filmmaker's search for perfection is nearly synonymous with the desire for self-destruction. Rather than a witty monster of the Peter Lorre or Anthony Hopkins variety, we see a young man even nicer than Psycho's Norman Bates--and without the split personality that separated Bates so neatly from his crimes. Most important of all, Peeping Tom shows us that film itself is "murderous"--pinning its victims to the screen like butterflies in a collector's display or like an American President forced to "tell all" under oath about adultery. That's the sort of horror no critic, past or present, can easily dismiss.

    Peeping Tom

    Directed by Michael Powell. Written by Leo Marks. Starring Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey. New 33mm print. Opens Friday for one week at the Nuart.