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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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  Steve's Logo

A few thoughts on returning to Peeping Tom
after 15 years.

By: Jeremy Robinson

How sleazy, pulpy, schlocky the film is. Within a few minutes of the opening, there's a prostitute on a lonely Soho street, the prostitute taking a client up to a shabby room, the murder of the prostitute, the anti-hero (Mark) watching his own film of the murder (over the opening credits), an old man buying soft porn in a newsagent, and Mark producing soft porn (photographing semi-clad women in a studio).

Peeping Tom has been widely celebrated as one of the great films about looking, about consumption, about cinema, about art, about the artist, about the relation between the artist, the artwork and the audience, about the relation between looking and pleasure, looking and desire, looking and death, and so on. All very familiar stuff from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis and film studies (the film's tailor-made for film studies - bring in some Freud here, some Bataille and de Sade there, add a little Lacan and Virillio, etc). The aggressive and violating camera, as Scorsese put it. And this is partly the problem with Peeping Tom. Like the films of Peter Greenaway or David Cronenberg, Peeping Tom is more like an academic essay about voyeurism and scopophilia, a join-the-dots lecture on the pleasures, risks and dangers of art. Plus, Peeping Tom employs the most stereotypical, clichéd thriller/ murder mystery plot you can imagine: a young man, a loner, a misfit, introspective, morbid, an outsider figure, abused as a child, etc etc etc, who murders sexualized women (prostitutes and actresses), and is befriended by an innocent he cannot bring himself to corrupt or kill.

Powell attacks the subject of voyeurism and murder aggressively in the opening scenes: the close-ups on cameras, projectors and eyes, the mirrors and reflections, exaggerated sounds (the rattle of a projector, a dripping tap, a heartbeat, whispered voiceover), and his love of visual rhymes and puns (eyes, drinks, sticks and tripods). You can see Powell having a ball in orchestrating his elaborate camera moves, his erotic, sleazy mise-en-abyme, his film-within-a-film tropes (Powell playing the murderer's father and torturer in home movies which he shot himself), the multiple reflections, mirrors, lenses, cameras, projections and screens (every shot in Peeping Tom seems to have been lit by a raking, unfiltered, unflattering horizontal light). It's not that Powell isn't at the top of his game in Peeping Tom - in its way, Peeping Tom is every bit as inventive as Powell's best work - it's that the plot, the characters, the situations are so cheesy, predictable, and shallow.

Despite all this, though, Peeping Tom does have bite and a nastiness which age hasn't dimmed. Peeping Tom also still feels 'contemporary' in its psychoanalytic treatment of a serial killer plot which draws on prostitution, cinema, acting, and pornography. And the conceit of having a murder in the opening shots which's replayed a moment later over the credits is a tour-de-force (one of the film's best cinematic ideas, this says everything necessary, and economically, in the first five minutes).

One of Powell's chief rivals with Peeping Tom is Hitchcock, of course, who had often tackled the very same subject in films such as Rear Window and Vertigo, and in the film was released around the time of Peeping Tom, Psycho. Comparing the two, Psycho has aged better than Peeping Tom; maybe it's the quality of performances (both Perkins and Leigh are outstanding), maybe it's the fantastic ending of Psycho, maybe it's the British setting of Peeping Tom which seems much more archaic now than the American milieu of Psycho (in Peeping Tom, people still call other 'old boy', and that bland late Fifties jazz really dates a film). Both films have many affinities, of course: lonely murderer, multiple murders, female victims, violence; both share tropes of eyes, voyeurism, eroticism, and so on. And both Peeping Tom and Psycho are helmed by British veterans who loved showing off their skills, who relished the controlled environment of the studio, who were notorious for their treatment of actors, who pursued the themes of voyeurism, eroticized violence, and men looking at women throughout their careers.

Powell also gets to revisit his musical extravaganza days in Peeping Tom, when he has Moira Shearer, a stand-in and wannabe star at one of the big British studios, leap around a sound stage after hours before becoming another murder victim. Shearer doesn't just do a few steps, she does a whole dance routine, which extends far beyond the demands of the plot (Boehm has little to do except shift lamps and furniture around while the camera cranes and tracks Shearer's lithe, mobile figure, in true Minnelli/ MGM style).

Ken Russell was bemused by Powell's decision to make Peeping Tom, in which 'he engineered his own suicide... Has any other director in the history of the cinema been buried by one of his own movies?' (1993). I don't agree with Uncle Ken: and if it was 'suicide', it was a helluva way to go.

It was more complicated, more ambiguous than that. Loads of directors recover from villified or flop films (Cimino after Heaven's Gate, Lynch after Dune, Hyams after End of Days, Sonnenfeld after Wild, Wild West, Coppola after One From the Heart and Jack, de Palma after Mission To Mars, Harlin after Cutthroat Island, de Bont after Speed 2, Verhoeven after Showgirls, etc).

Peeping Tom has rightly been reconsidered and reinstated as a Powell classic after its initial critical drubbing (whereas some of the above films deserve to die a thousand deathss). Many flops are not so bad after all (Heaven's Gate, for example, has some of the most exquisite cinematography in a modern movie), and many flops have a cult following. (But you've got to drawe the line somewhere: Speed 2, Battlefield Earth, Ishtar, The Avengers).

David Thomson seems closer to the truth: 'few directors ever had a milestone like that film, and I am still not quite sure whether to believe the standard explanation of how it stopped his career. After all, failures do not deter lesser directors, and Michael was only 55 when Tom opened. There had always been a feeling in Britain that he was dangerous or unsound; it was all the stranger in that Michael's genius went straight back to Chaucer, Hogarth, the Celtic Revival, Dickens, fairy stories and gallows humor. But he was un-English, too; he accepted the passion of story without demur; he thought excess was fundamental and he disdained the forms of politeness. He knew that everything valuable was fatal. He took it for granted that there was beauty and monstrousness in all of us.' What's true is that Powell never regained the heights of Peeping Tom or any of his other classics after it. Peeping Tom does seem to be the cut-off point in the Powell oeuvre.

What's memorable about Peeping Tom is Boehm's hesitant, shy performance, Anna Massey's enormous eyes and brisk and unflaggingly, impossibly guileless manner, Powell's director's bag of tricks opening up the pulp fiction story, the elements of (auto)biography (the actresses on screen that Powell had affairs with, the home movies, Mark as stand-in for Powell as director), and the vehemence underneath the polite, restrained middle-class dialogue and characters. Peeping Tom doesn't have the polish and grandeur of a film like Vertigo, but it's far superior to critically lauded films which treat some of the same themes, such as Blue Velvet.

Boehm was a brave casting choice, though he lacks charisma and subtlety, and cannot quite depict the depths of suffering and contradiction in the character. You wonder if other actors might've been made more of the role (someone like James Mason, for example. Too old, true, but terrific as the troubled Humbert in 'Lolita' released a couple of years later). Luckily, if Boehm is a little plodding, he is surrounded by some solid performances, particularly from Anna Massey, who manages to sustain the portrayal of a woman who's determined, right up to the end, to believe that her lover can't possibly be a sick, abused psychopath and serial killer (a theme revisited in many movies - most recently in the cycle of neo-noir or 'erotic thrillers').

Much of the time, though, Massey's character exists simply to reflect Mark or provide a pretext for his ramblings, and it's a bit pathetic when, at the climax, she faints away in the manner of a 19th century romantic heroine. The awkwardness of Boehm's performance enhances his character, but neither his nor Massey's characters are believable personalities, just as the London settings, the film studio, Mark's father's house, Soho, etc, aren't particularly convincing. But then, they're not meant to be. In 1960, while the French New Wave directors were shooting on the streets of Paris in a loose, handheld, spontaneous style, and the British 'kitchen sink' directors were shooting on location, Powell preferred to stay in the studio, controlling every aspect of the filmmaking process. Powell has never been a convincing naturalistic director, and when he attempts to portray something like a 'realistic' party filled with 'realistic' people of the late 1950s/ early 1960s (such as the people and dialogue at the 21st birthday party, for example), it looks stilted and false. But this is also precisely why Powell is a much, much greater director than Ken Loach, Karel Reisz and the whole social-realist 'kitchen sink' troupe.

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