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R E V I L E D   B U T   R E S U R R E C T E D

michael powell
peeping tom



Magazine cover
It was mid-October, 1978, and Michael Powell had just arrived in Manhattan for the New York Film Festival. Yes, the Michael Powell, the soft spoken, slyly intimidating genius behind THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD, THE RED SHOES, TALES OF HOFFMAN and other gems of cinema magic comfortably ensconced in a downtown Gotham penthouse, readying himself to be feted as the festival's guest of honor.

The specific occasion was the belated U.S. premiere of the uncut British print of Powell's 1960 cause celebre, PEEPING TOM.

Nobody could have blamed Powell if he had tersely declined the festival organizers' entreaties and stayed at home in London. The media reaction to PEEPING TOM 18 years earlier had demolished Powell's career.

An onslaught of unanimously negative reviews, printed in the omnipotent British press, terrified the film's distributor and assured commercial disaster.

Critics and newspaper editorial pundits denounced Powell with the sort of hyperbole normally reserved for white slavers and pedophiles.

The man who had been formerly declared "Britain's most eminent filmmaker" became, literally overnight, an industry pariah. Never again would the resources of a major studio be turned over to him.

All of this flooded through my mind as I sat across a table from Powell on this crisp autumn afternoon. We were passing the time casually on the patio outside the top-floor apartment owned by Powell's host, American television producer Herbert Brodkin. Powell had agreed to spend a few afternoons with me, so that I could gather enough interview material for a magazine profile.

"I'm delighted to come to America to talk about PEEPING TOM," he said, "and I'm really overwhelmed-and overjoyed that they're finally presenting the full version in the U.S., even if it is nearly 20 years after the fact.

"PEEPING TOM is a very special, personal film for me. Whatever pain I suffered as a result of the film's mistreatment is part of the past."

As if to offer proof, Powell produced the thick file folder he had been searching for during our conversation. It was a portion of his collected memorabilia related to production of PEEPING TOM - letters of correspondence, a copy of the original screenplay, 8x10 photos of the cast and crew, and so on. I intended to inquire about a deficiency of newspaper reviews among the PEEPING TOM clippings, but Powell-abruptly breaking into a wide grin-exclaimed "Aha!" upon unearthing something within that folder.

Still smiling, Powell handed me the 8x10, a candid shot of himself, PEEPING TOM star Carl Boehm, and Stuart Levy, vice-president of Anglo Amalgamated, the film's distributor-assembled in the lobby of the London Plaza Cinema. They were all smiles and hearty handclasps before the first showing of the night's film premiere.

"The caption should read, 'In happier times,"' Powell chuckled. "We didn't look like that coming out of the theater after the show. They nearly lynched us. Then the reviews appeared in the London papers, and that sealed the film's fate. Nat Cohen, the head of Anglo Amalgamated, pulled the film after five days. I said, 'You're pulling it? And over what, bad reviews? You stand by our film. You weather the storm. "But he was a coward and his mind was made up." Shaking my head, I responded, "You've got a thicker hide than I have. I sure as hell wouldn't be laughing, even 18 years after the fact. Not over an event that nearly ended my career."

Powell nodded in understanding silence, then said, 'Well, let me assure you, my boy; I wasn't laughing back then."

For nearly two decades, American movie buffs could only read about PEEPING TOM. Originally dumped on the urban grindhouse circuit in 1960 by Astor Pictures (the soon-to-be-defunct distributor of such '50s quickies as ROBOT MONSTER and FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER), the film was shorn of more than 20 minutes-partly for Code reasons but chiefly to guarantee easy double-billing. Within a year, it was relegated to theatrical obscurity when Astor folded after a string of misguided (and mismarketed) art-film acquisitions like Truffaut's SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER ('60), which the company was ill-equipped to promote. When PEEPING TOM was sold to independent TV stations in the early '60s, along with other Astor product, it was slapped with a new title (FACE OF FEAR) and truncated by another eight minutes.

In England, PEEPING TOM has always been circulated in its complete form. The centerpiece of several articles on the British horror boom, and lengthy passages in books on the horror genre-most notably the late Carlos Clarens? An Illustrated History of the Horror Film ('67) and David Pirie's A Heritage of Horror ('74) - the film seemed to dangle frustratingly just beyond the grasp of American aficionados who desperately wanted to see it.

Years later, home video would have rendered such obscurity unthinkable. Unexpurgated versions of even the most trivial Hammer films-such as COUNTESS DRACULA and 'VAMPIRE CIRCUS (both '71), a feature double-bill packed with nudity, sleazy sex and abundant gore in its "X' Certificate version, but trimmed to assure a chaste PG by its American distributor-have found their way onto the video underground. Devotees for whom nothing less than a pristine copy will suffice can ignore the underground market, and instead rummage through the import bins for Asian-release laserdiscs, which include every last frame of a film's explicit content ... and letterbox it to boot.

But such options were only to be dreamt of in 1978, when home video was in its infancy. It took American director Martin Scorsese, a compulsive collector of movies (with a private collection of 35mm and 16mm prints), to restore PEEPING TOM and make it available to U.S. audiences.

As a young movie buff growing up in New York City, and haunting the 42nd Street grindhouses for rare double-bills with his friends, Scorsese had seen PEEPING TOM-but only in its butchered Astor Pictures version. He finally caught a screening of a complete print during a 1977 trip to London. He arranged with Corinth Films, a small New York-based distributor, to supervise the first U.S. release of the complete PEEPING TOM. (In an unrelated arrangement, Corinth also acquired U.S. rights to the classic 1957 Hammer film, QUATERMASS 2-which United Artists had released here as ENEMY FROM SPACE - distributing the film to American TV under its original title.) Like most horror films whose premise is startling and unique, PEEPING TOM is also eerily simple. Powell's film, which was written by Leo Marks (in close collaboration with the director), follows the activities of a brooding, deeply disturbed young man who works as a camera assistant at a movie studio outside London. After completing his mundane studio chores, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) makes extra money taking pornographic "glamour" stills in a cheap flat above a tobacconists' shop. (Powell's flair for verisimilitude extended to having Pamela Green, a strikingly beautiful and hugely popular pin-up model of the '50s and '60s sort of "Blonde and British Bettie Page" - portray Millie, the most talkative of the models in the makeshift studio above the shop.)

Once darkness falls, Mark's day really begins. Prowling the streets of London's rundown East End with a 16mm camera (his one constant companion throughout the film), Mark murders women and photographs their anguished faces at the moment of death, processing the film himself and editing it into a documentary on terror. The son of a famous (and now deceased) psychologist and author, Mark was the subject/victim of a series of vicious experiments on human behavior conducted by his father. His adult obsession with death and fear is a direct result of the suffering he endured at the hands of his father, and remains ambiguous enough for Mark to be regarded as a sympathetic protagonist.

It is characteristic of Powell that PEEPING TOM's title, while perfect from a commercial marketing standpoint, is a misnomer. Mark Lewis is many things-homicidal, perverse, dangerous-but a Peeping Tom isn't one of them. I mentioned this to Powell, and he smiled that sly, knowing smile of his again, as if pleased that a young friend had caught on to a confidence game without any prompting from him. But he didn't say anything. In his introduction to Million Dollar Movie, the posthumously published second volume of Powell's autobiography, Martin Scorsese writes, "There was always a mystery about Michael Powell. He liked mystery." The titling of PEEPING TOM-which Powell pretends to explain in the book, without really doing so-is one of his smaller mysteries.

Powell was introduced to Leo Marks by a producer at Shepperton Studios, who knew the director was looking for someone to replace Emeric Pressburger, his collaborator of many years. Marks was a little-known writer with no film experience, but wild ambitions ("He had a grip of iron," Powell said of his first handshake with Marks). One of these was a movie about espionage, another was a study of scopophilia, "the morbid urge to gaze," and this would become PEEPING TOM.

PEEPING TOM started out, though, as a film about Freud ("not a biography," Powell interjected, "but a film about his work"), but the project was dropped when Powell and Marks learned that John Huston was preparing a conventional biography on the famous psychologist. Still determined to make a film on the human psyche (largely due to Marks' obsession with psychoanalysis), they came up with the premise of PEEPING TOM.

"The script was written over a period of four to five months," Powell recalled. "Leo came over to my house twice a week after dinner. We would go over what he'd written. The script very much became a part of my own thinking."

The film became so personal that Powell cast himself as the "hero's" sinister father, seen in home movie flashbacks, and his own son as young Mark Lewis in the same black-and-white footage. ("He was seven-the right age-and it seemed like a good idea.")

The film's original star was to have been, not Boehm, but British actor Laurence Harvey. But Harvey was about to be catapulted to major stardom by the agents and talent scouts who had seen advance screenings of his performance in Jack Clayton's ROOM AT THE TOP ('59). Besides, his salary, even at pre-superstardom rates, was too rich for PEEPING TOM's budget.

PEEPING TOM was made for 135,000 (about $380,000) on a six-week schedule, which keeps it very much in the modest range of Hammer Film Productions and other low-budget studios. It wasn't an exploitation picture, yet it was accompanied by a fairly titillating ad campaign in Britain and an almost maniacal one in the U.S., where Astor made the most of the razor-sharp, phallic tripod extension on which the cameraman-murderer impales his female victims. PEEPING TOM was also financed and distributed by Anglo Amalgamated (the forerunner to EMI), the staunchly commercial independent which, during the same 12 month period, produced CIRCUS OF HORRORS ('59) and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (also '59), two lavishly gruesome, chop-licking gore movies whose themes of voyeurism and sadism dovetailed with PEEPING TOM'S, neatly forming what critic David Pirie called "a Sadean trilogy."

Powell furrowed his brow but said nothing when I startled him with Pirie's grouping of the three films. But it seemed to intrigue him, and he looked away slightly, pondering it privately. I asked if he had seen CIRCUS OF HORRORS and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. I knew the likelihood of Powell's seeing them as a filmgoer was absurd, but they were produced by Anglo Amalgamated, with whom he was partnered on PEEPING TOM, so maybe, I thought ...

"No," said Powell dryly, interrupting my reverie, somehow 1 managed to avoid them."

The productions of PEEPING TOM and Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO-both of which were about psychopathic murderers, filmed by British directors and greeted by an uncomprehending press in the same year, 1959-overlapped slightly. But the Hitchcock picture was released first, and was an immediate hit despite (or perhaps because of'?) several prominent, negative reviews.

Powell's second job in the fledgling British film industry of the 1930s was as a still photographer at Elstree Studios. (He had earlier been an assistant to the flamboyant silent-film director Rex Ingram, who made THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and the horror classic, THE MAGICIAN.) He assigned himself to what appeared to be the most ambitious production on the Elstree lot, which happened to be directed by a young Hitchcock. The two men became fast friends.

"By the late 1950s, Hitchcock's career was in the doldrums, you must remember," Powell recalled. "NORTH BY NORTHWEST ('59) had been a success, but VERTIGO ('58), a far more personal film, was a commercial failure. But PSYCHO was tremendous, in every way. I thought, 'Well, the Old Master's done it again,? because of the humor, and sent him a wire to Hollywood. Next night the phone rang, and I heard the great voice say, "This is Hitchcock calling London. Thank you, old boy.'

"Today, I think PEEPING TOM would have been more successful," Powell declared during our 1978 meeting, "and it would not have received those reviews, had there been more humor in it. There is no streak of humor running through the film, as there is in PSYCHO. It really is unrelenting, and I have to take responsibility for that. PEEPING TOM is not an easy film to watch. All the same, it is the film I wanted to make."

It was not a film that British critics wanted to see. Already reeling from the international success of Hammer's vivid Gothic horrors which represented Britain's role in the world market far more than the drawing room comedies and stiff-upper-lip war sagas that British critics preferred the staid London press greeted PEEPING TOM with an orgy of hyperbole. "The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing," raged The Spectator's Isobel Quigley. "Was shocked to the core to find a director of Powell's standing befouling the screen with such perverted nonsense," exclaimed the Daily Worker's Nina Hibbin. "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as PEEPING TOM ... I don't propose to name the players in this beastly picture," ranted The Observer's C.A. (Caroline) Lejeune. (Actually, the "long time" was exactly two years - Lejeune's similarly "disgusted" review of Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN had run in 1957.)

But it was left to The Tribune's Derek Hill to deliver the death blow: "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. It succeeds in being alternately dull and repellent."

Powell was flabbergasted-and hurt by the personal fury in some of the reviews-but the passage of time helped him place things in perspective. "I was already regarded as unpredictable," he said, "and PEEPING TOM was all it took. I never discovered what the British critics found so horrendous, because it's not an explicitly violent film at all-that whole business about how the film should be shoveled up and flushed down a sewer. Unbelievable. The film is a psychological study, and that's where we put our effort. There's no blood seen at all until the end."

Powell directed only one major film after PEEPING TOM, 1961's THE QUEEN'S GUARDS, a gushingly patriotic costume epic which has the uncomfortable feel of an act of penance for it predecessor.

Shortly after PEEPING TOM's official revival at the 1978 New York Film Festival Powell relocated more or less permanently to the U.S. H became an adviser and confidante to Scorsese (contributing, among other things, a portion of the ending to 1980's RAGING BULL), taught at the university level, and married one final time-to the Oscar-wining film editor, Thelma Schoomaker [sic]. Various film projects were proposed and reluctantly dropped when financing fell through. Finally, as his eyesight began to fail, Powell had to accept that his career as a filmmaker was behind him.

But he remained creatively vital to the end. Unable to continue as a director, he became a celebrated writer. A Life in Movies, the first volume of Powell's autobiography, is generally considered one of the most insightful first-person accounts of the history of filmmaking. Million Dollar Movie, the second volume, was published in hardcover after the death of its author.

The book contains Powell's own account of the preparation, production, release and aftermath of PEEPING TOM. And this time, he remembered to put the humor in.

Shorn of 20 minutes, PEEPING TOM was dumped on the U.S. grindhouse circuit by Z-distributor, Astor Pictures. Promoted with a "maniacal" campaign (perhaps Influenced by William Castle), the film was camouflaged in titillation.

Now read what Pamela Green has to say about her part in it.

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