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Radio Times: 19-25 November 1988

A peep at Powell

Director Michael Powell's career never
recovered from the scandal of
'Peeping Tom', but now the film's a classic
of British cinema, writes Ian Christie

The Film Club: Peeping Tom
Saturday 11.00pm BBC2

    A Woman caught in the view-finder of a movie camera. She invites the unseen cameraman to come upstairs. Her weary cynicism falters and turns to apprehension, then terror ...

    There are few films that pack more menace into a pre-credit sequence than Michael Powell's notorious Peeping Tom. And what follows has an unnerving logic, as we discover the Jekyll and Hyde secret of Mark, the polite young film technician, and penetrate the anguish and ecstasy of his private film studio.

    Was Powell really serious when he told the young Bertrand Tavernier, then an admiring critic, that it was "a tender, almost romantic film"? Or was this another example of the eccentric humour that has got Powell into trouble with British guardians of taste throughout his long career?

    There are plenty of instances of this in Peeping Tom, from jokes about The Observer to having the blind actor Esmond Knight play a typical British director making the kind of ghastly comedy-thriller that could drive a focus-puller to murder, or worse!

    Of course, there's more to romanticism than daffodils and wistful heroines. Shelly spoke of "the tempestuous loveliness of terror" and his wife Mary conceived an archetypal modern myth in her Gothic thriller Frankenstein. Even the Marquis de Sade's obscene fantasies belong quite clearly to what is now tidily classified as 'Romanticism'.

    It was indeed under the more or less respectable label of 'sadism' that Peeping Tom first gained recognition as a powerful parable about the intrinsic fascination of cinema - a Frankenstein for our image-saturated era. Watching a film in the dark grants us the guilty pleasure of seeing without being seen. Quite apart from what's on screen - and Peeping Tom was pretty inexplicit, even by 1960 standards - there seems to be something inherently voyeuristic about the cinema which makes us all to some extent 'Peeping Toms'. So perhaps Maxine Audley, as the blind mother of Mark's would-be saviour Anna Massey, is right in her intuition that "all this filming isn't healthy".

    For although Mark is trapped in a family history that has fatally, murderously, made him equate love with pain, he's clearly acting out something more universal as he pursues his obsession. As we watch the personable Carl Boehm making and seeing his film, irresponsibly wanting him to succeed but horrified by the process, we get caught up in the kind of reflections on the medium that occupy, much more respectably, Cocteau in Le Testamement d'Orphée, or Picasso in his late variations on artist and model.

    Unwarranted speculation? What clinches this line of interpretation for many admirers of the film is Powell's remarkable decision to include himself as the sinister father, and his own son Columba as the young Mark. We also know the first project that Powell and writer Leo Marks considered was a film about psychoanalysis, until John Huston beat them to it with Freud - The Secret Passion.

    None of this however, counted for much when Peeping Tom fell under the stony gaze of the British film press in May 1960 - just four months before a bombshell from that other quintessential English director Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho. But Hitch fared well in comparison with Powell. "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much," declared C.A. Lejeune in (aptly) The Observer. "Wholly evil," judged the Daily Worker, while the Daily Telegraph noted, "Sick minds will be highly stimulated." Tribune, meanwhile, proposed more drastic action: "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer."

    Their revulsion was - and perhaps still is, in a climate of renewed calls for censorship - perfectly understandable. Peeping Tom remains shocking for a reason that one 1960 reviewer (appropriately in The Spectator) expressed perfectly: "We have had glossy horrors before... but never such insinuating, under-the-skin horrors, and never quite such a bland effort to make it look as if this isn't for nuts but for normal, homely filmgoers like you and me."

    The greatness of Peeping Tom, and the reason why it fired the imagination of a whole generation of young film critics and makers (including most of American 60s new wave), is precisely that it translates a hitherto Gothic 'romantic agony' into modern English and renovates its profoundly disturbing impact. Powell's career in British cinema never recovered from the scandal of Peeping Tom, but undaunted he told Tavernier, "it's my most sincere film."

Ian Christie is the author of
"Powell, Pressburger and Others"
and "Arrows of Desire"

Note: Peeping Tom was first shown on TV in the UK on ITV (Thames region) on Monday, Dec 15, 1969 at 10.30. The broadcast was in colour but presumably 99% of the audience were watching in b/w.

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