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Peeping Tom: The Myths
By: Steve Crook
There are various myths that have become associated with Peeping Tom (1960). Let's have a look at the facts behind those myths.
"PEEPING TOM" had a normal London
General Release on Sunday May 22nd
1960 as illustrated here from
'What's On in London'
Myth #1: Peeping Tom killed the career of director Michael Powell
This is one of the most oft-repeated myths associated with the film. It is true that the film got the killer reviews from the London critics in 1960. These were so over-the-top that they can be described as hysterical. There is also a suspicion of collusion between the critics. It's rare for critics to be in such agreement and to all have such a strong reaction. Were they just waiting for an opportunity to gang up on him?
The British film critics had never really understood or liked the films of Powell & Pressburger. While P&P were making Blimp, AMOLAD and TRS the critics were still championing "the documentary film" as the only proper form for a British film. They wanted ultra-realism and didn't like or trust all this art and emotion that was to be found in P&P films. Even a highly respected critic like C.A. Lejeune who generally supported P&P still asked "But what is it all about?" of Blimp.
But did Peeping Tom destroy Michael Powell's career?
It's true that he wasn't able to direct any feature films in the UK after Peeping Tom was released and got those bad reviews. Well, not quite. He directed The Queen's Guards (1961) but that wasn't a huge hit (more of that later). But was it just because of Peeping Tom and the reviews that got that he wasn't able to direct any more major feature films in the UK?
Through the heyday of the Powell & Pressburger films they had always been financed by one or other of the two major studios in the UK at the time. Either Rank Films where they were supported by J. Arthur Rank or by London Films where they were supported by Alexander Korda. But by the 1960s, things had changed, drastically, for those institutions. Rank had almost been bankrupted by some expensive films like Gabby Pascal's Caesar and Cleopatra (1948) and then by over-extending in the American market. J. Arthur Rank had been forced to step aside and the company was run by the accountant John Davis who had had previous run-ins with Powell. London Films finally lost the ability to convince people that they were solvent in the mid 1950s. Alexander Korda hadn't done anything in films since 1955.
With the loss of these two champions and their open wallets Powell struggled to find the necessary finance for any project he wanted to make. He had also been spoiled to quite an extent by the freedom he had under Rank & Korda. Although they would finance the P&P films, neither Rank nor Korda had much say in their content or anything about them. As long as they made a profit, and they did, this arrangement was satisfactory to all parties.
Powell had grown used to having full control over his films and was unwilling to relinquish that control. He didn't see why the financiers should do anything other than provide the finance. Even when an old friend like Alexander Korda wanted more control over a film Powell got into a furious row with him which finished by Korda saying "I'll see that you never work in this country again".
Add to that his long standing feud with John Davies at Rank, (the producer in Peeping Tom is given the poorly disguised name of Don Jarvis) and it's easy to see why Powell would find it difficult to fund his projects.
By 1960, times were also changing, quite dramatically. Remember that the "swinging sixties" were still some years off, they didn't start until about 1965. But there were other stirrings in Britain, things were changing. With the plays and films dubbed "kitchen sink dramas" like Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963), playwrights and film-makers were questioning the old order. Could Powell have made films like this? What about when the "swinging sixties" really got going? Could he have made films like Darling (1965) or Blow-Up (1966)?
So after quite a few failed projects, most of which failed due to lack of funding, Powell went to Australia where he made They're a Weird Mob and Age of Consent. He also made Herzog Blaubarts Burg (Bluebeard's Castle) in Germany and three episodes of the British TV series Espionage. He went to America and made episodes of two TV series there (The Nurses and The Defenders). But he had essentially become a jobbing director, scrabbling around for work. What a comedown for the director of a run of 17 award winning feature films made in about as many years when he was at the height of his powers.
In fact it has been suggested that it was The Queen's Guards that did more damage to Powell's reputation and to his career then Peeping Tom. After it's initial release it was shown once on British TV (on the afternoon of Sunday, July 28th, 1974) it's been hard to see it anywhere. It's only once been included in a retrospective of Powell's work, that was at The 2002 Donostia - San Sebastián Film Festival. After seeing it there I wrote a review of it. It's not a missing masterpiece. In fact in many ways, it's a very badly made film.
Myth #2: Peeping Tom was withdrawn from release after the bad reviews
This is the second big myth told about Peeping Tom. Powell relates it himself in his autobiography and everyone repeats that without checking the facts.
Powell often said that his only real disappointment was at the cowardice of the distributors who "quickly sold off the negatives". He said that if he had been able to he would have promoted it by showing some of the bad reviews from the London critics and suggesting that people come and see it and make their own minds up.
That's a good story, but is it true? In fact it seems that it was shown around the country. Quite a few cinemas on the ABC circuit showed it. It got a local ban in at least one place. The cinema in Reading, Berkshire wasn't allowed to show it. But quite a few others did. It wasn't a huge hit, it didn't break any box-office records, but a lot of people were able to see it in 1960.
Peeping Tom was still playing in a Liverpool cinema in 1962 on a double-bill with Revak the Rebel - it seemed to have got a re-release at one point in late 1961/early 1962. On the US release, the book "Ghouls, Gold and Gimmicks" by Kevin Heffernan devotes a whole chapter to its release in Philadelphia. Heffernan doesn't discuss what print of the film was actually shown.
Martin Scorsese tells how it was impossible to see in the States although rumours of it circulated and he finally saw a cut version in the 1970s. He managed to get it restored and shown at the 1979 New York Film Festival where Michael Powell saw it, and the reaction to it.
Myth #3: Peeping Tom is a horror film
This is of necessity a more personal opinion.
Peeping Tom is an unusual film, very daring for the time. It is much more than an attempt at a slasher film as some have dubbed it. It makes audiences feel uncomfortable rather than terrifies or horrifies them. It makes them have some understanding of and even feel sympathy for a serial killer. It also confronts their own viewing of his acts. Mark is a peeping tom, that's obviously wrong. But we as the audience are watching him watching his victims. This is heightened by some shots showing the view through his camera. Mark is a killer, that's obviously wrong as well. But he's such a nice, quiet, sympathetic young man. We also see the terrible things that were done to him when he was young, these add to our sympathy for him and our understanding of his actions.
Any vaguely similar films up to then, like M (1931) or even Psycho, released in the same year as Peeping Tom, had a killer who is obviously mad, bad or both. There is no requirement for the audience to have any sympathy for him, or even much understanding of why he does such things. The audience is just expected to be shocked and repulsed by the killer.
One reason why it is so often thought to be a horror film is that the distributors, Anglo Amalamated, released it at about the same time as Horrors of the Black Museum and Circus of Horrors. They also used some particularly lurid posters to promote it which don't have much to do with the real story of the film but promote it as a horror film.
But is Peeping Tom a horror film?
It's certainly not a "slasher film". We don't see Mark killing any of his victims. We don't even see any of their dead bodies. There aren't long sequences of high tension and terror. In fact most people laugh through a lot of it because it does have quite a few humorous moments. The audiences are then quiet at the moments of tension and there's usually a stunned silence at the end. But I've seen it shown in cinemas many times and I've never heard anyone scream or even gasp at anything in this film. It makes the audience feel uncomfortable but it doesn't really horrify or terrify anyone.
There does seem to be a campaign by fans of horror films where they are trying to claim that almost every film with the slightest element of fear or terror is really a horror film. I'm expecting them to claim that Bambi is a horror film any day now :)
I would call Peeping Tom a psychological thriller with elements of black comedy. Definitely not a horror film
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