Tuesday, August 9, 2016

PEEPING TOM

Michael Powell, 1960
Starring: Karlheinz Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley Photographer and aspiring filmmaker Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Boehm) has a secret: he murders women and films their deaths, hoping to soon assemble his very own movie. During the day, he works on a film crew and at night he photographs women for softcore pornography stills sold illegally. He lives in his childhood home, which he has turned into a series of apartments, and seemingly can’t — or won’t — escape the bad memories of abuse suffered at the hands of his sadistic father, a scientist doing experiments on human fear. When he reluctantly befriends a young tenant, Helen (Anna Massey), a romantic relationship begins to blossom, which spells doom... One of the greatest films ever made, Peeping Tom has somewhat of a troubled history, as it was critically panned upon its release, ruined the career of director Michael Powell, and was then forgotten about for decades, until its reputation was eventually redeemed. Peeping Tom was partially financed by the British studio Anglo-Amalgamated, who were responsible for a number of the country’s horror films over the years, but lacked the genre emphasis to really make them competitive with Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon. In terms of the annals of genre cinema, it is difficult to imagine that this film, released just a few months ahead of Psycho, was bitterly hated when Hitchcock’s was so beloved and considered so influential. Peeping Tom generated a ridiculous amount of baseless critical vitriol; for example, Derek Hill’s oft quoted review, which declared, "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." Really the only garbage here is Hill himself, and the similar-minded critics from the period, the majority of whom are an embarrassment to writers everywhere. For my money, Peeping Tom is superior to Psycho in every way and it is actually far more like Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) — another film panned upon its release and one that I consider to be among Hitchcock’s best — but notably predates that film by more than a decade. Unlike Peeping Tom’s anxiety-inducing use of Technicolor — predating other horror directors like Roger Corman and Mario Bava’s use of it — and uneasy relationship to its protagonist, Hitchcock played it relatively safe with Psycho. He refused to land on any particular protagonist (famously killing off Marion Crane halfway through the film’s running time) and made his antagonist (Norman Bates) both sympathetic and pathetic, but ultimately mad and therefore essentially not responsible for his actions. Powell, on the other hand, made his film’s sympathetic and strangely likable protagonist also its killer; one who is also haunted by past parental trauma, but who is also in possession of his mental faculties and fully aware of his actions. For Criterion, feminist theorist Laura Mulvey explained that the film was so hated because of its unrestrained uses of sadism and voyeurism. She said, “Peeping Tom, as its title implies, is overtly about voyeuristic sadism. Its central character is a young cameraman and thus the story of voyeuristic perversion is, equally overtly, set within the film industry and the cinema itself, foregrounding its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female). The cinema spectator’s own voyeurism is made shockingly obvious and even more shockingly, the spectator identifies with the perverted protagonist.” A deeply angry and bitter film, Peeping Tom is as much about Powell’s personal frustration (with the film industry) as it is about perverse psychological and murderous sexual impulses. I first saw the film when I was about 19 or 20 and, even more so than the film’s visual or technical brilliance, I was attracted by Mark’s rage, inherently a transformative, creative force, something I have always been able to identify with far more than any quality possessed by Norman Bates. (Discomfitingly, in the flashbacks where Mark’s father performs experiments on him, the actors in these father-son flashbacks are Powell himself and his real-life son, Columba.) This film was also my introduction to Powell, though I have come to be a huge fan of the director and his partner, Emeric Pressburger; together, they worked under the umbrella name of The Archers, refusing to clearly delineate directing, producing, writing, or editing responsibilities, a partnership that not only resulted in some of the greatest films made in British cinema, but some of the greatest films, period. Though Peeping Tom was a solo effort for Powell, the streak of perversion, violence, and sexual repression that culminated in Mark’s character wound its way through many of his films with Pressburger: the plot of A Canterbury Tale (1944) revolves around a serial “glueman” who pours paste on women’s hair at night; Black Narcissus (1947) is about the psychosis that results in English nuns attempting to adjust to life in a Tibetan convent; a young ballerina is driven to mania and death in The Red Shoes (1948); during WWII, an alcoholic bomb-diffuser nearly succumbs to madness in The Small Back Room (1949); Gone to Earth (1950) follows an uncontrollable young woman who gives in to lust and paganism; and so on. Mark, of course — brilliantly portrayed by the sensitive, but somehow sinister Karlheinz Boehm — is a far less subtle interpretation of these themes and he’s an obvious influence on the numerous films from the ‘70s with young psychopaths, like Maniac, Don’t Go in the House, Bad Lieutenant, and, certainly, Taxi Driver. Scorsese was actually among Peeping Tom’s staunchest supporters and said that part of the film’s brilliance is that it shows “how the camera violates.” I suspect that what makes it such a groundbreaking work — depicting cinema as a violent act, one that is inherently and unapologetically voyeuristic and penetrative — is also what made it so shocking upon its release. It is, ultimately, a film about old wounds that never heal, but fester and bubble over. Connected to these themes of old trauma and memories of violence is, curiously, the film’s screenwriter, Leo Marks, a WWII cryptographer (whose memoir Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 comes highly recommended). Marks’ success as a cryptographer had its roots in his abilities as a writer — he penned a few film scripts over the years, including Roy Boulting’s somewhat similar Twisted Nerve (1968), which I will write about in a few weeks — particularly as a poet. While poems were often used to encrypt messages during the war, Marks often wrote his own. I will leave you, then, with his most famous and most devastating, “The Life That I Have.” Written for his recently deceased girlfriend, the poem has become associated with French SOE agent Violette Szabo. Marks gave her the (encrypted) poem just before she was dropped into France, where she was soon after arrested by the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her. Like the general themes of Peeping Tom, it is concerned with death, longing, and grief and, above all, is incredibly beautiful: “The life that I have / Is all that I have / And the life that I have / Is yours. / The love that I have / Of the life that I have / Is yours and yours and yours. / A sleep I shall have / A rest I shall have / Yet death will be but a pause. / For the peace of my years / In the long green grass / Will be yours and yours and yours.”

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