It's been a long time since I reviewed a Michael Powell film for this blog - twenty months, to be more specific. The Tales of Hoffmann, produced, written and directed in 1951 by Powell in collaboration with fellow "Archer" Emeric Pressburger, was the most recent entry here, from December 2009, the year I started this series and a year that included a lot of amazing Powell & Pressburger movies, starting with 49th Parallel from 1941, along with classics like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, A Canterbury Tale and several others, all of which I enjoyed when their turn arrived in the early days of this project. So when Peeping Tom came up in my queue, I was quite happy to reconnect with this master filmmaker, even though I had a vague understanding that the poor reception it initially received by British film critics, and subsequently the broader public, signaled a sharp downward spiral in Powell's career that he never quite recovered from. Powell, who had broken off his partnership with Pressburger just a few years prior to this film, collaborated instead with screenwriter Leo Marks, who supplied the story that Powell helped to visualize in his unique style. Though I won't take the time to say much about him here, Marks is a very interesting fellow whose remarkable life experiences are highlighted in the documentary supplement on the now out-of-print Criterion DVD (part of last year's Studio Canal purge that eventually did lead to Peeping Tom's 2010 release as a Region 2-locked Blu-ray.)
Given my own eagerness to see more of Powell's wonderful visual ingenuity and unconventional approach to story-telling, from nearly a decade later than the most recent film of his I'd seen, I couldn't help but wonder just what it was about Peeping Tom that compelled the harsh reactions of its detractors. The negative reviews are famously derisive, with one memorable line stating that "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." This article from the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television offers more zinger quotes and fascinating background on the controversy surrounding Peeping Tom upon initial release. Over the years since, it's been rediscovered and championed to the point that it's now a widely admired and highly influential classic in the psychological thriller genre, maybe even the first "slasher flick," for what that claim is worth...
Now I know that times and tastes change (oh, if that reviewer could only have imagined where cinema has taken us over these past 50 years!), and clearly from what I knew going in and eventually saw for myself, Peeping Tom is not a film destined for universal enjoyment and admiration. It's a disturbing tale of a twisted serial killer, one intended to unsettle its viewers. But the skill and intelligence behind the film surely merit more consideration and engaged discernment than such a blunt summary dismissal, don't they? And doesn't Powell's indisputable track record entitle him to some degree of deference from the critical establishment? Clearly it seemed to me that something beyond the usual aggravation that leads critics to pan films they dislike was at work here, and that's what interested me, beyond the simple intrigue of seeing Powell's craftsmanship and the wry, much-discussed insights that Peeping Tom makes about the art of film making and its appeal to the voyeuristic tendencies of cinema's most ardent fans.
So I spent time over this past week watching - just... patiently... watching - and comparing Peeping Tom with two of its closest companion pieces, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, released just a few months later in 1960, and Fritz Lang's M, the German masterpiece that really laid the groundwork for presenting sympathetic sickos on the silver screen. While both of these films had their share of detractors (such lurid preoccupation with murderous subject matter is bound to offend some, in any time and culture), neither had anywhere near the devastating impact on their creators' careers that Peeping Tom had on Powell's. What was it about Powell's presentation of Mark Lewis that rankled so much more deeply than Lang's treatment of Hans Beckert or Hitchcock's portrayal of Norman Bates?
We can quickly dismiss any notion that Mark's predatory behavior toward slutty blonde look-alikes of his step-mother is somehow more outrageous than Hans hunting down and killing vulnerable little girls or Bates' psychotic collapse into his "mother" persona that results in slasher outbursts at the Bates Motel. All the victims are undeserving of their fate, regardless of the tarnished innocence of some. I suppose a case could be made that Peeping Tom shows more relish regarding the use of its knife; even though the deadly blade makes appearances in all three films, the camera lingers more deliberately over the stiletto concealed in his tripod, poised directly at the throats of Moira Shearer and Anna Massey, than it does on Beckert's switchblade, handed back to him by his naive would-be victim, or the brutal butcher's knife that slashes so artfully in its brief appearances in Psycho. Yes, there is a degree of sadism to be found in Peeping Tom that the other two films can't quite rival. But I think the critics' disquiet went deeper than that.
Whereas M used the device of a serial killer on the loose among many other elements (e.g. police procedural, socio-political commentary on class tensions between professionals in the legal system and the criminal underworld, the divisive effect his crimes have on the local community, etc.) and Psycho is celebrated for its unprecedented plot twists, diversions and visual tricks, Peeping Tom is, much more than either film, spent almost entirely within the psychological realm of the obsessive oddball at its center. Though Mark Lewis has all the hallmarks of a classic villain - clearly sinister and thoroughly inappropriate urges that he acts on, seemingly untroubled by any pangs of conscience - he doesn't really fit that culprit role nearly as much as Beckert or Bates do, even with the respective "excuses" that each screenplay provides to explain their homicidal behavior.
Lewis is given a more charitable rationale than either of the other killers, as we see in grotesque detail the filmed abuse inflicted upon him as a boy in the guise of "psychological experiments" by his renowned father. As he explains to his friend over the course of two pivotal scenes, the cumulative effect of this deliberately provoked state of fear that he was repeatedly subjected to has warped his ability to feel emotions like most people do, and created in him an appetite, an erotic craving in fact, that can only be satisfied in a pursuit that inevitably leads to new heights of terror and depravity before it finally overwhelms and devours him in its culmination. Even more upsetting, especially in the context of a "respectable popular entertainment": the notion that murder and eventual suicide are crucial components of an artist's magnum opus. A bizarre and hideous thought, once one snaps back to reality after getting lost in Peeping Tom's seductive and often charming allures - the saturated EastmanColor tones, Powell's trademark control over the framing and composition of so many great shots, Archers stalwart Esmond Knight's turn as director of the film-within-the-film, Shearer's jazzy little dance number and the recollection it stirs of her role in The Red Shoes, even British pin-up legend Pamela Green in her eye-catching moments.
I suppose that all this talent, in the service of a story so forthrightly depraved, was just a bit too much for the British cultural watchdogs to stomach at the time, and who knows what kind of petty resentments they may have had toward Powell on a personal level for stepping so far and freely out of the bounds they expected him to observe?
But I think the final straw for them back then, and perversely what makes Peeping Tom of such enduring interesting to so many cinephiles since, is just how central a role the actual medium of film plays in the formation of this fiend. Even though the movie is vulnerable to criticism that its scenario is excessively theatrical and not all that convincing as a prototype for "real world crime," I think one has to keep in mind that most of Powell's films have that fantastic, slightly gothic element to them. His characters inhabit an enhanced reality, acting out their driving forces theatrically, and that's clearly a make-or-break point for some viewers who will find fault for the artificiality of the premise. Through Powell and his own lifelong dedication to the movies, Mark Lewis' diabolically cruel and pathetically impotent utilization of the cinematic arts adds a documentary twist that makes the killing of his victims that much more... well, this poster kind of sums it up!
Exploitative and tacky as it may be, the poster claims are persuasive if you let the implications of Lewis's mania sink in, even as Peeping Tom now seems relatively tame and even somewhat shackled down by its lack of explicitness due to the prevailing limitations of its time. I think the absence of blood and gore works to its advantage as a film but makes its more provocative points a bit easier to miss without the reinforcement of overt violence. Even though I don't think anyone would disagree with my assessment that there are plenty of movies, older and newer than Peeping Tom, that outdo it in the scariness factor, this is a film that made a much bigger cultural impact than would have ever seemed likely after its early descent into obscurity. It's a shame that Powell never again benefited from the kind of support and artistic freedom that his creative gifts deserved.
Next: The Fugitive Kind