Tonight's FNatM is by chingchongchinaman.
Just barely in time for the end of 2010 is this FNatM devoted to the 50th anniversary of one of the most notorious and celebrated British horror/thriller films, Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell to a screenplay by Leo Marks. This was in the same year as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (FNatM'ed here. Both films received criticism for their apparently sleazy and tawdry subject matter. But while Hitchcock had the last laugh, as Psycho made a mint at the box office, Powell wasn't so fortunate. The notoriety of the reaction to Peeping Tom was such that Powell's career as a film director in the UK was effectively destroyed. If you've seen Peeping Tom, even without knowing the critical reaction, you can understand why this happened. If you haven't, more below the flip (warning: major spoiler alerts).....
To really be able to discuss Peeping Tom, however, you have to know specifics of the plot, because of the issues that they raise. The first general thing to know about the plot of Peeping Tom is that it's about a serial killer. OK, you say (or not): so was Psycho, so what's the big deal? The big deal is implied in the image from the film visible on the Criterion Collection's listing of the film (clicking on that gives you the original trailer). The image implies the method used by Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm, born Karlheinz Boehm), the central character and the killer, to off his victims. His murder weapon is a spike attached to a camera tripod. What Mark does is to film his victims, to capture their moment of death on film as the spike dispatches them. (Yes, the spike is obviously a phallic metaphor. Yes, this is really sick. It's supposed to be.)
But there's more to it than that, so we need to look again at that image from the Criterion page, which is of Anna Massey as Helen Stephens, the tenant downstairs from her landlord (Mark Lewis). You'll note that the image of Helen looks like a fun-house mirror distortion. What Mark has also done is to place a mirror, with a hole for the camera lens, at the head of the camera and around the lens. This forces the victim to watch her own reaction in the mirror as the spike approaches, and eventually does its thing.
It gets even more complicated. At the beginning of the film, Mark approaches a street prostitute with his camera, and she becomes his first victim. The twist is that we do not see the crime as an "objective" viewer, with both Mark and his victim in full shot in front in the room, for example. The film presents the murder through the viewpoint of Mark's home movie camera, so that the only "film presentation" is of the victim's face, contorted with fear. Mark watches these snuff films at his home, obviously a repellent idea. But remember: we see what he sees, from his point of view, that of his 'killer camera'. He watches them, but so do we, at times.
One could almost fill a dissertation on the multiple levels and implications here, related to seeing/being seen, observing/being observed:
(1) The 'snuff films' that Mark Lewis makes:
a. He shoots the film, looking through his viewfinder.
b. He watches that same film later.
c. We, the audience, also see some of that direct footage of the snuff films.
(2) The 'killer camera' that makes the snuff films:
a. The victim first notices that she's being filmed, initially without seeing the spike.
b. Then Mark puts on the mirror and raises the spike, so she can watch her own reaction when the spike appears. But in a way, she's also sort of watching herself being filmed.
c. Thus she sees, via the distorting mirror, her reaction that the camera captures. In a warped way, not only does Mark Lewis see what is being filmed from his side of the camera, so does the victim, from the other side of the camera.
Confused? If so, that means you're paying attention. To add to these layers, just a few other thematically related elements of the story:
(A) Mark Lewis works as a focus puller at a film studio.
(B) On the side, he takes pornographic pictures at a studio above a newsstand.
(C) Helen has the idea, inspired by Mark (and before she learns the truth about him, of course), of writing a children's book called "The Magic Camera".
(D) Mark's father, Professor A.N. Lewis, a renowned psychologist with an interest in fear, made a bunch of home movies to study his son's reaction to fear-related stimuli, for his academic research. To add further to the puzzle-within-puzzle subtext here:
i. Michael Powell himself plays the father.
ii. His own son Columba Powell plays young Mark. (Don't worry, Columba turned out OK in real life.)
(E) The person who first catches on to Mark's problems is Helen's mother, Mrs. Stephens, whose character is blind.
Once you get past the uncomfortably sleazy nature of Mark's crimes (and learn why Mark became the way he is - refer to (D)), you start to realize that the film is a cinematic meta-essay about movies and voyerism. Besides the subtexts related to making movies, watching movies, and the idea of "cinema as violation", the whole idea of seeing, or gazing gets a going over. In a sense, when we all go to the movies, we're all eavesdropping on private matters that are not meant for public viewing. Other commentators have put it better than me, such as:
"The film's visual strategies implicate the audience in Mark's voyeurism. The opening shot is through Mark's viewfinder. Later, we see the same footage in Mark's screening room, in a remarkable shot from behind Mark's head. As the camera pulls back, the image on the screen moves in for a closeup, so the face of the victim effectively remains the same size as Mark's head shrinks. In one shot, Powell shows us a member of the audience being diminished by the power of the cinematic vision. Other movies let us enjoy voyeurism; this one extracts a price.....
....the basic strategy is to always suggest that we are not just seeing, but looking. His film is a masterpiece precisely because it doesn't let us off the hook, like all of those silly teenage slasher movies do. We cannot laugh and keep our distance: We are forced to acknowledge that we watch, horrified but fascinated."
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/2/1999
"The very title offers a hint: it's a slang term for a voyeur, but who does it describe? Mark Lewis? Or maybe the audience watching it?
In a modern reading of the film, we can suggest Powell was asking his audience direct questions: you may be horrified by what you see (the shocks, the grisly murders), but to what extent are you complicit in agreeing to sit and watch? Is there are a part of you that secretly enjoys the carnage being served up for your entertainment? And, if so, who exactly is the voyeur here?"
David Gritten, Telegraph, 8/27/2010
Ian Christie, a noted Michael Powell scholar, noted in this 1997 article from The Independent, on another facet that may have disturbed the critics who savaged the film:
"What alarmed the critics of 1960 - and continues to alarm many today - is the film's calm refusal to make Mark a monster. He's positively nice, and certainly to be pitied as much as pilloried. This is partly the result of one of those happy accidents of casting which were a feature of Powell's career. Originally, he had hoped that Laurence Harvey, fresh from his triumph in Room at the Top, would play Mark. But when he got Carl Boehm instead, who had previously played the young Emperor Franz Josef and Schubert in German films, then Mark became a shy, intense charmer with a puzzling foreign accent."
If you haven't seen the film, and do check it out, in other words, you're not going to get a 1960 version of Hannibal Lecter (although I guess Norman Bates may not be that far off).
In the Telegraph, Tim Robey also notes:
"How is the film anything other than its own besotted yet savage review of cinema? It’s almost orgiastically self-referential...."
When I first saw the film on VHS years ago, I was a bit of a film buff, but in retrospect, too immature then to grasp this particular meaning of the film. I'll admit also that some of the acting seemed a touch cheesy. Plus, if you think about it a little, it seems strange that someone with a perfectly Anglo-sounding name like Mark Lewis should have a slight Germanic accent (unless one rationalizes that Professor A.N. Lewis' 2nd wife, and thus Mark's stepmother, was German, for those wedded to literal narrative). Now, having seen it again, the self-referentiality and meta-movieness all make a lot more sense.
Just a further sampling of the film's in-jokes and ironies:
a. When Mark films the scene with the police taking away the body of his first victim, he's asked what newspaper he's affiliated with. The reply: "The Observer" (the weekend edition of The Guardian)
b. One sub-plot involves the making of a feature film at the studio where Mark works. The director of that fictional film has the name of Arthur Baden. For those who know historical tidbits, the founder of the Boy Scouts was Robert Baden-Powell.
c. The actor who played Arthur Baden was Esmond Knight, who had appeared in a number of other Michael Powell films (scripted by Powell's filmmaking partner, Emeric Pressburger). In real life, Knight was blind, as a result of injuries during WWII.
d. Mark Lewis is an obvious twist on the name of Leo Marks, but what it means.....I'll leave to others smarter than me to come up with theories.
e. The home movie footage of A.N. Lewis and his second wife was shot at Powell's own real-life house.
Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker (the editor on many of Martin Scorsese's films, BTW), has other ideas of why Powell got scalped with the reaction to this films. It wasn't all about the critics or the subject matter, from this article by Xan Brooks in The Guardian:
"I think the film brought a lot of tensions to the boil....Michael had made various enemies along the way because he was always so insistent on defending his artistic freedom. So he'd accumulated a lot of bad feeling among the studios and people thought: 'We've had it with him.' Peeping Tom was payback, in a way."
The late critic Alexander Walker, who reviewed Peeping Tom when it was first released and also appeared in the documentary A Very British Psycho, said also that it wasn't all the critics' doing:
"....Nat Cohen [head of Anglo Amalgamated, the film's initial distributor] couldn't wait to rid himself of the film. Personally, he feared that being accused of handling pornography would jeopardise any hope he might have of a CBE or KBE on the Honours List. At a Variety Club luncheon I attended at the Savoy Hotel on 12 April, when the storm had broken, a film industry honcho told me: 'We've stood Nat in the corner, till he junks that bit of porn.' Nat did as he was told. In Michael Powell's words: 'They sold the negative as soon as they could to an obscure black marketeer of films.'
This is the true solution to the mystery of who killed Peeping Tom. Oddly, you will not find it included in Channel 4's Arthouse documentary entitled A Very British Psycho, although I recorded it for the programme. The reason, I suspect, is that it did not cut smoothly into the makers' preconceptions about 'the killer critics' who had terminated Powell's career."
Speaking of Peeping Tom and pornography, you might want to give this essay by Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, positing on how the presentation of pornography in the movie was another alientating factor toward the critics.
In all this discussion about Powell, it's easy to forget the man whose idea for the movie this actually was, screenwriter Leo Marks (Walker has a choice summary of Marks' personality in that article above). Marks' own story makes amazing reading, at least so I'm told, for those who've read his wartime memoir Between Silk and Cyanide, about his work as a World War II code-maker. The "so I'm told" is because I unfortunately haven't read his book, but have heard much about it. You can learn more about Marks and his book from:
Marks comments how his wartime work eventually led to the screenplay of Peeping Tom, which doesn't seem to make sense, given that the superficial subjects (wartime agents and codes vs. a serial killer with a severe case of scoptophilia) are so different. Yet, from the Gussow article:
"Mr. Marks wrote a play that was produced on the West End in London in 1948, and then he became a screenwriter. Explaining the shift in his career, he said, 'There comes a moment when there are other codes to be broken than those that are cryptographic.' One of those other codes became the movie Peeping Tom. It was, he said, conceived in the war. 'While watching a group of Norwegian agents without appearing to, I concluded that cryptographers were voyeurs.' Because at the time he was obsessed with photographing codes on silk, he decided to write a film script about a photographer. But in the film the voyeur resorts to violence. 'It was my impression that code-making and code-breaking are also concerned with violence,' he said."
In the end, Peeping Tom is, in intellectual terms, a hugely thought-provoking film that is pretty scary in its implications about the acts of movie-making, and movie-watching. One wonders, given the ubiquity of current-day "reality TV", with the idea of "who doesn't want to be on TV or in a movie?", how such devotees might react to this movie, if they understood it and thought about themselves in relation to it. This line comes up both in the film, by Anna Massey's character after seeing one of Mark's snuff films, and in the documentary about Leo Marks, A Very British Psycho, by Columba Powell, reminiscing about his work in Peeping Tom:
"It's just a movie....isn't it?"
With that, the film forum below is yours, to talk about movies you've seen lately, or want to see, or maybe if you've actually seen Peeping Tom and want to talk about it......