Martin Scorsese Presents: Peeping Tom

November 15th, 2010


Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho changed the landscape of horror cinema in 1960. A new sort of threat materialised when that cross-dressing psychopath painted a hotel bathroom in a curious shade of Janet Leigh. Gone were the lumbering monsters of the Universal’s horror pictures. Gone were the lavish locations of the Hammer films. These were ‘real’ people, and this was the ‘real’ world. A paranoid present.

In the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, another equally influential figure emerged; a close relative of Norman Bates, albeit a less recognised one. With a voyeuristic tendency and an obsession with capturing the expression of pure fear on celluloid, his name was Mark Lewis, the Peeping Tom. Fifty years later, the film, notoriously renowned for destroying Michael Powell’s career, is regarded as a controversial classic, worthy of a full digital restoration and wide distribution both in cinemas and on DVD/Blu-ray.

Screened at BAFTA’s lavish Princess Anne Theatre in the heart of London (the film’s setting), with a trio of VIP guest speakers, the preview of the restoration was a truly stellar movie going experience. Film scholar Ian Christie was first to take the stage where he gave an overview of Peeping Tom’s initial critical reception. At first hailed as “a fine film” by the Trade Press, Powell was praised for his “technical excellence”. Christie quoted Today’s Cinema as saying that “horrific moments are not too many, since it is the theme itself which provides the emotional impact”, a phrase that rang true throughout the screening.

“Two weeks later,” he went on, “the bad news arrived in spades”. Christie commented on the now legendary backlash from the newspapers and reviewers, noting how the critics “descended upon the film in fury”. He followed with an onslaught of extracts from the film’s most lambasting detractors, statements that could readily be applied to the Scary Movie franchise rather than, as it is now regarded, one of the most important films of the 1960s (“it should be flushed swiftly down the nearest sewer!”).

Powell’s widow, and Martin Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker was the next to speak. She quoted the directors epitaph, “Michael Powell: Film director and optimist” subsequently noting how he never became bitter, despite the tragic decline of his career. Indeed at the film’s premier, as she puts it, “people wouldn’t even look at [Powell and lead actor Carl Boehm] as they came out of the theatre”.

Her discussion of the movie business “in-jokes” apparent in the film, and the fun that the cast and crew had in making it was insightful and, for a film that is so oftenshrouded behind a curtain of controversy, it was refreshing to hear it discussed as such a jovial object. She closed by commenting on how Scorsese brought the film to the United States, and on his obsession with the films of Powell and Pressburger (his actors apparently get bombarded with DVDs of their films) before welcoming to the stage one of the greatest living directors.

“Marty” is small in stature and his delivery is every bit as idiosyncratic as one would imagine (and indeed, hope). His introduction took the form of a personable story of how he came into contact with the film and discovered, with his fellow ‘Movie Brats’, the works of these two British filmmakers. In a charming anecdote, he describes “Steve” (Spielberg) calling on him and exclaiming, “I just watched this crazy movie with these nuns in the Himalayas”, of course referring to the pair’s renowned 1947 film, Black Narcissus.

He described Peeping Tom as “a rumour”, as something elusive that was spread around by word of mouth, underlining the difficulty of seeing even a black and white copy of the print, let alone the original colour version. He further commented on how the film portrays the “passion” and “obsession of filmmaking” or even “the danger of filmmaking or…artistic obsession”. These comments invite a satisfyingly ‘postmodern’ reading of Peeping Tom, which is indeed about ‘film’; a reading that is particularly relevant in “this society of Youtube and the invasion of our privacy, surveillance cameras and the morbid urge to gaze”. This last phrase, muttered by Scorsese as he concluded his introduction, sums up the film astutely; indeed it is this all too relatable “morbid urge” that gives Peeping Tom its strong emotional resonance and timeless ability to shock, though moments of sadistic violence and intense character drama.

The film itself is a revelation. Whether it was the rare joy of seeing the exploits unfold in the context of the prestigious auditorium, or a triumph of the exceptional restoration of the original print, the spectacular atmosphere in the screening was palpable; one could feel that everyone was completely drawn into the film. The project truly reveals the benefits that digital technology has brought to celluloid restoration in recent years. The beautifully captured images, full of vibrant colours (the use of red is particularly suggestive) and exquisite camerawork, are projected as truthfully as possible and, under the supervision of Scorsese, revealing of Powell’s intentions.

It is a technically brilliant piece of filmmaking and Powell’s evocative use of the subjective camera (most notably in the shocking opening sequence) seems exceptionally innovative for 1960. This technique didn’t start with The Blair Witch Project. It didn’t even start with Cannibal Holocaust. Michael Powell was using it to astounding effect here, in the same year as Psycho. The ideas of “the gaze” and the metaphorical connotations that Mark’s (Carl Boehm) camera carries invite disturbing interpretations of the film, and equate the series of killings to sexual acts. In a quiet moment he is visibly disturbed by Helen’s (Anna Massey) advances toward him and once he is alone he quietly kisses the camera lens, as uncomfortable a moment in any contemporary film you will see this year.

Most surprising was the overtly playful attitude and comedic sentiment, evident especially in the scenes at the London based production studio in which Mark works as a focus puller. In the filming of a luggage shop scene, a body hidden within one of the prop suitcases becomes an instrument in a blackly-comic farce. Powell even references this again later in the film when reshooting the scene, the poor actress who came across the corpse proving unable to maintain her composure, even when the suitcases are swapped for hats. This is barely subtle humour; Peeping Tom plays as well as a black-comedy as it does a psychological horror.

The original backlash against the film can be attributed to its locating of true horror in a recognisable urban environment, a shockingly new concept in 1960, but still to this day Peeping Tom remains criminally under-seen. Its influence, however, is felt throughout the cinema of the last fifty years and it is being constantly referenced, both directly and indirectly. As the three speakers noted, this was once an elusive film, a film that was incredibly difficult to see. To experience such an influential piece of psychological British horror is a rare and refreshing opportunity and, with any luck, the revival of the film will resonate with a new generation of cinemagoers. With a rerelease of his final masterpiece twenty years after his death, perhaps Mr. Powell had a right to be so optimistic.

Words > Andy Wilson


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