‘Peeping Tom’: The Road from Disgust to Recognition for Michael Powell’s Brilliant Take on Filmmaking

Michael Powell, one of the most distinguished British filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s, basically ended his career when he made Peeping Tom in 1959. This is said with no exaggeration whatsoever. Peeping Tom was met with such disdain and loathing upon its premiere that the name of the filmmaker, who made such classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Stairway to Heaven, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes during his fruitful partnership with the Hungarian British writer Emeric Pressburger, was largely forcefully forgotten, except by a number of film enthusiasts who gave the film the status of a precious cult treasure. Even though it was released almost simultaneously with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, with which it shares a certain sensitivity and obvious thematic similarities, it seems Peeping Tom was too much for the contemporary critics and the audience to bear. Unlike Psycho, which boosted its director’s career, Peeping Tom completely shut down Powell’s operations. The critics argued this “essentially vicious” film should be thrown into the sewer, reminding the audience that “the stench will still remain.” “More nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan,” the film survived solely thanks to the passion and appreciation of a handful of loyal admirers, most prominent of which was certainly the great Martin Scorsese, who loved Powell’s work since the early days and bought a print of Peeping Tom to be screened at the New York Film Festival. We often see how great films rise up as a phoenix decades after they’ve fallen out of grace with the critics, but hardly ever did we witness a rebirth of such dimensions. “I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it,” wrote Powell with a clear air of disappointment and sadness in his autobiography. Peeping Tom is now regarded a true masterpiece, one of the most interesting British films of all time and, without a doubt, one of the best films about filmmaking ever made. Unfortunately for Powell, more than half a century ago it failed to find support and appreciation it deserved. It was too brutal, too frank in the message it was sending. Every film is an act of voyeurism: we sit in the back and observe what’s happening in the lives of other people, protected by the darkness of a movie theater, resting in the comfort of anonymity and security. Peeping Tom caused shock and disgust precisely because it completely changed the game: by turning the gaze of the objects on screen to our direction, it compromised our position. No longer secret spectators, we became active accomplices, forced to deal with the implications of the situation.

The film was written by Leo Marks, an accomplished cryptographer during the Second World War, who managed to swiftly win Powell over with his idea for a movie about voyeurism after Powell’s ambition to do a film about Sigmund Freud’s life fell through. The story centers on a serial killer working as a cameraman who is obsessed with filming, especially driven to shoot the victim’s final expression of hopeless fear on camera, as the prostitutes he manages to lure to his studio finally understand their tragic fates. Mark Lewis is a psychologically complex but surprisingly human person who can be seen as a product of his upbringing: his father, a scientist, used him in a series of experiments when he was a child, with deep marks left in his psyche. What further aggravated the viewers back in 1960 was the fact that Powell himself played the role of the serial killer’s father, while Powell’s own son took the part of the young version of the protagonist. By doing this, Powell further acknowledged the startling connection between the process of filmmaking and the killer’s sadistic gaze through the lens of his camera. What the audience was either incapable or unwilling to understand is that voyeurism was not only a by-product of film business, but its very essence, and in dealing with the complicated subject so directly and without hesitation, Powell and Marks succeeded in making one of the most accomplished meta-films of all time.

Since H.G. Wells, Arthur Clarke and Ray Bradbury, they have all tried to think up frightening machines but it’s very difficult to achieve. I don’t think there is anything more frightening than a camera, a camera which is filming and which is watching you. —Michael Powell

 
The central role was played by the great Austrian actor Karl Boehm, who got the part because Laurence Harvey, Powell’s first choice, became too popular a commodity after the success of Room at the Top. Boehm’s most famous English-speaking role was a huge departure for him, as he made a name of himself for starring as the emperor Franz Joseph in the Sissi trilogy with Romy Schneider. Peeping Tom was shot by the Czech-born cinematographer Otto Heller (The Queen of Spades, The Ladykillers), while the music was covered by Powell and Pressburger’s frequent collaborator Brian Easdale. Peeping Tom’s most prominent advocate Martin Scorsese once stated that, along with Fellini’s 81/2, Powell’s film said everything that can be said about filmmaking, about “the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two,” praising Peeping Tom for exploring the “aggression of filmmaking” and the violating quality of the camera. Without Scorsese’s ardent support for Powell’s controversial film, Peeping Tom’s stature would perhaps remain in question even today, as there’s a good chance it would still sit somewhere on a shelf in complete cinematic oblivion, covered with a thick layer of dust and contempt. Even though both Peeping Tom and its maker got the appreciation and acknowledgement they earned a long time ago, it’s still a shame to see how a brilliant filmmaker got crushed for being ahead of his time.

What we have here is a quite historic and rare screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Leo Marks’ screenplay for Peeping Tom [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Peeping Tom was made in 1959 by British director Michael Powell. It is not only an extraordinary movie but it has an extraordinary history. On its release, it received such devastating reviews that it has slowly, over the last 30 or so years, been recognized as one of the British cinema’s most interesting films and, more generally, as one of the great films about cinema. Michael Powell himself held that the reception of Peeping Tom contributed to the collapse of his own career at the time. In his words, the distributors ‘canceled the British distribution, and they sold the negative as soon as they could to an obscure black-marketer of films, who tried to forget it, and forgotten it was, along with its director, for 20 years.’ Powell’s own favorite among the many insults slung at him was: ‘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, alongside: ‘The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing.’ Or quite simply, ‘Ugh!’” —Laura Mulvey

Time Out critic Trevor Johnston had the honour of meeting the 81-year-old filmmaker in Edinburgh in 1986. Here, we unearth an encounter with one of Britain’s greatest ever directors as he moved towards the end of his life and career.

What are your feelings on the career reappraisal that’s been going on for the past few years?
It’s been a slow and gradual process. I had a lot of enemies in the higher echelons of the British film industry and they used the initial reaction to Peeping Tom against me. A lot of people thought I was a pain in the neck, always wanting to do something new, sometimes proving them wrong—occasionally proving them right! But for a long time Peeping Tom made it impossible for me to get any film produced in England.

Contrary to popular myth, Peeping Tom didn’t actually end your career though?
I did They’re a Weird Mob in Australia, which I felt had the qualities of the early American films by Leo McCarey, like Ruggles of Red Gap. A big success in Australia, yet over here they said, “But it’s about working people!”. They didn’t like Age of Consent here either. Too much nudity apparently. Now there’s some nudity, I agree, you really don’t want to see. But Helen Mirren has a wonderful body.

And James Mason met his second wife on that film, Clarissa. I put them in bed together in the very first scene, they fell in love and later got married. I wanted him to do a version of The Tempest after that, because I thought he’d make a wonderful Prospero. Mia Farrow was going to play Ariel and André Previn, her husband at the time, was going to do the music. I had a way of doing the story that wasn’t just Shakespeare but a bit of Powell as well. Everyone loved the cast, but we couldn’t get the money.

Is that financial side of the business, one you’ve always found tricky?
Oh, I think I’m a bit innocent about all that stuff. I feel that if you’ve got the right artists and a good story, it’s somebody’s duty to put the money up.

Martin Scorsese has been a key individual in leading the rediscovery, so did you ever consider moving to America for work?
I never wanted to work in Hollywood. Not out of any snobbishness or anything, but just because, if I’ve anything to bring to the movies, humbly, it’s that I’m English.

But the cultural reach of your films, clearly goes beyond mere Englishness to encompass the worlds of ballet and opera, surely?
It wasn’t consciously about bringing other art forms into to cinema, I wanted to use all the mediums. All art is one. That’s the message of the second volume of autobiography I’m writing at the moment. But you know The Red Shoes was a story Alexander Korda was already planning to do before the war with Merle Oberon—I had the idea of buying it back, but I thought we could only do it if we had an actual dancer to play the lead role and we created an original ballet for the film. Emeric turned pale. “An original ballet?” He’s a writer, after all. “And where will we get a girl like that?” Well, I had nobody in mind, but art is art and you can’t sell out on art. If you gift these opportunities to the world, I somehow felt that the girl would appear. And, lo, Moira Shearer appeared!

A lot of the critics were appalled that we killed her in the end. Even Emeric wavered a bit, I have to say. But we’d been told for ten years to die for our country, to die for this and die for that. Nobody ever said anything about dying for your art—so now we were going to say it!

Do you see a dividing line between artist and filmmaker?
The cinema is my chosen art and I know more about the history of it than anyone—because I’m it! So my book is not a “film book” per se, but about my particular experiences as an artist in this medium—which involved a lot of films I wanted to make but couldn’t. I always regretted that I didn’t get to do Ondine with Audrey Hepburn, the fairy tale about the water nymph who falls in love with a knight. So that it’s a “film book” is only incidental. What matters is your art. You must remember that. If you’re an artist you can’t escape it.

Even if there’s a war on and you’re trying to bring something personal to subject matter with an element of propaganda?
Yes, the starting point for A Matter of Life and Death was actually the man who was the head of the films department at the Ministry of Information. He thought we made films that were like sermons so we’d be able to come up with something that showed how we loved the Americans and they loved us. “What’s wrong?” I said. “Are we not winning the war?” “Oh, that’s just the trouble,” he said. “When we we’re losing, everyone loved each other, but now we’re actually winning…”

Why was the partnership with Emeric Pressburger so successful?
Well, Emeric had the kind of mind you immediately fall in love with. We first met at a story conference for a terrible script Korda wanted to make with Valerie Hobson and Conrad Veidt, The Spy in Black. Nobody noticed Emeric until Korda introduced him, then he brought out what I remember was a very small piece of paper, and he came up with a completely new outline which turned the existing script upside down. Everyone else was going black and purple in the face but I thought it was wonderful.

The thing about Emeric was that I’d say I thought there might be a film in the phrase “one of our aircraft is missing,” but it would be the sort of thing I’d mention in passing and make nothing of it. I’d forgotten all abut it when Emeric came back with a story where some returning pilots had to bail out in Holland and try to get home. “Fine,” I said, ‘”let’s write the script!”

He’d say things like, “I always wanted to do a film about a girl who wants to get to an island, but then finds she doesn’t actually want to go after all.” Why would she want to get to the island? He didn’t know. “Let’s make the film and find out.” So I went away and came back with an island location that was visible but inaccessible, and that was “I Know Where I’m Going!”

Were your sensibilities complementary?
I tend to be a little too solemn. Emeric being Hungarian-born and Jewish like Korda had this wonderful humour, and a wry attitude to life. I had a more poetic way of looking at things, and the combination worked well for twenty years.

What would your career have been like without him?
I think I would have made a lot of very interesting, pictorial, but rather dull films. He brought a very necessary theatrical thrust into the films. It was my fault the partnership ended. I got bored. We still remained great friends though. I spent last weekend with him. He’s slightly frail these days. He said to me, “Michael, I’m four years older than you, and I don’t envy you the next four years.”

But you’re still a great believer in collaboration, then?
It’s essential for the cinema. It’s a matter of life and death. The director doesn’t have to be responsible for the initial idea. His job is to get the best collaborators he possibly can and then suck their brains, take the money and put it up there on the screen, then leave the actors to take the brunt. They’re always in the front line, don’t forget that.

As the director though, you took the flak for Peeping Tom—did that hurt?
No, it didn’t hurt. I just felt that they were wrong and I was right. I just didn’t understand the violent reaction against it. People can’t be that innocent, can they?

Did you set out to show how the cinema can feed into people’s darkest desires?
I didn’t, but I think the author did. Leo Marks initially tried to sell me a double-agent story because he’d been in the coding rooms during the war, but I just didn’t want to make that sort of film at that time. I felt I’d sized him up so I asked him about the possibility of doing something on Freud. He came back a week later with this idea for a story about a young man who kills with his camera. “You’re on,” I said. “That’s me. Let’s make it.”

Given that you also appear in the film, people tend to take it as a personal statement…
I can assure you it wasn’t. My son Columba’s in it too. I needed a little boy, but I really didn’t want a trained child actor. Nothing more awful. The scene also required the character’s father, so I played him. It all happened quite naturally. Organically. With Leo Marks the catalyst. —An unpublished interview with Michael Powell

 
“Michael Powell himself gambled everything on Peeping Tom and lost in such a way that his career was really ended. The film was so shocking to some British critics and the audience because he had some sympathy, sort of, for the serial killer. And the killer had the audacity to photograph the killing of the women with a motion picture camera, which of course tied in the motion picture camera as an object of voyeurism, implicating all of us watching horror films. He was reviled. One critic said this should be flushed down the toilet. He only got one or two more movies done. He really disappeared. And now in England there are cameras watching everyone all over the street.” —Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film

 
Mark Kermode talks to Martin Scorsese about the 50th anniversary of Peeping Tom, the film that almost ended the career of Michael Powell until Scorsese championed his work in the late 70s.


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“I edited Scott Pilgrim on Charlotte Street in London. Two key Peeping Tom locations were outside the door of my workplace: the passageway where a doomed prostitute picks up Mark Lewis in the opening sequence, and the newsagent above which he takes adult photographs. I had seen Peeping Tom two or three times before but finally watched it on the big screen when I was working in its locale. Michael Powell’s film had always haunted and intrigued me, but seeing the streets that I traversed every day on-screen from fifty years earlier had a darkly powerful effect on me. Even though the film is a work of fiction, my walk home would never be the same again. I would think about Peeping Tom every day, and beyond that, the ghosts of Fitzrovia: dark doings behind closed doors, grim secrets at the tops of narrow staircases.” —Edgar Wright

The Eye of the Beholder (2005)—a short documentary on Michael Powell’s 1960 cult classic. With Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Ian Christie, Laura Mulvey and Colomba Powell.


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A Very British Psycho, directed by Chris Rodley: the Channel 4 U.K. documentary about the life of screenwriter Leo Marks, as well as the making and critical reception of Peeping Tom.

An excellent documentary made in 1981 by Gavin Millar for the long running BBC documentary series Arena. Detailed interview with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger looking back at their long career as influential British filmmakers and their unusual partnership. The documentary includes clips from many of their major films and interviews with both Powell and Pressburger, separately and together, as well as rare clips with Michael Powell and director Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope Studios while he was making One From the Heart and Martin Scorsese, Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro on the set of King of Comedy.

The South Bank Show on legendary director Michael Powell, shown as a tribute shortly after his death in 1990. “Parts of this hour-long film might have been conceived by Powell himself—particularly those parts which place him in dark-humored proximity to projected images from his own work. There is an alluring array of vivid, pristine-looking excerpts from Powell’s films here and they evoke the range of an unusual career—spy thrillers, patriotic films, musical fantasies, celebrations of countryside life and films that turn inward on art, on its images. But Powell’s own remarks also make an extraordinary impression, for here is a man who says, “The sky is the limit. Art is worth dying for.’” —Peter Hogue


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Thelma Schoonmaker, legendary film editor and widow of Michael Powell, shares the lessons she’s learned from over three decades in the cutting room.

“I learned from Michael Powell to never talk down to our audiences—to never ‘dumb down’ a movie. He said that audiences are actually way ahead of us and as filmmakers, we must try to be ahead of them—to surprise them and make them feel our movies, not tell them what to think.” —Things I’ve Learned: Thelma Schoonmaker

“Scorsese says one of the great things he loves about it is how Mark can’t get the right shot and he’s killing people because he can’t get the right shot. It’s an example of what film-makers are like. Marty says, sometimes, ‘Why can’t I get this idea out of my head?’ You know, when he’s been shooting all day. That’s the distilled essence of Peeping Tom—Mark can’t get this idea out and he’s killing people.” —Peeping Tom: Interview with Thelma Schoonmaker

“He was the most wonderful man. He would wake up and just instantly be engaged with life. His heart was like the sun. Every second of living with him was just…” she trails off, gestures helplessly and exhales an “ah!” He died in 1990 and is buried in Avedon, Gloucestershire, in the graveyard of the same church they married in. His gravestone is inscribed, as he asked of her, with the words “film director and optimist.” —Thelma Schoonmaker: ‘His Heart was Like the Sun’

Thelma Schoonmaker & Michael Powell on their wedding day, 1984.

I live cinema. I chose the cinema when I was very young, sixteen years old, and from this time on, my memories almost coincide with the history of cinema. I am not a film director with a personal style, I am the cinema. I grew up with and through the cinema; if I interest myself in pictures, books, or music, it is again thanks to the cinema. —Michael Powell

 
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Production still photographer: Norman Gryspeerdt © Michael Powell (Theatre). Courtesy of the Guardian, Institut Lumiere. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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