Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Original web page at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1999/02/26/DD91574.DTL
Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Critic
Friday, February 26, 1999
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
PEEPING TOM: 1960 psychological thriller. Starring Carl Boehm, Anna Massey and Moira Shearer. Directed by Michael Powell. Written by Leo Marks. (Not rated. 101 minutes. At the Castro through March 4 and the UC Theatre in Berkeley March 5 and 6.)
Few films have as strange and tortured a destiny as "Peeping Tom". Unanimously savaged by critics at the time of its 1960 release, Michael Powell's sympathetic portrait of a mild-mannered serial killer was pulled from London theaters in less than a week -- and instantly destroyed the British director's career.
"The only really satisfactory way to dispose of `Peeping Tom' would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer", whined Derek Hill in the London Tribune. "Even then, the stench would remain".
Today, thanks largely to a 1980 revival engineered by Powell enthusiast and fellow director Martin Scorsese, "Peeping Tom" is rightly seen as a horror classic and sophisticated psychological journey. The film, which stars Karl Boehm as the young camera assistant/killer, opens today at the Castro.
For Powell, who died in 1990 at 85 -- and made such classics as "A Matter of Life and Death", "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes" -- "Peeping Tom" was a bold, subversive risk. Far ahead of its time, it's a study in voyeurism that equates photography and moviemaking with scopophilia, the morbid urge to gaze.
Boehm's character, named Mark Lewis after the film's screenwriter, Leo Marks, is haunted by childhood memories of his sadistic psychologist father. (Perversely, Powell cast himself as the father and his son Columba as young Mark.) Obsessed with the desire to capture fear, Mark stalks redheaded young women and films them screaming for their lives in the seconds before he kills them.
To the British critics who destroyed it, "Peeping Tom" wasn't hateful so much for its subject matter as for the tenderness with which Boehm played the killer. When Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" opened three months later in London, after all, with a buglike Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and a heavy-handed Freudian explanation woven into the script, the reaction was far milder. [Was that partly because Hitchcock didn't allow a specific press screening & they had to pay for their seats like everyone else?]
"You could distance yourself a bit from Norman Bates", says film editor Thelma Schoonmaker ("Raging Bull"), who was married to Powell from 1984 until his death. With "Peeping Tom", she adds, "The casting of Karl Boehm and the fact that the character is so sympathetic made for incredible tension.
"Michael understood that there are people who are severely disturbed like that, who could have an appealing personality", Schoonmaker says. Also, by depicting filmmakers as voyeurs, and suggesting that he and his kindred were predators not unlike Mark Lewis, Powell outraged the film establishment.
"DON'T DO THAT AGAIN"
So while "Psycho" became a cultural touchstone, "Peeping Tom" was forced into silent limbo. In "A Very British Psycho", a British documentary about the making of "Peeping Tom", Marks recalls how one critic approached him after a press screening and hissed, "Don't you do that again". [That critic was Dilys Powell (no relation) who later published a fulsome apology for her first, very harsh, review]
In the documentary, Marks compares the psychological inquiry of "Peeping Tom" to his World War II career as a government code-breaker. Interviews are also included with Boehm, who describes the film's London premiere ("There was deadly silence -- it hurt me at least as much as Mickey Powell"), and his co-star Anna Massey, who calls "Peeping Tom" "a horrible movie to watch".
In the decades following "Peeping Tom", Powell made only two films and at one point was forgotten and penniless. And yet, Schoonmaker says, "He never became bitter, which I think is his greatest achievement in life aside from his wonderful films.
"I've never seen anyone with so little investment in negativity. He was constantly living life to the full every minute of every day, and never gave up on hoping to make great projects".
He was also philosophical. Having seen his mentor, silent-film director Rex Ingram, ruined by MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, Powell understood the price an artist pays for bucking the system and defending his work.
"He had a very strong sense that if you wanted to be on the cutting edge of your art you had to expect to be sawed off. That's part of the deal, and you can't go around whining about it if it happens, because you're damn lucky if it doesn't".
© 1999 San Francisco Chronicle