Complete Text of the Paper


An investigation of the factors behind the quick but painful box office death of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, through a comparative analysis with its contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock’s phenomenally successful Psycho

 On June 16, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho opened at two showcase theaters in Manhattan, where it played regularly to near-capacity audiences for nine weeks before extending its opening into neighborhood theaters. The unprecedented success of the film is illustrated by the fact that first run Manhattan theaters continued to run Psycho even after the film opened in the second run theaters. This was due to the fact that there had been very little fluctuation in the box-office performance since opening day, as compared to the more traditional 10 to 20 percent drop after a film’s first week. Psycho was an unqualified commercial success and it made Hitchcock extremely wealthy.

Psycho had an immediate influence on commercial filmmakers -- William Castle’s Homicidal (1961), Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), as well as upon the "art" movie -- Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). It virtually established a whole subgenre of psychotic thrillers and ".... thus became not only a classic but a minor social phenomenon." (Naremore, p. 75) Robin Wood calls the film "One of the key works of our age" (Wood, p. 113) and Donald Spoto writes, "In method and content, in the sheer economy of its style and its brave, uncompromising moralism, it’s one of the great works of the modern age." (Spoto, p. 327)

Exactly one month prior to Psycho’s release, on May 16, 1960, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was released in Britain. It was crucified by the British press, and quickly withdrawn from distribution. Powell authority Ian Christie comments: "The outraged press response to Peeping Tom on its release ... has become a landmark in British cinema. Not only did it mark one of the decisive moments of unanimity among reviewers, a rare prise de position, but it virtually ended Michael Powell’s career as a major director in Britain..."(Christie, 1978, p.53)

Yet, when Powell died in 1983, Sir Richard Attenborough declared, "Of his generation, [Powell]... was unquestionably the most innovative and most creatively brilliant filmmaker this country ever boasted." (Thomson, 1990, p. 28) Peeping Tom is consistently rated as one of Powell’s greatest films, perhaps his masterpiece. In Caligari’s Children, the Film as Tale of Terror, S. S. Prawer claims that "No other work has ever made us reflect more painfully on what we are doing when we pay to watch the simulated agonies and ecstasies of the horror movie ..."

These two key films share far more than just the same year of release -- together, they forever revolutionized the horror film genre. Neither Powell nor Hitchcock had ever directed a horror thriller, yet they simultaneously introduced sympathetic Freudian killers into a very middle class "real world" setting. Also, for the first time, the movie-going audience was being implicated as actual participants in the voyeuristic and sadistic aspects of the horror genre. These films were daring and experimental departures for their directors, who had recently been relying upon high production values and bankable stars to guarantee box office success.

However, there is one very obvious distinguishing characteristic between the two films: In 1960, people were standing in long lines to see Hitchcock’s film for the third of fourth time; whereas, within two weeks of its own release, Peeping Tom was deader than Norman’s mother. Something or someone has to be responsible for "killing" Peeping Tom on its initial release and this paper shall examine the possible suspects -- the disturbed story premise, the little known cast, the frustrated director, the nervous producers, or the hostile critics. Psycho is essential to this investigation, as each of the suspects is also present in that film as well.

Although Peeping Tom and Psycho share many plot similarities, there are also pronounced differences between the two stories. Therefore, one must ask whether or not these differences contributed to the extreme variance in the films’ initial receptions.

The experts of the time certainly didn’t see Psycho’s storyline as any guarantee of success; quite the opposite. During mid-February 1959, Robert Bloch’s agent, Harry Altshuler, had sent out advance copies of Bloch’s Psycho to several movie studios. On February 25, script reader William Pinchard advised his employers at Paramount: "Too repulsive for films, and rather shocking even to a hardened reader. It is original, no doubt about that, and the author practices clever deceptions upon the reader, not revealing until the end that the villain’s mother is actually a stuffed corpse. Cleverly plotted, quite scary toward the end, and actually fairly believable. But impossible for films." (Rebello, p. 13)

The studio shared Pinchard’s assessment and were not pleased with Hitchcock’s decision to make the film. There was a feeling that Hitchcock was again trying something "different," as he had done with The Wrong Man at Warner Brothers and Vertigo and The Trouble With Harry at Paramount -- all disappointments at the box office.

Also in 1959, Powell was introduced to writer Leo Marks and shortly thereafter commissioned him to write the original screenplay for Peeping Tom. Once the screenplay was completed, Powell sent it to several producers attempting to secure financing: "I sent a copy to the National Film Finance Corporation: they loved it; another one to Film Finances: they wanted to see a budget ... Bill Burnside read the script, and was mad about it. ‘It’s better than M.’" (Powell, page 390)

Based upon these initial estimations of the two stories, one might conclude that studio executives on both sides of the Atlantic were equally poor judges of what their audiences wanted to see. British producers can hardly be faulted, however, for overestimating the commercial viability of Peeping Tom’s script in light of the commercial success of the British horror film during this period, especially Hammer Films’ Dracula and Frankenstein series. And in Paramount’s defense, the studio’s negative reaction (at least at this point) was based solely upon Bloch’s original story, which was significantly altered by Hitchcock and the film’s screenwriter, Joseph Stefano.

Stefano expanded and further developed Marion Crane’s character and storyline, allowing her almost total dominance over the first third of the film. This allowed the audience to more fully identify with her as the victim when she is murdered in the shower. Secondly, Hitchcock and Stefano transformed Bloch’s Norman Bates, a fat, balding, middle-aged alcoholic, into the film’s Norman, described by Raymond Durgnat as "... an engagingly naive country youth, very honest, unconcerned with making money, almost a symbol of rustic virtue and country contentment. The whole film hinges on his sensitivity and charm -- we tend to like him whatever his faults." (Durgnat, 1974, p. 324) Soon after the introduction of Norman into the story, the audience’s sympathetic allegiance is transferred from Marion, now dead, to Norman as the dutiful son seemingly trapped by maternal loyalty to the actual murderer.

In Peeping Tom, on the other hand, there are no sympathetic murder victims like Marion, only a generic prostitute and an exceedingly vain actress (perfectly played by Moira Shearer); therefore the audience is forced to participate in the film exclusively through the viewpoint of the murderer, whose guilt, unlike Norman’s, is clearly established as early as the opening credits. Thus, the audience is linked to the sadistic experience of the murderer, as compared to the more masochistic suturing with Marion as murder victim or Norman as Mrs. Bates’ "put upon" son. Both stories operate on multiple levels, mixing exciting plot twists and shocking murders with disturbing reflections on the voyeuristic film experience, yet Psycho gives the events more entertainment value, allowing the audience to enjoy the fright. Powell and Marks deny this release, placing primary focus on inducing more complex feelings of audience-shared guilt, complicity and sadism.

Similarly, while Hitchcock eventually establishes that Norman really is the villain of the film, a "bad seed" deserving of his fate, Janice Findley observed that "Powell and Marks don’t let us off the hook that easily. They give us a reason [for Mark Lewis’ crimes]—and indirectly, a sense of responsibility. The real villain of Peeping Tom is revealed to be Mark’s father (played by Powell himself). In fact, as soon as we are witness (via a home movie of Mark as a child) to the sadistic atrocities committed by Mark’s parent to further his own scientific career, we are quick to empathize with Mark’s sickness, even to like him. We wish he’d stop killing but we have decidedly mixed feelings about him being apprehended by the authorities. ... The real villain, who has been dead for the duration of the film, suffers no retribution; even his reputation as a brilliant scientist is intact." (Findley, p. 42)

It can therefore be concluded that while both stories were daring in presenting their respective killers as sympathetic "normal" looking characters, Peeping Tom is more unsettling in its establishment of the protagonist as both the killer, and the story’s only sympathetic victim. For all of its subversions, Psycho is more accessible and would naturally be understood and appreciated by a wider audience. This fact, however, cannot possibly account for either the unprecedented success of Psycho or the abject and complete failure of Peeping Tom to find any appreciative audience at the time.

Through pre-production negotiations or other recent film industry experiences, both directors began their projects with some degree of bitterness. Did their resulting attitudes impact in any way upon the financial fortunes of their films?

According to Hitchcock’s associate producer, Herbert Coleman, Paramount absolutely did not want to make Psycho. "They didn’t like the title, the story, or anything about it at all. When Hitchcock became insistent, they said, ‘Well you’re not going to get the budget you’re used to having for this sort of thing.’ Hence, no Technicolor, no Jimmy Stewart, no Cary Grant. Hitchcock said, ‘All right, I’ll make do.’" (Rebello, p. 23) Then when Paramount refused to fund Psycho at all, agreeing only to distribute it, Hitchcock volunteered to finance the film through his own company, Shamley Productions; when Paramount said there were no sound stages available on their lot, Hitchcock moved the shooting to Universal Studios under the Revue Television unit. Obviously, Hitchcock resented this lack of faith and was motivated to prove Paramount wrong. More importantly, Psycho was now being funded out of Hitchcock’s own pocketbook, creating an even greater incentive for him to produce a commercial success.

Paramount executives reportedly viewed Psycho as a "decidedly minor, forgettable, even disreputable Hitchcock effort" even after a pre-screening of the film. (Rebello, p. 148) They could not have known, however, that Hitchcock was planning a publicity blitz that would rank as one of the most smoothly engineered of all time. The director had learned his lesson from Vertigo, another unconventional film, and this time would utilize his reputation as Hitchcock, the entertainer and showman, to shape both the popular and critical response to Psycho in ways impossible for Hitchcock, the artist, to do.

Powell, on the other hand, arguably might have been on par with Hitchcock as artist, but that was where it stopped. In an interview, Powell admitted as much: "I live cinema. I chose the cinema when I was very young, sixteen years old, and from then on my memories virtually coincide with the history of the cinema ... I’m not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema. I have grown up with and through cinema; everything that I’ve had in the way of education has been through the cinema; insofar as I’m interested in images, in books, in music, it’s all due to the cinema." (Midi-Minuit Fantastique, Oct. 1968 ) Therefore, when Powell experienced difficulty getting financing for another extravagant collaboration with Moira Shearer, he channeled this frustration exclusively into the aesthetics of the film he could get funded -- Peeping Tom.

"Our names [Powell and Shearer] were known all over the world, but do you think we could raise £150,000 in our own country, England to make this comedy of love and identity? Not on your life! We were artists, we were ART, and we all know, don’t we, that art is dead at the box office... So we settled for Pop Art: for a spine-chilling film about murder and sexual deviation and scoptophillia and Peeping Tom, and we got our money, and lo! when the film was offered to the public it was discovered by the critics to be art with a capital A, a prostitution of the arts...."

Powell’s obvious bitterness certainly contributed to the creation of a complex, fully realized work of art, disguised as a low brow horror flick. Powell, the pure artist, could do no less; unlike the more commercially savvy Hitchcock, he had no other weapons with which to fight. Unfortunately, while Hitchcock’s other identity as master marketeer helped turn Psycho into a box office phenomenon, Powell’s high art aspirations simply angered the critics intelligent enough to appreciate his artistry. As Dilys Powell of the Sunday Times wrote: "Perhaps one would not be so disagreeably affected by this exercise in the lower regions of the psychopathic, were it handled in a more bluntly debased fashion....It is made by a director of skill and sensibility ... The same stylist’s view it is which now and then makes the torturer’s stuff of the new film look like the true imaginative thing, the Edgar Allen Poe horror, instead of the vulgar squalor it really is." (Powell, p.394)

Although neither film had budgets capable of acquiring the big stars, were the actual casting decisions influential to the films’ fortunes in terms of quality and box office allure?

Hitchcock made his reputation in the United States using the biggest name stars of the time. No one could have imagined that a film with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh could compete with his James Stewart, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly projects. Hitchcock, however, had begun to sour at the high salary demands of these actors. "Stars’ salaries are becoming unthinkable," the director complained. "The minute you put a star into a role you’ve already compromised because it may not be great casting ... In TV we have a greater chance to cast more freely than in pictures. Star names don’t mean all that much in television, at least in dramatic terms."(Rebello, p. 18) Hitchcock had reason to doubt their value on box office terms, as well. Stewart was one of America’s "biggest" stars when Vertigo was released, but he still couldn’t turn the film into a financial success.

With Psycho, Hitchcock did indeed cast "more freely," taking chances on Perkins and Leigh for the two central roles, and, in exchange, they delivered exceptionally "on target" performances. As stated previously, Hitchcock’s casting of Perkins redefined the very concept of the Norman character for screenwriter Stefano. Additionally, Perkins developed a powerful and surprising affinity for his character’s inner workings, picking out his clothes and suggesting that he chew candy during key scenes. Finally, Perkins must be commended for his willingness to play a ("not quite") transvestite in the conservative clime of the late 1950’s.

Powell likewise chose to let the story take preeminence over the cast. Anglo-Amalgamated Film’s Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy, the producers Powell had chosen to make his film, pointed out that he didn’t have any names on the project; he curtly replied; "Don’t want them." (Powell, page 390) Shortly afterwards, Powell happened to meet a young Austrian actor, Karl-Heinz Bohm, at a cocktail party, and cast him for the lead role of Mark Lewis the next day. Bohm had only done two previous foreign films, Sissi and Sissi, the Empress; his name was only familiar to those who knew of his father, Karl Bohm the musical conductor. "Nat Cohen, hearing the news, threw up. Not only was I not going to star Laurence Harvey, whose films had always made money, but now I was playing an unknown Austrian in the main part." (Powell, page 392) Cohen was no more pleased with Powell’s choice of Anna Massey, Raymond Massey’s daughter, for the female lead; she had won praise for a recent stage production but had never even appeared in film.

These untested performers also delivered effective performances, although perhaps not quite at the same level as Perkins and Leigh. In a Movie Reader essay on Powell, Durgnat observed that while Powell had often utilized sharp, intense leading men, such as Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, "... the one film in which he needed to explore emotional intensity in depth -- Peeping Tom -- depends on what is, in effect, the deadpan pleasantness of Carl Bohm, and the dimension therefore lacking is more vividly asserted in Repulsion, ..." (Durgnat, p. 87)

Whether Bohm’s performance weakened the film is debatable, but there is no doubt that Powell’s producers were right to feel ill. The actors in Peeping Tom were total unknowns apart from Moira Shearer, who is given a small unsympathetic role as one of Lewis’ victims. Hitchcock may have wanted smaller stars than usual for Psycho, primarily because of the film’s budget, but he would never have cast total unknowns in these roles. Anthony Perkins, at age 27, had debuted in George Cuckor’s The Actress and had successfully played with Shirley MacLaine in The Matchmaker and opposite Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions. He also gave strong performances in On the Beach and Fear Strikes Out, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of 1957 for his portrayal of a young Quaker in Friendly Persuasion. He was also a teenage heartthrob who appeared on the cover of fan magazines and had even scored a top forty hit record with "Moonlight Swim." Janet Leigh had starred in 32 films prior to Psycho, in a wide variety of roles. She was also a darling of the fan magazines, a member of the "peaches and cream brigade" along with Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day and June Allyson. These two actors certainly couldn’t "open" a film, but the audience at least knew who they were.

Do audience reactions of the time, including those of the creators, indicate any inherent qualities in the completed films which impacted, either positively (Psycho) or negatively (Peeping Tom) on the public’s attendance?

It cannot be said that Hitchcock knew fully what he was creating, nor did anyone else. At the second special screening of Psycho, the first with Bernard Herrman’s score, Robert Bloch saw his creation for the first time. Afterwards, when asked by Hitchcock how he liked the film, Bloch remembers; "I told him, ‘I’ll be frank. It’s either going to be your biggest success or your biggest flop.’ And that was precisely how I felt. Nobody could tell at that juncture how the public would react to something that graphic." (Rebello, p. 143) Hitchcock feared that the film would end up being exhibited in drive-ins and soft-core porn houses. (Phillips, p. 164)

Hitchcock, through both the film and its carefully orchestrated publicity campaign, had not just created a special film, but also a new, more cohesive audience. Film theorist William Pechter described how it felt to see Psycho in a theater when it was first released: "The atmosphere surrounding Psycho was

deeply charged with apprehension. Something awful is always about to happen. One could sense that the audience was constantly aware of this; indeed, it had the solidarity of a convention assembled on the common understanding of some unspoken entent terrible; it was, in the fullest sense, an audience, not merely a random gathering of discrete individuals attendant at most plays and movies." (Rebello, p. 162) This unity was especially enticing to young moviegoers, and for them, Psycho soon became a major social event not to be missed. (Kapsis, p. 62)
Psycho also harkened back to the theater of attractions, delivering more of a rollercoaster thrill ride than just a standard film experience. Screenwriter Stefano also remembers seeing the film in public when it first opened. "As the movie went on, I saw people grabbing each other, howling, screaming, reacting like six-year-olds at a Saturday matinee ... I never thought it was a movie that would make people scream ... and neither did Hitchcock. When the shower sequence was over, paralysis set in. Nobody knew quite what to do." (Rebello, p. 163)

Nobody quite knew what to do with Peeping Tom either, but for different reasons. In trying to explain the critical condemnation of that film, Ian Christie writes, "... the character of that near-unanimous response to Peeping Tom indicates that the reviewers accurately registered the unacceptability of the film when it appeared. (Christie, p. 53) Peeping Tom does not invite group participation, it encourages individual reflection by each spectator. As previously stated, the viewer is sutured exclusively to the killer, which produces an uncomfortable feeling and certainly not one to share with the stranger next to you. This is exactly the effect for which Powell was striving; he was not aiming for thrills. In fact, Powell has described Peeping Tom as "... a very tender film, a very nice one. Almost a romantic film. I was immediately fascinated by the idea: I felt very close to the hero, who is an ‘absolute’ director, someone who is conscious of and suffers from it. He is a technician of emotion. And I am someone who is thrilled by technique, always mentally editing the scene in front of me in the street, so I was able to share his anguish." (Thomson, p. 27) The rest of the audience, if there had been one, would not have been as quick to tell their friends how much they identified with "the hero."

Peeping Tom not only doesn’t allow its audience to scream in unison, it really doesn’t provide for screams at all. Isobel Quigly of the Spectator, while giving a negative review, nevertheless points directly to Peeping Tom’s strength and significance as a horror film, saying that such films "... are usually so crudely made that belief is never quite suspended..."She then compares Powell’s film to Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, another "highbrow horror" reviewed shortly before, "... but it didn’t involve you, it made little attempt at direct emotional realism, as Peeping Tom does; you had the creeps, but remotely, and often with amusement. Peeping Tom didn’t make me want to streak out of the cinema shrieking, as Franju’s film did at times; it gives me the creeps in retrospect, in my heart and mind more than in my eyes. We have had glossy horrors before (The Fly, for instance), but never such insinuating, under-the-skin horrors, and never quite such a bland effort to make it look as if this isn’t for nuts but for normal homely filmgoers like you and me." (Christie, 1978, p.57)

Clearly, Peeping Tom and Psycho are very different films, despite their similarities, and it is not shocking that Hitchcock’s film would have drawn a larger audience, and that word of mouth on Psycho would have probably been more positive -- it had name stars popular with young people, and it was thrillsome to watch. Psycho’s audience may have been tricked into temporarily sympathizing for Norman Bates, but most didn’t leave the theater feeling ashamed, as they well may have after an entire film with Mark Lewis, peeping Tom’s hero and surrogate for both the filmmaker, and by extension, the spectator.

Nevertheless, Hitchcock was correct to be concerned about Psycho’s chances for a sizable audience, given Paramount’s lack of interest in its success and the critics’ initially unfavorable reviews. Peeping Tom also faced such obstacles, and was thus denied even the limited success of low brow exploitation films which Hitchcock envisioned as Psycho’s worst case scenario.

Was Peeping Tom destroyed by the extremely hostile critical reception in Great Britain ?

Many, including Powell himself, have asserted that the unanimously hostile critical reaction to Peeping Tom destroyed its director’s career. It was not so much that all of the reviews were negative, it was the unprecedented level of hostility that made the industry take note. The Tribune’s Derek Hill may have said it the most memorably: "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain..." (Christie, 1978, p. 54)

It is a mistake, however, to assume that these negative reviews were also totally responsible for the film’s poor fortune. Any work in the horror genre was almost guaranteed a scathing review by the British critics, but this did not usually spell box office failure. The immediate background to Peeping Tom was the commercially successful Hammer "gothic" series, which were also hostilly received by most reviewers. In his review, Hill bemoaned these films’ proliferation: "Every now and then we’re assured by industry representatives, the British Board of Film Censors, or some equally suspect authority that the boom in horror films is over. The truth is that there has been little if any decline in the number produced. It’s merely that the distributors are no longer prepared to put them before the critics. One can only assume that Anglo-Amalgamated were unusually proud of Peeping Tom, for their Circus of Horrors oozed into the London Pavilion a week later without any press show..." (Christie, 1978, p.54)

William Whitebait of the New Statesman also referenced the Hammer films: "Peeping Tom stinks more than anything else in British films since The Stranglers of Bombay. Of course, being the work of Michael Powell, it has its explanation, its excuse. But so had The Stranglers; it was ‘history’, you remember. Peeping Tom is ‘psychology’.... But what worries me is that anyone at all could entertain this muck and give it commercial shape. The combination of the two is peculiarly nauseous..." (Landy, p. 427) Several other reviews commented negatively on the combination of horror and psychology; a harbinger for Psycho’s own critical reception in Britain.

It was not surprising that when Psycho opened in Britain at the end of August, 1960, it also ignited a storm of indignation and disgust from the critics. The Tribune’s Caroline Lejeune described how while viewing Psycho, she "grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business" that she walked out before it was over. (Kapsis, p. 63) Meanwhile, though, Psycho was shattering attendance records at the Paramount-owned London Plaza, the same theater where Peeping Tom opened but was then immediately yanked by its embarrassed producers.

Psycho received mostly mixed to negative reviews from U.S. critics when it was first released. Time magazine’s reviewer complained that "Director Hitchcock bears down too heavily in this one, and the delicate illusion of reality necessary for a creak-and-shriek movie becomes, instead, a spectacle of stomach-turning horror." Esquire magazine described Psycho as "... merely one of those television shows padded out to two hours by adding pointless subplots and realistic detail ... a reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly sadistic little mind." (Leigh, p. 100)

By the end of 1960, however, a number of those reviewers had revised their initial assessment of the film. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who had labeled Psycho "a blot on an honourable career" listed it a few months later as one of the top films of the year, saying "Old fashioned horror melodrama was given a new and frightening look in this bold psychological mystery picture."

(Kapsis, p. 63) Peeping Tom’s critical reassessment had to wait twenty years longer, for it had vanished from sight following its harsh initial reception.

Immediately after Peeping Tom’s unofficial opening premiere at the Plaza Cinema, producers Cohen and Levy pulled the film, canceled the British distribution and sold the negative to an obscure black marketeer of films. As Powell speculates, "Wouldn’t you have thought they would have spent a little money, and taken space in the newspapers, and said, ‘This is what the critics say about our wonderful film. Now you, the public, come and see for yourselves, and see what a wonderful film it is, and what lousy critics we have."(Powell, p. 395) Thus, negative reviews may not have "killed" Peeping Tom, but they did provide the "motive" for two of the actual murderers, the non-supportive and thin-skinned Cohen and Levy.

But why did Peeping Tom’s producers allow the critics to dictate their actions, forcing them to destroy their investment? As already stated, horror films seldom got positive reviews from the press, but their audiences didn’t care. For example, sociologist Robert Kapsis reports that "a high proportion of Psycho’s audience consisted of teenagers and young adults. As one New York resident reported in the New York Times (1960), ‘any number of teenagers have gone to see this movie several times and the word is apparently out around the suburbs that "the blood in the bathtub scene" is hot stuff.’" (Kapsis, p. 60) He asserts that for these younger moviegoers, movie ads and trailers were far more important as a source of information about the film than what the critics said about it.

Yet, Cohen and Levy panicked at the critic’s attacks on the film, and perhaps more significantly, on Powell. Perhaps they realized that they were not just responsible for making a poorly reviewed horror film, but for allowing Michael Powell to make such a film. This begs the question, would critics have attacked the film so viciously if it had been made by a different director, and, even if they had, would it have had the same result? In other words ....

Were Hitchcock’s and Powell’s auteur reputations and the public perceptions of their previous work significant factors in their films’ fates?

For many reviewers, having a director as talented and respected as Michael Powell enter the loathsome horror genre simply could not be tolerated. Nina Hoibbin of the Daily Worker said, "Obviously, Michael Powell made Peeping Tom in order to shock, in one sense he has succeeded. I was shocked to the core to find a director of his standing befouling the screen with such perverted nonsense... From its slumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil." Caroline Lejeune echoed this sentiment: "It’s a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom ... This so-called entertainment is directed by Michael Powell, who once made such distinguished films as A Matter of Life and Death and 49th Parallel." (Christie, 1978, p.55) Powell had established himself as Britain’s "art" director, creating gloriously over the top, visually luscious extravaganzas, barely anchored to the real world. His core audience, as well as favorably inclined critics, must have felt betrayed by Peeping Tom.

Many critics, however, were often dismissive of Powell’s earlier films as well. In his review, Hill notes that, "It is no surprise that this is the work of Michael Powell, who displayed his vulgarity in such films as A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman, and the more bizarre tendencies of his curious mind in A Canterbury Tale, where the story consisted of Eric Portman pouring glue into girls’ hair." Ian Christie and David Thomson both assert that Powell (with or without Pressburger) never fit the canons of British ‘good taste’. (Christie, 1978, p.59) Charles Barr writes: "In British cinema [sexuality and violence] will ... form a current running underground, surfacing only intermittently for instance ... in the films of Michael Powell. Such work finds itself commonly written off as being in bad taste, a reaction which seems to indicate with equal frequency an embarrassment on the part of the films in dealing with such subject-matter and on the critics in dealing with films that are not embarrassed by it: the latter applies more to Powell, the reception of whose films by English critics forms nearly as interesting a study as the films themselves." (Barr, pp. 57-8) As Powell views it: "... no wonder that when ... [the critics] got me alone and out on a limb with Peeping Tom, they gleefully sawed off the limb and jumped up and down on the corpse. So, it was Powell all the time, eh? We suspected Emeric Pressburger with his Continental background, but now we know it was Powell, the sadist ... Let’s go get him!" (Powell, page 146)

Hitchcock, on the other hand, had learned his lesson while still living in Britain. In his 1937 film Sabotage, he had infuriated critics and audience alike by allowing a bomb carried by an innocent boy to explode, killing not only the boy but a busload of other innocent victims (and puppy) as well. The film did poorly at the box office and Hitchcock was afterwards always careful not to go "too far." Thus, shortly before the opening of Psycho in New York City, Hitchcock informed reporters that his film did not contain sex and violence for its own sake. Rather, his interest was to "excite and shock audiences within the bounds of good taste." (Kapsis, p. 59) Hitchcock was in the precarious position of attempting to adjust to the changing times without alienating his older, faithful fans.

Kapsis asserts that "In order to maximize a film’s performance in the market place, a filmmaker with a well-established reputation must manage or take into account that reputation each time he or she is about to release a new film, especially if the film deviates in significant ways from the type of film audiences expect routinely from the director." (Kapsis, p. 42) With feature films, directors had to renegotiate the aesthetic contract with the audience and with the critics each time a new film came out. (Kapsis, p. 42) Powell never bothered : "It was generally agreed that we [the Archers] were dangerously arty, bringing music, singing, and dancing into our films ... the Archers were pretty hard to put into any category... from the critic’s point of view it must have been a nightmare..." (Powell, p. 146)

Hitchcock had an advantage over Powell in this respect, having achieved the reputation as the master of a particular genre, even though his suspense thrillers almost always hybridized with other genres from comedies to family melodramas. Even the screenwriter Stefano, who has tended to publicly downplay all but his own contributions to Psycho, admits that Hitchcock’s public reputation was essential to the film’s commercial, if not aesthetic, success. When asked whether Psycho would have been as effective if some other director had used his screenplay, Stefano responded: "I really can’t say. There was certainly directors at the time who could have made almost exactly the same movie because Hitchcock shot the script that I wrote with ultimately few changes. Another director might have done it differently, but I still believe that it would have had the same impact. But with another director, I don’t think the audience would have been as ‘geared’ for what was about to happen. I mean, in those days a "Hitchcock movie" meant certain things. (Wiater, p. 82) Typically, Hitchcock put it far better: "If I made Cinderella, the audience would be looking for a corpse to turn up in the coach." (Rebello, p. 17)

Nevertheless, Hitchcock had failed several times to adequately prepare his audience for aesthetic shifts between films, most notably with The Wrong Man and Vertigo. The transition from North by Northwest to Psycho might have been impossible, if not for an added factor.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents premiered on October 2, 1955 and lasted in various formats until 1965. The tongue-in-cheek tone of Hitchcock’s weekly appearances firmly established his persona as an entertainer. His regular presence on the show also established Hitchcock as a bonafide television "star." As Kapsis states: At the opening of each show, audiences would see Hitchcock metamorphosed from an abstraction (his profile drawing), to a shadow magically replacing the silhouette, to finally Hitchcock himself addressing the audience. The succession of images (along with the show’s theme music), ... ‘was certainly inspired—it established almost subliminally, the idea of "Alfred Hitchcock"’; it evoked, in addition ... the idea of Hitchcock as the creative and almost supernatural force behind the program." (Kapsis, p. 31)

Further, audiences were given every reason to believe that Psycho would be something like the macabre stories they had been watching on Sunday nights. They were basically comedies with ironic twist endings, often closer in spirit to the horror film than to the suspense thriller. And in fact, Hitchcock’s TV audience did find many aspects of Psycho compatible to their television expectations, including the black and white photography, the moments of suspense, the black humor, the shock revelation at the end of the film, the ordinariness of the characters, and the psychiatrist’s explanation at the conclusion (mimicking the TV Hitchcock’s). This linkage with the television show allowed Hitchcock’s audience to negotiate the otherwise too jarring shift from North by Northwest to Psycho. Obviously Powell had no such assistance nor would it have ever occurred to him.

Would an ad and promotion campaign comparable to Psycho’s have saved Peeping Tom?

Well, actually .... yes, probably so. The problem was that there didn’t exist a publicity campaign comparable to Psycho’s anywhere in the world, simply because Hitchcock was the only director who had the celebrity status, established from his television show, his film cameos, and his carefully crafted public image, to conduct such a campaign. An entire book could be devoted to the brilliance of Hitchcock’s marketing of Psycho, which was as revolutionary and influential as the film itself. These tactics are too important to Psycho’s story to completely omit, but they also offer little room for comparison with Peeping Tom. Powell’s film had no publicity campaign at all, or if it had, it was canceled when the first reviews arrived.

For fear that Psycho’s initial viewers would reveal the ending to everyone else, and to enhance the aura of mystery surrounding the film, Hitchcock elected not to show the film in advance to critics. On the advise of his friend and agent, Lew Wasserman, president of MCA, Hitchcock instead booked his film exclusively in two theaters in New York City for a brief prerelease engagement, to be followed by a general release in thousands of theaters nationwide. Wasserman and Hitchcock reasoned that if word-of-mouth buried the picture, the Hitchcock name would at least lure the faithful in for a few weeks, thus allowing the film to break even.

Hitchcock and the Paramount sales and publicity department utilized this prerelease engagement to test an unusual ad campaign and audience admissions policy that, if successful, would be enforced throughout the country. Every advertisement would stress that "no one ...BUT NO ONE...will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance of Psycho." Hitchcock not only advised this policy, he insisted that theater owners follow his decree against admitting patrons once the film began. The tactic resulted in long lines at the theater and forever changed how people see films.

Hitchcock even lectured theater managers on how to show the film: "Experience in all our opening engagements has shown us that it enhances the dignity and importance of Psycho to close your house curtains over the screen after the end-titles of the picture, and keep the theater dark for 1/2 minute. During these 30 seconds of stygian blackness, the suspense of Psycho is indelibly engraved in the mind of the audience, later to be discussed among gaping friends and relations." (Rebello, p. 151)

Hitchcock produced three preview trailers for the film, fore a total cost of $9,619.09. About one month prior to the opening of the film, Paramount released the two brief "teaser" trailers to theaters nationwide. The first reinforced Hitchcock’s policy that no one will be admitted to the theater after Psycho begins, while the second pushed secrecy. "Please don’t tell the ending," Hitchcock pleaded. "It’s the only one we have." The third trailer was Hitchcock’s six-minute tour of the Bates house and motel which has become a classic in its own right. (Rebello, p. 153)

Hitchcock’s advertising campaign for Psycho also featured a still photo of Janet Leigh seated on a bed in a bra, her body turned to make her breasts stand out. These photos were to shatter taboos by becoming the first blatantly "suggestive" photographic images ever to advertise a mainstream Hollywood feature.

Just ahead of the release of the film, Fawcett World Library reprinted Psycho in paperback, with a new cover design that stressed the film’s tie-in ("Alfred Hitchcock’s most chilling movie from the novel by Robert Bloch"), cast credits and two photographs of Janet Leigh. Hitchcock also posed for photographer Gordon Parks in a Life magazine spread to publicize the movie "about murder in a motel and an amateur taxidermist’s strange way of showing filial love." Parks imbedded the face of Hitchcock in the center of a huge, malevolent flower, his fist strangling a rose.

The significance of this brief look at the promotional campaign is that it is Hitchcock who masterminds it, and it is also his image that becomes the film’s chief selling point. In James Naremore’s assessment, "Psycho is enhanced by the performances of Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins, by the photography of John Russell, and by the music of Bernard Herrman. But before anything else, it is an expression of Alfred Hitchcock’s personality and it owes its greatness to him." (Naremore, p. 9) This statement extends far past the aesthetics of the film and encompasses Psycho’s financial success as well.

So who killed Peeping Tom?

In 1959 - 1960, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell each created an artistically complex horror film, attacking middle class attitudes on family, money, sex and entertainment, and acknowledging the voyeuristic and sadistic tendencies of the films’ genre and moviegoers in general. Powell was uncompromising in his vision and cast his film with the same attitude. When the films were released, Powell viewed his creation complete, and left it in the hands of others: the critics and the producers who didn’t know what to make of this brilliant film, and so, destroyed it. Hitchcock, on the other hand, had just gotten started; using his creativity and public persona, he devised a brilliant media blitz to protect and promote his film/investment. Therefore, if any one thing is accused of killing Peeping Tom, it would have to be Powell’s own artistic sensibilities, and perhaps a touch of arrogance.

This entire "whodunit" concept, however, was meant to be the paper’s MacGuffin. (This is a Hitchcock class after all.) The resolution is not nearly as important as the examination process, wherein I have attempted to explore Hitchcock’s multiple talents as director, entertainer and marketing genius, as contrasted with Powell’s single-minded "artistry."


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