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This review appeared in the London Evening Standard of 21st November 1997
Who killed Peeping Tom?
(18) Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer. Dir: Michael Powell. UK. 1960. 109mins.
Greeted with outrage by the critics, disowned by its distributor, Peeping Tom was the film that nearly destroyed its gifted director, Michael Powell.
[But which year??]
I REMEMBER it well. I was the youngest of the London film critics then, in April 1960.
It had begun as a normal week. Four films to see and review. Life for critics was more compact, cosier, then - but the calm was about to be shattered. We had already seen (and enjoyed) most of that week's reviewing ration: The League of Gentlemen (comedy about ex-Army officers turned bank robbers), Toby Tyler (Disney's pre-Easter offering about a boy who becomes a circus bareback rider) and Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (a minor Jean Renoir, fanciful, safely sexy).
The fourth film of the week was from Michael Powell, distinguished British director (with his partner Emeric Pressburger) of already classic movies such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes. His new movie was called Peeping Tom. We settled down to it. Some 86 minutes later, we knew we had a problem.
A problem that's sparked claims, counter-claims and controversy for nearly 40 years, and now comes to your TV screens this weekend when you will see what we were shocked by in the week that showed us critics the shape of things to come. Put bluntly, Peeping Tom was the first "snuff" film any of us had seen: a film about murdering people for pleasure, while all the time photographing their dying agonies.
All right, granted the "snuff" element is actually a film-within-the-film: a work of pathological obsession created by the anti-hero, a young photographer played by the Austrian star Carl Boehm who uses the sharpened leg of his camera tripod to stab women through the throat while dazzling them with a light beam and pointing his cine-camera at their bewildered, agonised faces. Today, you'd call Peeping Tom a "slasher" movie; maybe a "stalker" one. Its content - serial killings offering a voyeuristic excitement to film-goers - is the common sales-pitch of movie series such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Hallowe'en and (the latest entry, soon to spawn its own sequel) Scream.
We have grown accustomed to the pornographic face of violence. But in 1960 it was our faces that were set in shock. No film before (or since, I think) ever got such universal condemnation from critics. "The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing" (Isabel Quigly, The Spectator); "I don't propose to name the players in this beastly picture" (CA Lejeune, The Observer); "sadism, sex and the exploitation of human degradation" (Leonard Mosley, Daily Express); "from its slumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil" (Nina Hibbin, Daily Worker).
My own review in this newspaper was milder, though not by much. Against my will, if not my better judgment, I had to admit the film's clever construction and the insidious connection it made between scopophilia (or voyeurism) and sexual pathology. But I, too, found it a vicious work, made in a moral vacuum, unrelated to any wider world outside its own far-too-charming killer's maniacal obsession.
The author-screenwriter of this scandalous film was one Leo Marks who, we later found, had been a wartime code-breaker of some distinction. He now emerged, in our judgment, as a man revelling in a perversion few of us could even write about in detail in the newspapers of that time, some of which, so far from banning four-letter words, would not even admit a 10-letter one like "prostitute." This taboo, I think, accounts in part for the deluge of destructive but oddly undetailed criticism that assailed Peeping Tom. But what also shocked us was learning that Michael Powell had used his own little son in flashback scenes in which the abused child - who grows up to be the killer - is terrified by his father (played by Powell himself) throwing scaly reptiles on to him in bed in order to photograph his fear.
Compounding this offensiveness was the subjective camerawork - the murders seen through the killer's viewfinder - which made us critics feel accomplices to the crimes. In short, we felt we were being indicted as accessories to murder, however unwilling we were.
I haven't changed my mind about Peeping Tom. I still find it to be perverted "entertainment", romanticising pornography, playing up the charms of a murderous stalker and shying away from moral condemnation of his crimes. Powell is now dead. Leo Marks, still alive and gloating, emerges - in the TV documentary which Channel 4 is using as a prelude (and possibly precaution) to showing Peeping Tom at 10pm this Sunday - as a bizarre character, part mythomaniac, part coldly rational, certainly a film-maker ahead of his time, though not by much.
Three months later, in July 1960, Hitchcock's Psycho opened in London, with its graphic shower murder, a scene of suggestive violence possibly even surpassing Peeping Tom. But Psycho was protected by its maker's reputation. It showed Hitchcock reinventing himself, whereas Peeping Tom helped Michael Powell destroy himself. Yet I insist it was not the critics who killed him and his film. The reviews it got should have been a distributor's dream, destined to be plastered all over the town as a salacious "come on" to a sensation-hungry public. But they were not.
Instead, after playing a few weeks, the film vanished from the Plaza cinema. The man who pulled it out was its own producer-distributor, the late Nat Cohen, boss of Anglo Amalgamated, who was put under severe pressure from the Wardour Street establishment of the day. These other film distributors feared a public backlash, even government censorship.
The film censor at that time, John Trevelyan, told me privately he had miscalculated in passing the film, and feared for his job since he had a new president, Herbert Morrison, to reckon with at the censorship board. Ironically Morrison, a former Home Secretary in the Labour government, was also a puritanical East Ender and sympathetic to the notion of prostitutes being "got off the streets", even in so terminal a fashion; so Trevelyan kept his job.
But Nat Cohen 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.
But there may be a more sinister reason for the omission. It is likely that Peeping Tom is due for a remake, or a sequel, using all the publicity power of that old scandal to whet public appetite. The last thing the makers of any new version would want is to remind people of the fear and loathing in the film industry itself which caused the original movie to be yanked out of the cinemas.
By the time any Son of Peeping Tom is ready, public opinion may again have made it dangerous to show. Curses, like some movies, have a long shelf-life.
15 July 2003: Alexander Walker dies