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The Killer Reviews

So just how bad were these reviews that did so much damage to the career of a great film-maker?

Here we have quite a few of the 1960 reviews of Peeping Tom from the British national press. The film had its trade show on March 31st 1960 and presumably the press screening that these reviewers attended was between then and when the reviews started to appear. They do seem to be at increasing levels of hysteria. Maybe they were all trying to out-do each other.

It's pretty much a clean sweep, every review we've managed to find in the mainstream press was rabidly against the film. The only positive reviews we've found (so far) are in the trade papers. It's most unusual to get such an agreement between reviewers.

The newspapers carrying these reviews cover a wide spectrum from the left wing Daily Worker to the right wing Daily Express via the liberal Guardian and Observer, from the populist The People to the establishment press like The Times and the Daily Express.

They appear to be universally scathing. And in such harsh terms as to almost risible. What was it that so upset them all? Some of them seem to have imagined things that weren't there, like the orchestral music imagined by Nina Hibbin of the Daily Worker (the score was on a solo piano).

A remarkable number of them made mistakes like mis-spelling the names of the cast. One even thought that Moira Shearer was a murderess.

Len Mosley of the Daily Express reports an early exit by Caroline Lejeune of The Observer, which she doesn't mention herself. Was that when "Mark" said that he was from "The Observer"? That was a joke Caroline.

Why did Derek Hill leave it so long before writing the ultimate killer review in The Tribune? His review came out two weeks after all of the others. The Tribune is a weekly newspaper produced by left-wing members of the Labour Party. The reviews in some of the weekly newspapers came out nearly 3 weeks before this one did.

Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard said in a later interview (on the documentary A Very British Psycho on the Criterion DVD) that he stood by his earlier review which was one of the milder reviews of 1960. Mind you, in the documentary interview, he did call it the first "snuff film" which is strange as the only killing you actually see is the one right at the end of the film.

Dilys Powell (no relation) was one of the more scathing in her review for the Sunday Times although she later recanted and apologised. A shame that she could only do that 4 years after Micky Powell had died. But better late than never.

The reviews certainly had an immediate effect. It was banned in Reading and some newspapers objected to their bad reviews being used to draw in the audiences.

But it wasn't universally despised. Various trade papers were, at the same time, telling exhibitors that this was a film worth showing. It's interesting to read the Kinematograph Weekly of 14th April 1960 where he mentions that the bad reviews have done a lot of damage to the film's reception, but propheies that "its time will come later". I doubt if he realised it wouldn't be until 20 years later.

So what upset the mainstream critics so much? Was it really the pornography? It was at a very mild level by today's standards. Really nothing more than the old "dirty postcards" or "artistic poses".

Was it that Moira Shearer, who seems to have been mentioned by most of them, was killed off soon after she was brought in?

Was it the way Michael Powell appeared in it himself as Mark's father? Or the way he used his own son, Columba, to play Mark as a young boy? These were done for reasons of budget as much as anything else.

Was it, as some have suggested, that it was a horror film that was genuinely horrific?

Or was it that the whole idea behind the film, the concept, the story, the performances and the execution, was really done too well? The way that it makes you feel sympathy for an obviously disturbed anti-hero? The way it is so self-reflexive that it's only after you've been watching it for a while that you realise how you've been drawn in and if you want to condemn Mark Lewis for his act of Peeping, then you must condemn yourself as well for watching him?

Is it the depths and twists of the story? I doubt if many of the reviewers would have been aware of Leo Marks and his career during the war. A lot has been made in recent years of some of the convoluted references and clues. But these wouldn't have been obvious at a single viewing? Or does that explain the delay before some of the reviews were printed? That the critics went back and saw it a few more times?

Technically it's far from the most sophisticated film ever made. In fact it was made on a very low budget and there are quite a few interesting indications of what they did to save money, such as Mark wearing Micky Powell's jacket?

But it works like few other films do. It's not always an easy film to watch, it leaves most people feeling very uncomfortable. But is that any reason to write the reviews that did a lot to destroy the career of such a great film-maker?

I must just add that it wasn't only the bad reception of Peeping Tom that caused so many problems for Michael's career. There were other factors, but this was certainly a major one.

My thanks to Mark Fuller for obtaining and scanning in the reviews and articles.

Steve Crook
January 2006

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