There are plenty of directors that many wish would never make another film ever again but the late Michael Powell was not one of them yet his 1960 film, ‘Peeping Tom’ as good as ended his career for him. Powell had started directing in the early 1930’s often making several films in a single year but it was the 1940’s that saw make many of his most regarded and lauded films that included, The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp’ , A Matter of Life and Death’, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. His reputation was immense and he was highly regarded but this would all be ruined by the release of Peeping Tom.
The film followed Mark Lewis, a clapper loader in the film industry who photographed models for shop customers looking for specialist interested under the counter photos and but more concerning was that he also made his own 16mm films of women as he murdered them with the knife concealed in one of the tripods legs all the time filming them in the throes of terror and eventual death. It was lurid stuff at the start of a decade where morality was beginning to loosen up after the war years and rationing had finally ended. Featuring Carl Boehm in the title role Powell has also cast himself as Lewis’ father and his own son for flashback sequences of Lewis as a boy. These sequences had the boy used as a subject for his scientist fathers research and experimenting with the effects of fear on him and were to explain his behaviour as a grown man and his chilling murders of women.
Critics were appalled and outraged. This was not the sort of film that had come to expect from a revered director who had made The Red Shoes and they sharpened their pens for the coruscating reviews that buried the film. Critics found the subject matter perverse and that Powell had cast himself and his real life son as borderline child abuse in a film about a serial killer and Powell’s script would have sympathy for the killer, something which hadn’t really been seen since 1931’s ‘M’ with Peter Lorre as a child killer. Further still the voyeuristic nature of Peeping Tom was unsettling and a bit meta for audiences at the time who would be watching Lewis looking through the camera lens at his victim who would be looking at her own death throes reflected in a mirror fixed to the camera itself. The reviews and public outcry had thee distributors quickly pulling it from cinemas and selling it off to the private porn cinema circuit where it soon faded away into forgotten obscurity. Peeping Tom destroyed Powell’s career and his reputation never really recovered
It was the budding filmmakers Francis Coppola, George Lucas but Martin Scorsese especially who were learning their craft in the sixties who gave the film a new life. The films infamy meant it was known but it was difficult to see and it was in 1980, when Scorsese was shooting Raging Bull, and had had been vocal in his support of the film was approached about backing a re-release of the film which he agreed to for a small fee and his own print of the film. Ironically Scorsese’s long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker would go on to marry Powell in 1984 before he passed away in 1990.
In retrospect it’s easy to see why Peeping Tom caused such an outcry and yet ironically only months later Hitchcock would release Psycho which had also outraged studios but became the directors most profitable and successful film ever. Two films similar in theme but with a wildly divergent reception.
The Peeping Tom blu-ray is part of the excellent Vintage Classics collection and the transfer has captured the colours that Powel used in the film so brilliantly and the disc has a number of decent bonus features all of which enhance the history and understanding of the film that starts with a specially filmed introduction by Scorsese himself and a commentary by academic Ian Christie is very good.
Here’s the Peeping Tom trailer…….