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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Massey’

Let us cast our minds back to 1960 and survey the state of the horror movie as a genre in the English-speaking world: in the USA, Alfred Hitchcock is making Psycho, and in the process inventing the slasher movie, while in a slightly less opulent office Roger Corman is skimming through his copy of The Bumper Book of Edgar Allen Poe and thinking about calling Vincent Price’s agent. Meanwhile, across the pond, the top brass at Hammer Films have recently completed their first wave of well-behaved Gothic horror adaptations and are wondering what to do next – some sequels, perhaps? Maybe a film about the Spanish Inquisition with rising star Oliver Reed? (If the Church complains they’ll have to rewrite it – and they haven’t done a werewolf movie yet, come to think of it.) Elsewhere, and most pertinently for us today, Michael Powell is making his own take on the horror movie formula: the resulting film, Peeping Tom, will effectively destroy this celebrated and brilliant director’s career. It is the horror movie which is, in many ways, just too horrible to watch.

powell pt

On its release, respected critics made declarations that Peeping Tom was more nauseating than a leper colony and should be thrown into a sewer, but – wouldn’t you know – the film has received a significant reappraisal, as surely befits the work of a director like Michael Powell – surely one of the two or three greatest film-makers working in Britain in the middle of the last century. Think of Powell and your mind is irresistibly drawn to the romantic fantasy of A Matter of Life or Death or I Know Where I’m Going, or the affectionate, thoughtful character study of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. But all of these films had a touch of darkness around their fringes, the threat of something shadowy lurking just out of frame. In Peeping Tom the darkness is given free reign and the results are still quite shocking.

Carl Boehm gives a really astonishing performance as Mark Lewis, a young camera enthusiast working as a focus puller for a small British film company. He aspires to be a director himself and is seldom without his handheld camera. However, he also has a sideline as a photographer working for a small-time pornographer. And he is also a killer: as a boy he was experimented on by his biologist father, a man interested in the nature of the fear response, and the results unfailingly recorded on film. This has left Mark very, very messed up: he has an almost-fetishistic interest in cameras and film, and an obsessive fascination with fear and its effects.

The film opens with Mark committing his first murder, and it’s instantly clear why this film provoked such strong reactions on its release. This story does not take place in the glamourised world of many genuine exploitation movies, but somewhere much less idealised: it is a tawdry, grubby place, uncomfortably realistic. And, even more significantly, from the start of the film many key sequences are shown through the viewfinder of Mark’s own camera: we are seeing the world from his point of view, and the result is that we are encouraged to empathise with him, despite everything he does. The film is quite honest about this: Mark is presented as being almost as much a victim as any of the women he kills (it is perhaps telling that his father, in his very brief appearance in the film, is played by Powell himself), and he is not some cold, dead-eyed psychopath – he is moved by the affection of a young woman (Anna Massey) who tries to initiate a romantic relationship with him, and desperately wants to avoid hurting her – ‘don’t show me you’re afraid,’ he begs at one point. A tacit parallel is drawn between Mark’s own issues with voyeurism and the socially-acceptable interests of a man visiting a tobacconist’s to buy pornographic postcards (bagged as ‘Educational Books’, of course) – the difference, the film seems to be saying, is not one of substance, but simply of degree.

The film doesn’t pull many punches, therefore, in suggesting that there is some degree of kinship between Mark, maker of his own very authentic horror movies, and the audience, who are also obviously partakers of horror movies (why else would they be there?). This level of knowingness is sustained throughout the film – everyone involved, even the police investigating Mark’s murders, seems to be terribly cine-literate, while the sets of When the Walls Close In (the film Mark is working on in his day job) are as garish and slightly stylised as those of Peeping Tom itself. A key sequence has Mark preparing to despatch Moira Shearer’s character (unbeknownst to her, of course), and you can’t help but think that all his meticulous work with tape measures, lenses, and so on must have been closely duplicated by Powell and his crew for self-evident reasons. The film is partly about the dangers of obsession, and the inability to deal with reality except through the mediating device of a film camera: one could also probably argue it’s about what happens when one loses the ability to distinguish between film and reality itself.

Certainly, Peeping Tom displays a confident familiarity with many of the standard tropes of its genre – it has a sympathetic monster, distinguishes quite clearly between ‘bad’ girl victims (prostitutes, models, actresses) and ‘good’ girl heroines, features a vulnerably blind supporting character, and so on. Sexual desire has the shadow of death upon it. And yet it goes further, by suggesting that the film-making process itself is somehow complicit in the act of horror. The weapon with which Mark commits his killings is part of his camera – the symbolism is not laboured, but neither is it difficult to discern. In a similar way, Mark has hit upon a method where he can film his victims while they witness their own death agonies: it is this, he suggests, which is the most frightening thing of all.

It’s the recursiveness of Peeping Tom which makes it such a complex and demanding film to try and think about, and one is inevitably left with questions of one’s own. To what extent is Mark really tempted by the redemption offered by Helen? It’s almost with relief that he discovers his particular problem – which he identifies as scopophilia, a morbid fascination with looking – will take years to cure: much too long. Have all his actions in the film been a protracted attempt at forcing his own suicide? Parts of the film don’t make much sense otherwise – it’s difficult to understand why Mark chooses to kill someone in a place where he works, which he knows to be under police surveillance, unless he actually wants to be identified as the murderer.

Michael Powell orchestrates the movie with his usual consummate skill, even if it lacks some of the more bravura stylistic and visual flourishes which distinguish the best of his collaborations with long-term partner Emeric Pressburger. The central performance from Boehm is, as mentioned, truly remarkable, but Massey is also strong, as is Maxine Audley as her mother. The film is clearly a mid-range British production being made for a fairly modest budget, but this never feels like it is a problem. The fact that the film’s score largely consists of a solo piano is not a problem, but something truly distinctive: the relentless nature of the music perfectly matching the driven nature of the film’s protagonist.

As censors of the day would have insisted, the film ends with the world restored to a state of virtue, and the monster despatched: and yet as the film finishes, the atmosphere of helpless despair it has generated doesn’t really lift. Perhaps this is because it has been too successful throughout in presenting Mark as the victim, as a surrogate for the audience. Mark gets off on watching frightened people being killed – but then so do we, or why else would we want to watch this kind of film in the first place? Powell doesn’t seem to be morally censuring anyone, but even so, he forces the audience to ask itself some very uncomfortable questions about the very act of watching a film. This is surely why the film was so reviled on its first appearance: whether its critical appraisal since then is due to people becoming more willing to confront their own dark sides, or simply because we are all too steeped in horror in recognise it as such, is another question. I couldn’t honestly call this my favourite Michael Powell film – in truth, it’s a hard film to genuinely like at all – but its status as a brilliant British horror movie is unquestionable.

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