Peeping Tom (1960) – The British Invasion Blogathon

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Take Me to Your Cinema!

I first saw this peculiar film about ten years ago, sometime when I was still in grad school. I can’t remember why; I must have stumbled across it at the very fine Four Star Video Heaven, which is—somewhat miraculously—still in business. Neither am I sure why I liked it so much so immediately. It’s certainly unlike anything I had seen before. It might even have been the first of British director Michael Powell’s films I ever saw. Plenty has been said about how Peeping Tom ruined Michael Powell’s career, which is essentially true. Martin Scorsese was instrumental in rehabilitating him starting in the 1970s, and Powell did make a few more pictures before he died in 1990. Thankfully, it’s not the most interesting thing about the film, so let’s skip over that. I’ve watched the film so many times now, that it’s hard to narrow down what to talk about. So I’m warning you now, this may end up being another two-parter. Or just long-winded.

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Can you guess what sort of reaction the film got when it was originally released?

Michael Powell, with his long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, made some of the finest British films you can rest your peepers on: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Powell made Peeping Tom after they went their separate ways, but it shares with those classic films a devotion to fabulous color (here, Eastmancolor) and an off-kilter British eccentricity. Much of the eccentricity manifests in the characters. For example, Helen (Anna Massey), the love interest—maybe the first Last Girl in horror films—is writing a children’s book about a magic camera that sees adults as the children they were. One of the cops investigating the murders that take place starts snapping his fingers and bopping around in time to the music on a victim’s tape recorder discovered at a crime scene.

The main character, the Peeping Tom of the title, is Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a focus-puller (assistant camerman) at a British film studio. In his spare time, Mark takes unnecessarily artistic nudie photographs for the owner of a newsagents shop who peddles what his customers coyly refer to as “views.” But all of this is merely a cover for Mark’s real calling—documentarian, for he is the artistic child of a scientist. He documents the murders of women he commits using a dagger hidden in his camera’s tripod. Like all good serial killers and superheroes, Mark has an origin story. Mark’s father, a scientist who studied fear in children, recorded as much of Mark’s childhood as he could—both on film and on tape. The scientist would dream up ways of terrifying his son in order to film his fear, record his screams and cries. Dad filmed the boy’s budding interest in sex—one of the movies we watch Mark and Helen, watching is of Mark as a boy watching a couple (Powell’s neighbors) necking on a park bench. The cherry on top of this Freudian sundae might be the film of Mark “saying goodbye” to his dead mother. Later in the film, as we see Mark’s father give Mark his first camera, the adult Mark refers to his mother’s death as “the previous sequence.” After all this, even Mark refers to himself as “mad.” (Also competing for cherry-on-top is the fact that Powell plays Mark’s father, and his son Columba plays the young Mark.) Don’t worry—a short, crazy-haired psychiatrist shows up on the set of the film Mark is working on, called The Walls Are Closing In, naturally, and after being introduced to Mark, muses that “he has his father’s eyes.”

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Moira Shearer as stand-in Vivian filming Mark film her. Things go downhill from there.

The general plot—a serial killer who was traumatized as a child and now murders women using his camera—is reminiscent of some typically American horror movies about voyeurism and cameras: Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) come to mind. But the American versions are crasser, more vulgar—and I actually don’t mean that in a bad way. Cronenberg’s earlier work is known, of course, for gooey action in which the boundaries of a character’s body are violated and merged with or taken over by what is often some sinister technology, as in the aforementioned Videodrome, The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), or Existenz (1999).

Peeping Tom has nothing so unseemly. It is an incredibly decorous film given that it’s about a serial killer. Tidy. The climactic violence at the end produces almost no blood. Some of this is due to when it was made, surely. But it’s also an indication of where the film’s real interests lie. It is a film in which the boundaries crossed are almost entirely psychological. The physical violence is almost beside the point. What Mark wants, as a result of his particular trauma, hero_EB19990502REVIEWS08905020301ARis to record the terror, the fear the women experience on the threshold of death. Part of what is unique about Mark’s method is that he wants his victims to share his own experience of their death by watching themselves die. To this end, Mark has attached a distorting mirror to his camera, in which the women are forced to watch their own murders. Interestingly, almost no write-ups of the film mention this detail, though it seems essential to Mark’s story.

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Karlheinz Böhm as documentarian Mark Lewis

The film would have been a disaster without the right person playing Mark, and Karlheinz Böhm (also known as Carl Boem) is the Right Person. Powell initially wanted Laurence Harvey, and watching Peeping Tom, you can see why. The part requires the same sort of quiet woundedness Harvey did so well two years later in The Manchurian Candidate. Harvey also has a malicious edge, however, and I think this is at least partly why Böhm is the better choice. He does shy and damaged, but there is simply no aggression to him at all. Böhm’s Austrian accent, which ought to not to work, since his character allegedly grew up in the London house he still occupies, is instead an asset. It softens the edges of his words, making them more tentative and fragile than they would otherwise be. Two of the women we see him murder know him well, and, unlike so many later horror/slasher films, it is utterly believable that neither of them sees Mark as a threat. Even as he murders, Böhm’s Mark is more determined—focused—than aggressive.

Another character, like Mark, whom we might be tempted to see as weak is Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley)—she is not only blind, but an alcoholic (Johnny Walker Red, thanks). But Mrs. Stevens is a more overtly aggressive character than Mark. She is a cranky drunk and immediately suspicious of him. She says to Helen:

I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.

Helen: He’s shy!

His footsteps aren’t. They’re stealthy.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way Powell links Mark to the blind Mrs. Stevens. Both she and Mark are sharp, both have been wounded by someone who should have taken care of them. (Mrs. Stevens, we learn, has been blinded by an incompetent doctor.) And they both love Helen.

Maxine Audley as Helen's mother, Mrs. Stevens

Maxine Audley as Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens

At the end of a scene of one of Mark’s nudie photo shoots, we see a model’s hand pouring tea. This cuts to Mrs. Steven’s hand pouring herself what is clearly another glass of scotch. Later, we cut from another closeup of Mrs. Stevens pouring herself another scotch, to Mark, pouring developing chemicals upstairs. During Helen and Mark’s only date, Mrs. Stevens sneaks up to Mark’s apartment. While Mrs. Stevens cannot secretly watch others, she does listen. She has heard Mark in his darkroom, watching his films on a projector. And she has recognized in Mark a fellow addict. She confronts him there, after his date with Helen.

What are these films you can’t wait to see? Take me to your cinema!

Mrs. Stevens uses a cane to maneuver in the crowded space, and we see at the end of her cane a short blade. She holds the cane out in front of herself, defensively, mirroring Mark’s movement when he unsheathes his own knife from the tripod.

As an addict, Mrs. Stevens—also a damaged but functional mother figure—understands Mark better than Helen can. As she leaves his room, she tells him, “All this filming isn’t healthy. Get help—while you still can.” Of course, Mark knows only too well how unhealthy it is.

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No one in the film respects the boundaries of others. Mark’s father uses him as a science experiment, invading every private moment Mark should have had as a child. Even Helen invites herself in to Mark’s apartment, and Mrs. Stevens breaks in. As a child Mark was never allowed to lock a door, and he says he can’t get used to keys. This invasion is represented as much by all the doorways and curtains through which characters enter and exit—and sometimes linger in or block—as it is by the various cameras in the film. (One of them, a Bell and Howell, is Powell’s first camera. Of course it is.)

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Like his earlier collaborations with Pressburger, Powell’s Peeping Tom is more of a fantasia than a “realistic” portrait of a serial killer. The worlds of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and, especially, The Tales of Hoffmann are passionately intensified, lurid versions of the real one. The characters in them, however, seem very real because they touch us, and I think this is really what upset everybody so much about Peeping Tom the first time around.

Midway through the film, Helen wants Mark to help her illustrate her magic-camera book, which has just been accepted for publication. Mark is genuinely thrilled for her and wants to “find [her] faces” for her, as he puts it. He tells her, “Everyone’s face looks like child’s if you catch them at the right moment.”

 

Check out all the other awesome British Invasion posts at A Shroud of Thoughts!

 

Don’t miss:

“Peeping Tom” is screening on TCM Saturday, October 4 @ 03:00 PM (ET). It’s available for rent, streaming, from Amazon Prime, and available on disc via Netflix.

 TCM’s article on Peeping Tom

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review

 

Go see “Snowpiercer” … if you can

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Go. Now.

I had the good fortune to be in Los Angeles when Bong Joon-ho’s new film, “Snowpiercer,” opened there mid-July. So, I dragged my mom to see it at the only place it was playing on the West Side, a somewhat run-down multiplex on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Last I heard, the film is only getting a limited release in the States, unless it does well enough to “merit” a wide release. (No, I don’t understand the logic of that, either.) If you believe the word “merit” connotes any value other than a financial one, then “Snowpiercer” absolutely merits wide release. Frankly, since it’s made $80 million internationally, I’m not sure what the problem is in that regard, either. Whatever. It’s a surprising, engrossing, good-looking entry in the limited-resource dystopian genre–much better than most recent dystopian flicks. And you should go see it. And have your faith in summer blockbusters restored.

I’m not going to say much about what happens in the film because you need to go see it first. Then come back, and we’ll talk. What follows is really just some encouragement to get you out the door to a theater. (Do not watch it on VOD, if you have a choice. You will regret it.)

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You will regret it.

Bong directed the great 2006 monster movie “The Host,” which also starred Kang-ho Song. “The Host” has a fair amount of comedy, some of it pretty wacky, but like all good monster movies, the threat is born from a justifiable and now-familiar fear–in this case, the consequences of environmental damage. The toxic waste an American mortician on a South Korean U.S. Army base orders his Korean underling to flush down the pipes goes into the Han River. What could go wrong?

“Snowpiercer” is a grimmer look at an ostensibly similar but much more serious problem: global warming. The environmental horror is really just an excuse to winnow humanity down to a few hundred souls, trap them in a contained space, in this case a supertrain, and watch the “natural order” that results. The natural order in this case is a suspiciously familiar-looking 99% – 1% sort of split. Those who belong in the front live in comfort and the security of knowing that’s where they belong (and, perhaps more importantly, where others don’t belong), while the tightly-packed plebs in the back cars of the train wallow in filth, eating “protein” blocks made of ground-up trust-me-you-don’t-want-to-know.

Given this setup, the plot is hardly surprising–those in the back will fight their way to the front of the train. Yet, there’s a great deal of suspense and peculiarity created along the way, and the film plays around with dystopian staples like the idea of a special person who has been prophesied to come along and save everybody,  à la Neo in “The Matrix.”

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Yes, the shoe *is* really important.

The casting is excellent–Song Kang-ho is always a kick to watch (in addition to “The Host,” check out the fine “Memories of Murder,” also directed by Bong, and “Secret Sunshine”). I was worried about throwing Captain America (Chris Evans) into a Bong Joon-ho universe, but Evans is really pretty good (and the film would collapse if he weren’t). And of course Tilda Swinton is, as far as I’m concerned, reason enough to go see any film. She is fantastic (and fantastically absurd) here, with maybe the best speech in the film–not surprisingly, about social order. Another favorite thing about the film is that one of the most important conversations in the picture takes place in English and Korean, and it works beautifully.

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The film ain’t short at 126 minutes, though it’s not long by today’s tent-pole- “Transformers” standards for films that can verge on the unwatchable, no less. But for a film whose plot seems so obvious, the forward motion of “Snowpiercer’s” action never drags, even when the pace slows. If you’ve seen other Korean films, (“The Host,” say, or the amazing, grueling “Old Boy” directed by Park Chan-wook) the weirdness of “Snowpiercer” won’t strike you as much. But either way, the weirdness, much of it Bong’s and some of it, I think, cultural difference, is essential to the film, and to why it works. If you took out Swinton’s dentures, the avant-massacre carp, or Ewen Bremner’s nutty brilliance, it might still be good, but it wouldn’t be as astonishingly good as it is. Or as much fun, because however gloomy the film’s universe is, “Snowpiercer” is still a summer movie, dammit.

And, yes, my mom loved it.

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From the graphic novel on which the movie’s based, by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. Is there a gutted carp? I look forward to finding out.

 

I have every intention of coming back to write about  “Snowpiercer” after seeing it again–on VOD, if I must. In the meantime, here are some other fine dwindling-resource dystopian films you might enjoy, as well as some other thoughts (with gargantuan spoilers, so beware) on “Snowpiercer.”

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If you’re interested in post-apocalypse films, here’s an interesting post from one of TCM’s Movie Morlocks, Richard Harland Smith.

The Ebert site review of “Snowpiercer.” The site also has a review of Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host.”

Wonderfully entertaining roundtable of sorts on “Snowpiercer” by various Grantland staff. This will ruin most of the surprises in the film, so, seriously, don’t read it until you’ve seen the movie.

Buzzfeed’s “‘Snowpiercer’ Should Have Been the Breakout Blockbuster of the Summer”