Hard Light with No Filter: How Michael Powell’s Career was Ended by “Peeping Tom”

peeping-tom

By S.A. Bradley

There’s a scene in Director Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom (1960) where the main character, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), works his side job as a pinup photographer. He’s very good, but detached. There’s a “new girl” whom we first see only in profile. Mark is preoccupied and barely notices her until she turns and reveals a disfigured lip. Mark is awestruck. He’s compelled to pick up his movie camera and film her face. It’s awkwardly sexual. Another model protests, “but what about the customers”?

I’ll bet the Film Distributors said those same words upon Peeping Tom’s release in April 1960. Little did Powell know his film about murder, movies, sex and voyeurism would be so vilified, even by critics who championed his work, that it would effectively kill his long and esteemed career. It’s cruel coincidence that Peeping Tom is about a man who obsessively creates a movie that kills him in the end.

The story, by Leo Marks, reads pretty sordidly. Mark is a focus-puller for a movie by day, serial killer by night. He uses a portable camera to film women (mostly prostitutes) and murder them on-camera to capture their final moment of terror. He’s finishing a “documentary” his obsessed psychiatrist father started: his life.

Peeping Tom is a cold splash of water if you compare it with Powell’s other work. It’s hard to believe that this cynical, exploitive film was made by the same guy who directed artful, expressionistic films such as The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947), which are masterpieces of Classic British Cinema. Powell was nominated for three Oscars prior to Peeping Tom, and that pedigree only sharpened his guillotine.

It’s the storytelling choices that caused the initial fallout and, later, made the movie a lost masterpiece. Peeping Tom isn’t a lapse in artistry for Powell- it’s a masterfully executed breakthrough into modern filmmaking by an Old Guardsman. There’s no Hitchcockian “whodunit”; we know who the killer is and what he does by the end of the opening credits.

We witness a life spiraling towards a horrific end and we watch nakedly. And that gets uncomfortable. We see deaths through the killer’s camera viewfinder. The veneer of armchair observer peels away. Everyone secretly watches everyone in this film, and Powell slyly predicts our current society of voyeurs preoccupied with the lives of others (and those who must be seen).

This proved too much for audiences and critics in 1960. Times were changing, but to Powell’s ardent supporters, he squandered the goodwill and prestige he had built over 20 years. He was the wrong messenger and the level of critical vitriol thrown smells of betrayal of their artistic investment in him. Powell’s career in Britain was over.

Time uncovers worthy efforts, and a new generation of filmmakers, led by Martin Scorsese, championed Peeping Tom and helped restore Powell as an influential filmmaker. Today, five of Powell’s films are ranked in the BFI Top 100 British films of all time.

One is Peeping Tom.

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