Peeping Tom

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Details:
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Albert Fennell, Michael Powell (both uncredited)
Writer: Leo Marks
Cast: Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley, Pamela Green
Studio: Michael Powell (Theatre), Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors
Year: 1960

Why I DVRed ThisPeeping Tom is one of those films I’d heard about for years and years but never had the opportunity to see (I mean, yeah, I could’ve Netflixed it or gone back in time and gone to Blockbuster to rent it if I really wanted to see it, but it wasn’t just presented to me ever…). It is one of those movies that divided audiences in its time but that has come to be regarded as a classic. I don’t know the context for this being on TCM, but I saw it on the schedule one night and DVRed it.

Presentation on TCM: TCM just played its “open all night” diner montage to indicate that this film was being shown in the wee hours. As I said above, I have no idea if TCM put it on for any reason or to fulfill any theme.

Mark shows Helen
Mark shows Helen a glimpse of his childhood. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Synopsis: Mark Lewis (Böhm) is a freelance pornographic photographer who also works as a focus puller for a film studio. Additionally, he owns an apartment building he inherited from his father, a deranged psychiatrist who used his son as his guinea pig for experiments about human fear. He is unhappy and lonely and starts a relationship with one of his tenants, Helen (Massey). Oh, and there’s one more thing: Mark also likes to kill women by using a dagger attached to a camera. His goal is to try to capture fear on camera.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Peeping Tom is one of the defining horror movies of all time. It, along with Psycho, helped pave the way for the more sinister and psychological horror movies of the late 1960s and 1970s (as compared to the campy b-movies of the 1950s). However, unlike Psycho, which became a box office sensation (albeit with mixed reviews),

Watching Murder
The audience sees its first murder from the perspective of Mark’s camera, making it feel like the audience itself is killing the prostitute. Note also the red pillow behind her. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Peeping Tom essentially ended the career of director Michael Powell. He continued to work but not to receive the acclaim or fanfare he had received as one of Britain’s premier filmmakers of the post-war years.

And that’s a shame. Peeping Tom is a delightful film and one that seems to have been years ahead of the times. It is a film that is largely subjective in view and works best when it makes the viewer culpable in the action shown on the screen. If Psycho made everyone in the audience feel like a victim, Peeping Tom makes everyone in the audience feel like a killer. And, unlike Psycho, there is zero mystery about who the killer is, so the film becomes more an examination of human psyche than a straight thriller or mystery. But the psyche most explored is the shared bond between the killer and the spectator.

From the opening shots, Powell establishes this subjectivity. He makes it very clear the film will not be subject to mimetic staging (which works like a stage set—the world of the narrative is contained in a rectangle that is separate from the “real world”). Instead, the film shows primarily the perspective of Mark, our obvious psycho, but at first, we don’t see Mark—we just see Mark’s view, which becomes our view and, by extension, our actions.

Opening Shots
Through his camera, Mark sees his first victim, a lady of the night wearing a dress so blindingly red that it manages to stand out even in the expressionistic hellscape of the nighttime streets. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

The film opens on a closeup of an eye opening before we see a very expressionistic depiction of a street. A man snaps a photo of a woman through a hidden camera. We switch to his camera perspective of her. She is a prostitute (“it’ll be two quid”) and we follow her into her apartment (still in the camera view). She undresses for us (in a very untitilating way) before we begin to attack her and she screams at us. Then, and only then, do we cut to a projector showing the very movie and a man, Mark, watching it while some piano-heavy music plays and the title is revealed.

Horror movies primarily rely on an impulse in the audience to want—no, to need—to see things that should not be seen. That is why we scream “don’t open the closet” while praying that the victim does open the closet. Peeping Tom takes the whole notion further—we beg Mark to kill because we need to see the action. Of course, in seeing the action, we become sick too, but it’s our own fault for watching the film. With such logic, it’s no wonder the film offended so many during its first release. Today’s audience is more desensitized to such violence (see the success of the Saw franchise), so Peeping Tom seems thrilling more than sick. We enter a world we don’t know and commit actions we would never commit in real life—and that is the thrill. The thrill is of living vicariously through a psychopath, not of living vicariously through a detective investigating a psycho.

Peeping Tom also does a very good job of making it clear that, though Mark is psychotic, there are different manifestations of the same psychotic behavior in others. Mark works as an occasional pornographer, and there is a terrific scene early in the film in which he talks to the owner of a newsstand. The shops owner asks Mark which magazines sell best, and Mark replies “those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls.” In the same store, an elderly man is buying pornography and a daily newspaper, and the shop’s owner reminds him not to forget the newspaper he’s purchased. This scene establishes that many others in England are equally sex-obsessed as Mark; it’s just their obsessions manifest themselves differently (and, obviously, more healthily).

Unlike those of the casual masturbators, Mark’s impulses are primarily violent. But his violence is itself established as normal in the world he navigates. When Mark photographs naked prostitutes, they both ask him to cover up their bruises. This implies that they are used to getting roughed up by their johns, and it also implies that they want to be aesthetically pleasing in the magazines. There is a girl with a cleft palate who is particularly worried about the way she is photographed, and Mark precedes to obsess over her deformity. The world is ugly and violent, but Mark is comfortable with—if not outright intrigued by—it.

Prostitute 2
Mark becomes infatuated with the cleft lip of this model, here framed by her red hair, a red stool, and a red drape. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Prostitutes
This model, also wearing red, is more worried about her bruises being covered up. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

While the girls being photographed are, of course, obsessed with the way they will be captured on film, other victims of Mark show an equal concern with their looks. Indeed, aesthetics and appearances seem to be an important part of the film. This is, of course, because the movie is mostly about looking. The Peeping Tom of the title is not Mark but, rather, the audience, looking at what Mark sees (or at what others see Mark see, as when he shows them his home movies). We in the audience become dazzled by the expressionistic technicolor canvasses that make up the disgusting figures that occupy one of Mark’s worlds, the filmmakers and actresses that occupy another, and the ordinary Britons that occupy the house Mark owns.

Color features prominently in the film too. While the worlds Mark occupies are all lavishly colored, he himself is always dressed drably in browns and dark greens. This provides him with an everyman status and helps explain his ability to navigate the interstices between his three worlds. The police are the only ones who even seem to suspect him of being capable of anything heinous, and only really after they follow him between worlds (a person who works on the set might not be a suspect in the murder of an actress on the set, but a person who works on the set and works as a pornographer certainly could be a suspect). Mark’s apartment too is plain and unassuming, with drab wallpaper and boring furniture. However, he of course has two rather interesting things in his apartment: a projector and a darkroom. He uses the projector to show Helen the films of the cruel experiments on fear that were performed on Mark as a child, and he also shows her the darkroom, a room that seems to serve as his objective correlative—it is the only world that unites all three of Mark’s worlds and that provides access to Mark’s dark inner life. And, as if to make even more manifest what is already apparent, the darkroom is colored red—the color so often used in the film to mark desire and sex.

Mark meets Helen
Mark meets Helen for the first time. Note his drab appearance and drab apartment contrasted with the bright reds of Helen. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

Mark in Brown
In front of the newsstand, Mark is again in brown, but the object that carries him between worlds is bright red. © 1960 – Michael Powell (Theatre). All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red is indeed the clearest motif seen in Peeping Tom. All of Mark’s victims either have red hair or something very red about them (a pillow in the background of his first victim who was first seen in a garishly cerise skirt). When we meet the redheaded Helen for the first time (when he shows her the darkroom), she is wearing a red dress. All the other victims are similarly red either in hair color or costume or both. And many of the scenes seem to have a red tint to them, as though the whole film took place in a red light district (which it kind of does—the red light district of the audience’s minds!). Red is, of course, the color of fire and blood, so it is associated in art and literature with war, danger, strength, power, desire, and passion. And Mark himself seems to gravitate to the color, like a bull.

One final note: Many have remarked that the film clearly delineates good girls and bad girls. We see, for instance, prostitutes and nude models contrasted with the innocent Helen. But it seems the film actually implies that there isn’t really a difference. After all, regardless of if they are good or not good, Mark has access to them. He can work the seedy underbelly of London’s streets and porn shops just as easily as he can charm a nice woman like Helen. And both the good girls and the bad girls often have red hair, implying that, to Mark at least (and arguably to any pervert/psycho), the good and the bad are all the same—easily preyed upon women. As Powell seems to put the onus for all the violence on the audience (the sick fucks watching Mark’s films), the implication seems to be that the very act of looking or gazing on another automatically corrupts her. That is, it doesn’t matter if a person is good or bad once that person becomes an object of lust.

Powell is all too happy to direct us to this conclusion too. It’s worth noting that the doctor in Mark’s childhood movies is played by Powell (with his son playing the young Mark). Mark’s dad was interested in studying fear and human emotion. The filmmaker’s job seems to be not to study fear and emotion but to force them out of an audience. Given the cruelty we see imposed upon the cast by the director of the film Mark works on (not to mention the obvious cruelty inflicted on the stars of Mark’s movies by the filmmaker), it seems the process of making and screening films is not a job for the benevolent.

Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, yes, yes. This film is so rich, and I could’ve discussed it on so many levels (the career of Powell, the psychology of Mark, the idea of spectatorship, the connections between Peeping Tom and other voyeuristic films, etc.). However, at the end of the day, I was most drawn to the look of the film and the question of how the film is supposed to make you feel. I felt drawn in to Mark’s world, and so I felt disgusted by my own culpability in the action of the film (while not wanting to turn the movie off), but I imagine a person with better morals might end up feeling superior to Mark and disgusted simply at the film’s very existence, as though the attempt to make the audience feel guilty for Mark’s acts was itself a venal sin. Regardless, this is a film that I know I will come back to and probably draw a totally different conclusion about when I do.

 

The Night of the Hunter

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Details:
Director: Charles Laughton
Producer: Paul Gregory
Writer: James Agee
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves
Studio: United Artists
Year: 1955

Why I DVRed It: This is quite honestly one of my favorite movies, so I see it whenever I have the opportunity. The last time I saw it was at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn in December of 2013. At that presentation, the photographer Bruce Weber spoke about the documentary he was making about Robert Mitchum, so it felt like even more of an event. Watching the film on the big screen (and with some food and alcohol in front of me) was a significantly better experience than I knew watching it on my television in (due to my work schedule) two increments would be. But, still. I had to DVR it when I saw it on the TCM schedule.

Presentation on TCM: For once, I actually captured a movie that was properly presented on TCM! Before the movie aired, Ben Mankiewicz interviewed Jan-Christopher Horak, the Director of the UCLA Film & Television Archives. While I was thrilled to finally (FINALLY!) DVR a film with an introduction, I have to say, this introduction was pretty dull. Horak talked about The Night of the Hunter being on the cusp of the classical Hollywood and modern film era. Mankiewicz agreed, then both Mankiewicz and Horak lamented that the film has largely survived as merely a cult classic, because, if it had been an instant classic, the director, Charles Laughton, might’ve directed other films. But both agreed that Mitchum and Gish’s performances alone make the film one worth preserving. Get all that?

Mankiewicz and Horak discuss The Night of the Hunter on the TCM set.
Mankiewicz and Horak discuss The Night of the Hunter on the TCM set.

This conversation largely added nothing to my viewing of the film, as the two basically said the same stuff anyone who’s seen The Night of the Hunter would say. Of slightly more interest was Horak’s discussion of the archiving and restoration process, but even that was pretty dull.

After the movie, they talked again about Lillian Gish (who Horak met once), the restoration work done at the Eastman House, and the communications UCLA has with other archivists (they all like to make sure, for instance, that they are not preserving redundant films). So, all in all, this interview portion was not that helpful and could’ve been fast forwarded, even though that meant I would not have been able to gaze at Horak’s impressive socks…

Synopsis: In Depression-Era West Virginia, the maniacal Reverend Harry Powell (Mitchum) torments two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), in hopes of getting $10,000 stolen by their late father. The children escape after Harry kills their mother (Winters), and the Ohio River takes them to the home of Rachel Cooper (Gish). Harry follows. A showdown ensues.

Analysis (contains spoilers): This is one of the great all-time films, and it is so rich with imagery and themes that I am actually a bit overwhelmed with what to say about it. After all, most of the truly brilliant film historians and analysts have already discussed so much about it that it seems virtually impossible to not merely echo them. Making matters worse, the TCM presenters already touched on so many good talking points (the wishes that Laughlin would direct another movie, the amazing performances from Gish and Mitchum, the film encapsulating the best of the classical period as well as anticipating elements of later cinema). All of these are points I largely agree with, but, to the “acting” thoughts, I would add that Shelley Winters is just terrific in this film—she does such a good job of playing the woman no one wants to marry in this film, A Place in the Sun, and Lolita. I can’t help but wonder about the psychic scars she must have from being forever typecast as the frumpy victim, but I have to admit she was so wonderfully adept at playing that role. In this film, her role is even more interesting. Her character, Willa Harper, is a woman wronged twice over and a woman smart enough to see what’s coming but seemingly powerless against preventing it. She is a woman who knows enough to be suspicious but who is not confident enough to convince herself that her suspicions are justified. Winters gives so many great faces in the film and seems to have so many moments of anagnorisis about Harry, but they are always too late.  She realizes her marriage to Harry will not be a loving one the night of her wedding when he won’t sleep with her, when it is too late to not be married. She realizes the children are right to not like Harry only after it is too late to have Harry not be their surrogate father. And, of course she realizes that Harry is only after the money just in time for him to murder her and throw her into her hauntingly ethereal watery grave.

Willa is always too late to realize her suspicions are justified. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.
Willa is always too late to realize her suspicions are justified. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

That image is, of course, one of the great images of the film, but this time watching it, I was especially taken with an earlier group of images involving Willa, ones that quite successfully foreshadow her tragic fate. There’s a great sequence after Harry is released from prison. Willa is at work at the diner when the owners tell her she needs a man. She says she does not, and Laughton edits in images of a black train. Willa again says she does not want a man, and the train moves closer. Then we see Harry. The long black train is bringing her death, but she is fated to meet the train and Harry Powell, Willa’s personal Thanatos.

Willa's ending is foreshadowed throughout the film. Here, she resembles a corpse in a coffin, even though we never see her getting a proper burial. © 1955 – British Lion-Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Willa’s ending is foreshadowed throughout the film. Here, she resembles a corpse in a coffin, even though we never see her getting a proper burial. © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Later, on her wedding night, Willa’s sexual advances are rejected by Harry. She turns to sleep alone and places her arms over her chest, like the arms of a corpse in a coffin. She is a woman who wants to forego marriage after her first husband wrongs her by stealing $10,000, and she is a woman who largely knows to avoid the temptations of Harry Powell. She can see she does not need a man, and yet she ends up marrying him and believing herself to be a sinner. After all, if a preacher tells her she’s a sinner, then she must be one, right? That, of course, leads into one of the major themes of the movie: who speaketh for God in a world gone wrong?

The film opens with pictures of the stars and Rachel’s face preaching a true sermon to the children she has taken in. She warns them of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, obviously foreshadowing Harry, a bluebeard who claims to speak to and for God. The children are lost souls—we learn later that the Depression has made orphaned children a common problem—but Rachel (named presumably for the child-less wife of Jacob in the Bible) has taken them in and given them moral direction.

Rachel preaches to her
Rachel preaches to her “many birds.” © 1955 – MGM. All Rights Reserved.

Others may be taken in by a fast-talking charlatan, but Rachel can see through him, for she alone knows the true purpose of religion the film evokes: community, love, guidance, not selfishness. Harry wishes and claims to speak directly to God, but Rachel is a student of the Bible. She knows she does not know everything but claims to only be certain that she “good for something in this world” because she is a “strong tree with branches for many birds.” For Rachel, being able to follow the teachings of the Bible is enough. She compares John to Moses (because he came to her floating on the river) and speaks only what the Bible says. Harry, on the other hand, makes up his own sermons based on his love and hate tattoos. And, of course, rather than using God’s teachings to do right and raise up orphans, he uses it to control Willa and justify his killing of her. He misinterprets or outright makes up the voice of God.

Ultimately, the film takes a stance that is not so much anti-religion as it is anti the use of religion to justify misery. Religion, it seems, is meant to be a tool for good. I got choked up at the ending, in which John and Pearl have a real family with a real foundation. They celebrate Christmas, and Rachel even manages to buy John the watch he wanted, even though she is not rich. Money is ultimately trumped by faith and family, but John still gets the material possession he wanted!

The film is highly recommended. As I stated above, I can’t even begin to do it justice on this forum. The imagery is too incredible to be captured in stills (it makes use of expressionist techniques that make the whole film exist in this dreamy yet realistic fairy tale yet world), and there are too many sequences that need to be witnessed in context to have them make sense (such as the great sequence when Rachel pulls out her shotgun while Harry sings hymns). It’s simply a must-see.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, didn’t I make that clear? As I said, I always try to watch this film when I can, and I have no regrets about DVRing it. I highly highly highly recommend this film, and it appears even richer on repeated viewings.