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Peeping Tom (1960)
Michael Powell had, with his producer partner Emeric Pressburger, created some of the most critically acclaimed and best loved British films of the 1940s and 50s - The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944) and the brilliant A Matter of Life and Death (1946) being just three. But Powell's career was severely compromised by the critical backlash directed at his remarkable Peeping Tom (1960)
Shot in 1959, and released a few months before Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), it was "the film that should never have been made, the film that should have been flushed down the toilet, the film that was never seen for twenty years because its distributor was so scared, scared that he wouldn't get an OBE or a knighthood, scared of distributing what they call now 'Michael Powell's best film'" (Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (1987) p.366).
Though it's usually Powell who comes under the spotlight when discussing
Peeping Tom (and rightly so, it remains his masterpiece),
the genesis of the project lay with writer Leo Marks, an enigmatic former
code-breaker and devotee of psychoanalysis. Marks had met Powell through
Daniel Angel, producer of Carve Her Name With Pride
(1958) and the director found him fascinating. Marks had wanted to write
a film about a double agent he'd known during the war, but Powell wasn't
Powell had originally wanted to cast Laurence Harvey, star of Jack Clayton's groundbreaking Room at the Top (1959) as his scoptophilic anti-hero. But Harvey was lured away to Hollywood and instead Powell cast virtual unknown Karlheinz Böhm (credited as Carl Boehm), an Austrian émigré with a meagre track record in movies.
When John Trevelyan saw the script on behalf of the BBFC in September 1959 he tried to persuade Powell against the project, fearing that "it's morbid concentration on fear and on the infliction of fear might be done in such a way as to make it an essay in sadism." Trevelyan continued to voice his concerns, though Powell didn't seem terribly interested in taking his advice. The matter culminated in a private meeting in February 1960 between the two men, after the film had been completed, for Trevelyan to make last attempt to outline his concerns.
The reasons for Trevelyan's insistence on Powell cutting his film betray a hidden agenda on the censor's part. Trevelyan had great plans for his still relatively new 'X' certificate, viewing it as a gateway to a new world of quality adult entertainment and had resisted attempts by the powerful British Film Renters Association to reinstate the 'H' certificate in 1955 for ghettoising the more exploitative films falling into the 'X' category. Trevelyan had believed that "more could be achieved by promoting the ringht kind of 'quality' film than by hiving off any despised 'exploitative' products into a hastily revised category" (Anthony Aldgate, Censorship and the Permissive Society: British Cinema and Theatre 1955-1965 (1995) p.51).
Powell's actions had threatened Trevelyan's plans for the 'X' certificate (Aldgate, ibid., p.54) and the unapologetic nastiness of Peeping Tom could easily have triggered a backlash against horror movies and again raised the spectre of calls for the reintroduction of the 'H' certificate. Should another call be made in the wake of what everyone was expecting to be a critical firestorm after Peeping Tom's release, it was doubtful whether Trevelyan could have prevented it from happening this time.
Trevelyan was caught between a rock and a hard place - having seen the script and given it a cautious all clear, he was honour bound to release the film with some sort of certificate and his beloved 'X' was the only option. He managed to persuade Powell to shorten some scenes but his concessions fell well short of what Trevelyan really wanted. There was nothing he could do but sit back, hold tight and see what happened.
What did happen was unprecedented. No British film managed to touch a nerve quite like Peeping Tom and few have managed to create a fuss like it since. Peeping Tom was given its trade show on 31 March 1960 and the effect was astonishing. The London critics, unused to such provocative and unapologetic filmmaking from a British director were quite unprepared for the forthright manner in which Powell attacked his subject matter. Len Mosey of the Daily Express deplored its "sadism, sex and the exploitation of human degradation"; Caroline Lejeune in The Observer (oh, the irony!) called it "beastly"; Isobel Quiqley of The Spectator (more irony!) called it "the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing"; and Nina Hibbin actually declared it "wholly evil" in the Daily Worker. "Peeping Tom stinks more than anything in British films since The Stranglers of Bombay," spat William Whitebait in New Statesman (9 April 1960), while Derek Hill (later a fervent campaigner against censorship) began his demolition with the now legendary "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." Dilys Powell was apoplectic, but barely four months later was, like many of colleagues, happily heaping praise on Hitchcock's similarly inclined Psycho (1960).
All this fallout settled on Powell, whose career may not have been completely destroyed by Peeping Tom as has often been claimed, though he certainly found it harder to find work in its aftermath. By contrast, Trevelyan and the BBFC seemed to get off comparatively lightly. Hill seemed let down by the Board's promises that the horror boom was over, and there were the problems with certain local authorities, but by and large the BBFC was able to keep its head down and ride out the storm of moral indignation.
Trevelyan later tried to cover his tracks somewhat, claiming that in script form at least, it "would contribute to a public understanding of mental illness" but seemed dismayed when the film turned out to be "totally different." He again advanced the defence that having accepted the script, he "did not feel able to reject the film" (John Trevelyan, What the Censor Saw (1973), pp.159-160)).
Powell himself seemed almost to revel in the film's notoriety, mimicking the righteous tone of the reviews: "It was salacious, rapacious, pornographic and utterly boring for us critics, who had to sit through this mish-mash of sex and murder. It was an insult to the film business, it out-cocked even the worst of Hitchcock, in fact it was all cock. What should be done with a film like this? It should be flushed down the water closet with every responsible critic in London gleefully hanging on the chain" (Powell, ibid, p.400).
Nat Cohen, who picked up distribution rights to Peeping Tom
from Anglo-Amalgamated, pulled it from its run at Piccadilly's Plaza
cinema and dumped it into a distribution limbo where it remained for
some 20 years. But Peeping Tom was a film that refused
to die. Bertrand Tavernier enthused over it in the pages of the influential
Midi-Minuit Fantastique and helped to keep the film in the
public gaze in France, while Martin Scorcese paid out of his own pocket
to have a print shown at the 1978 New York Film Festival where it was
greeted with much enthusiasm.
Last Updated: 16 May, 2009
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