Michael Powell is the director of such film as The Red Shoes (Powell 1948), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell 1943), A Matter of Life and Death (Powell 1946), as well as Peeping Tom (Powell 1960); which will be the focus of much of this essay. Peeping Tom was released in 1960, three months prior to Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Psycho (Hitchcock 1960). This is relevant because the two films shared and explored similar themes of sex, murder, voyeurism, and put the audience in league with the killer who was the star of the show. Psycho elevated Hitchcock’s fame, Peeping Tom however, effectively derailed Michael Powell’s career permanently. This paper will focus on Powell’s influence in the psychological thriller and horror film genre.
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Powell started out in film as the proverbial “gofer” for a number of different productions moving up the ranks until he worked with Alfred Hitchcock as an on set still photographer. He and Hitchcock became friends in this time and remained friends for the remainder of Hitchcock’s life. Powell moved into scriptwriting for a time and eventually teamed up with Jerry Jackson to produce derisively called “quota quickies”. Powell directed several of these films honing his directing skills.
Powell met Emeric Pressburger when he was hired to fix The Spy in Black (Powell, 1939). The script was apparently very faithful to the book but interminably boring. Pressburger was hired and gave a new take on the film which impressed everyone in the room and ended up being made. This cemented The Archers as filmmakers who were very good at what they each did and had a great amount of respect for each other. Powell and Pressburger shared writing and directing credit for the majority of their films because they realized how important their collaboration was to the overall project. (Lazar) After a highly successful run of critical hits the movies started to become less successful, Powell and Pressburger decided to part ways in 1956 to pursue their careers individually. (Millar)
Powell’s Peeping Tom was critically reviled upon its release in 1960, but reconsideration in the following years have heralded it as a groundbreaking film on par with many of Powell’s previous films made as part of The Archers. The list of celebrators of their work together reads like a who’s who list of celebrated and groundbreaking modern film makers. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George A. Romero are a few of Powell’s most vocal fans. (Crook) The influence of his films, and Peeping Tom in particular, can be witnessed in many other celebrated filmmakers work even though direct reference is not given to Powell.
Peeping Tom tells the story of Mark Lewis, a focus puller nobody for an unnamed studio and nude photographer for girlie magazines on the side. Mark is generally nice guy and dreams of making his own films and has begun by filming murders that he commits via a stiletto blade on the leg of the tripod for his beloved Bolex portable camera. He calls his project a documentary and watches in ecstasy every night at home rising and falling with the rhythm of terror playing out across his unwilling actresses’ faces. Mark has a semi-romantic relationship with his neighbor and he promises that she will never be photographed by his camera. Upon finding one of his gruesome sets the police that have been tracking the hidden maniac close in on him. He admits to Helen that he murdered all the women and is now going to film his finale. He reveals that his camera has a mirror attached to the front so as his victims were dying they could see their own expressions of terror as their life drained from them.
The film was despised possibly because it removed a barrier of sorts between the audience and the mayhem on screen, making the audience implicit in the deaths. It was the original filmic variation on Gladiator’s (Scott, 2000) “Are you not entertained?” cry by Maximus after he brutally kills for his life and the audience’s entertainment. This removal of that barrier opened up a new avenue of storytelling in making a monster in human form. Audiences had previously been sympathetic toward monsters before such as in King Kong (Cooper/Shoedsack, 1933), but not often before had the monster been a human, as well as the main character the audience was supposed to follow, much less from a celebrated and revered director such as Powell.
This, along with Psycho, gave rise to the sympathetic serial killer and in some ways the slasher subgenre of horror although these films were touted as “psychological thrillers”. Due to the bad reputation of the film it was little seen in the United States But still had large influence over those who saw it and the films that were made in the meantime such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974) which used documentary style of filming recalling the implication of audience complicity in the horrors we see on screen. Another is Black Christmas (Clark, 1974) which opens with a shot from the killer’s point of view watching the sorority house he is about to terrorize. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) with its stalk and slash style of filming from Michael Meyers point of view is yet another that could arguably have been influenced by Powell’s film. Martin Scorsese had a print of Peeping Tom restored and re-released in 1979 which lead to an avalanche of slasher type films in the 1980’s with varying degrees of quality to try to satiate the audiences need for the blood of young people. (Thompson and Christie)
The characters created in these films such as Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984) were products of their makers taking Powell’s idea and taking it to it extremes by having the sadistic monsters become the stars of the picture and became the audience’s touchstone through all of their respective long franchises. Audiences did not go to these movies to finally see the evil monster get crushed by the forces of good, but rather to see what new, inventive ways the monsters were going to dispatch their young, boozy, drug fueled, immoral victims. These ideas died out in the late eighties in theaters, but lived on through home video. They became popular again with Scream’s (Craven, 1996) release in 1996 which gave audiences a world that knew the rules of these sorts of films, and incidentally, name checks Peeping Tom in one of its sequels which is where I first heard of the film. This spawned a new crop of franchises such as I Know What You Did Last Summer (Gillespe, 1997), Urban Legends (Blanks, 1998), the resurrection of the Halloween series with Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (Miner, 1998) as well as the Rob Zombie “reboot” in 2007, along with remakes of what seems like most of the other slasher films from the genres eighties peak with charismatic witty killers versus know it all, deviant, to cool for all this, young people; again to varying degrees of quality. It has also invaded television to much lesser extent with the popular series Dexter (Manos Jr., 2006), which follows the exploits of a “good guy” serial killer who only reveals himself to his victims once they are able to count the time they have left alive in minutes. Dexter follows Peeping Tom’s lead character in dealing with trauma experienced as a child through murder.
Another aspect explored in Peeping Tom that resonates long after the film’s initial release is the idea of film as voyeurism. What is film watching other than a glimpse into someone else’s life? The characters unaware that you are watching them as they cry, scream, fight, reconcile, and behave selfishly and selflessly. This can again be attributed to Powell’s use of the camera as a character in the film. “It’s as if the process of filmmaking becomes an accessory to the crime.” (Stern) This theme is clear in Peeping Tom when Mark is photographing girls for the pornographic magazine, and one of them turns to reveal a large facial scar. He immediately rushes to his ever handy Bolex and trains the crosshairs right on her face, getting closer and closer as she gets more and more uncomfortable. He wants his camera to see her not only naked physically, but naked emotionally. The true face underneath the attitude, the fear of revealing oneself too much to an unblinking eye.
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The voyeur motif is seen subsequently in Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and most recently, in the “found footage” genre of film which has taken life as horror films at first, but subsequently moved into science fiction (Apollo18, Lopez-Gallego, 2011), action/thriller/drama (End Of Watch, Ayers 2012), superhero films (Chronicle, Trank 2012), and even comedy (Project X, Nourizadeh 2012). Again the quality of these entries into the oeuvre is debatable, but I see these as direct results of Powell’s influence from Peeping Tom and taking it a step further by trying to remove the pretense of a film, or rather, of fiction at all.
Peeping Tom’s influence is quite apparent after seeing the film and learning a little bit about its history. Powell’s influence on this one genre with one film speaks to how much influence he had over all genres when looking at his list of fans. Francis Ford Coppola, in 1989, requested that Powell serve as an artist in residence at American Zoetrope’s film conservatory. In 1984, Powell married Martin Scorsese’s long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker after getting to know her from spending so much time in the company of Scorsese. (Baron)
Powell was a man that was sought out by a masterful generation of filmmakers and he in turn gave them his advice, inspiration, and time and not a one of his “students” were not inspired to achieve some of cinema’s most daring, beautiful, intelligent, and brutal works. Upon Powell’s death in 1990, many of the critics who gave scathing reviews to Peeping Tom when it was released thus effectively ending Powell’s career, offered up posthumous apologies and confirmed that Peeping Tom is indeed one of the best British films ever made. Dilys Powell wrote:
“Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country’s most distinguished filmmakers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise (sic).” (Powell)
Scorsese has said that he feels “Peeping Tom and 8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963) said everything there was to say about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates.” (Gritten 2010) This is fitting that he references the aggressiveness of film through Peeping Tom given all of the voyeuristic overtones to the film. Filmmakers like Powell and Scorsese use film to tell stories that they are interested in and hope that we, the audience are interested in. I would like to think that all filmmakers feel this way, they want to tell a story that we experienced, thought up, have been curious about or feel the need to shout about the problems of the world we live in through a projector. Powell says it best in his own words:
“I live cinema. I chose the cinema when I was very young, sixteen years old, and from then on my memories virtually coincide with the history of the cinema … I’m not a director with a personal style, I am simply cinema. I have grown up with and through cinema; everything that I’ve had in the way of education has been through the cinema; insofar as I’m interested in images, in books, in music, it’s all due to the cinema.” (Losfeld)
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