1960 thriller combined voyeurism, repression, child abuse, and sexual crime long before the public was ready.
Hollywood lore is sprinkled with tales of maligned cinematic masterpieces. British director Michael Powell’s 1960 voyeuristic thriller Peeping Tom is one of them—a film so savagely reviewed that it irreparably damaged what had been an acclaimed directorial career. While Powell should not have suffered so brutal a fate, his film’s rebranding as a work of incandescent genius is also not fully deserved. In the end Peeping Tom is a perfectly decent piece of filmmaking, amazingly forward-looking but also flawed. It deals with a man-child obsessed with filming women at the moment the fear of death appears in their eyes, and our villain does this of course by murdering them, and he manages to kill, film, and keep his subjects in frame at all times by using a spear-like contraption attached to his camera tripod. As you can probably guess, his carefully balanced existence is upset by the arrival of a prospective love interest, and we know from the moment she appears that she’ll be in front of his lens at some point.
In the U.S., Peeping Tom came after Alfred Hitchcock’s similar Psycho, but it Britain it arrived first. Censorship was slipping in British cinema, but to get a sense of how prudish authorities still were, consider the fact that Hitchcock’s movie caused controversy not only for its showermurder and for showing Janet Leigh in her bra and in bed with a man, but for being the first film to show a flushing toilet—an affront to bluenoses though the contents were merely a torn up note. Peeping Tom pushed the envelope farther and did it first, showing the killer Mark Lewis preying on sex workers and nude models, showing nudie reel star Pamela Green sprawled topless on a bed just before her murder, and drawing out the killings to agonizing length as Lewis coaxes the perfect expression of terror from his victims. Powell develops his killer to the extent that the audience must understand him as a human, and uses point-of-view to make the character’s films-within-the-film the equivalent of snuff movies.
The list of technical achievements goes on—Powell deftly manages to make Peeping Tom brutal without spilling a drop of blood, and his visual approach is engrossing. So why isn’t the movie a 10? Well, there are a few glaring script incongruities, some of the acting is below professional level, the killer seems careless for someone that has been at it for a while, and the idea of so obviously disturbed a man—stuttering, mumbling, visibly shying from any form of human contact—being able to attractevan a woman as kind and credulous as Anna Massey just doesn’t ring true. There are men who are projects, and there are men who are lost causes—are we right, girls? That’s what the Pulp Intl. girlfriends say anyway. But Peeping Tom is a film every cinephile should see. The moral objections of contemporary critics seem quaint now—many hated being forced to experience the murders from the killer’s perspective, but the viewer’s loss of choice echoes the killer’s helplessness to control himself, and that may very well be Powell’s best trick.
The Noir City Film Festival ends tonight with a pairing of Peeping Tom with the Michelangelo Antonioni classic Blow-Up, which means here at Pulp Intl. we’ll close the book on the fest and move back into the more diverse subject matter that usually makes up our website. We wanted to use Noir City as an excuse to delve into the film noir catalog and we managed to watch sixteen of the twenty-five films on the schedule—some for the second or third time—and write about twelve of them.
This all made for a quite enjoyable week, with much wine drunk and popcorn noshed (we have a Whirley popcorn maker we had sent over from the States that does a bang-up job), but it was also a bit of work. At this point we doubt we’ll go through all the considerable effort of screening next year’s Noir City slate, but you never know. Next January is a long, long way off—or at least, it should seem that way if you’re living life the way you should. We'll marinate on it and see.
When Hollywood fleshed out source material it often changed the flesh tones too.
Just a bit more on Rear Window today. The movie was based on Cornell Woolrich's story "It Had To Be Murder," which appeared in Dime Detective Magazine of February 1942. As might be expected story and film are substantially different. Lisa Fremont doesn't exist at all and neither does the insurance company nurse Stella. They were both derived from one character—a valet named Sam who does all the hard work while Jeffries watches from his wheelchair. The relationship between these two is warm, but with strong overtones of status and race, with Jeffries at one point showing his pleasure with Sam by saying, "Go and build yourself a great big two-story whisky punch; you’re as close to white as you’ll ever be."
Screenplay choices are always interesting, and we can see the addition of Grace Kelly's Fremont character making sense (though this being Hitchcock, he'd have put a blonde in the movie no matter what, since they represented a fantasy woman for him), but we wish Stella had been left out and Sam kept intact. We understand that changing Jeffries into a rogue photographer from a rich Manhattanite meant taking away his valet, but Sam could have been transformed into the insurance company employee. But that's just our opinion. You can decide for yourself by reading or downloading "It Had To Be Murder" yourself at this link. It's well worth the time.
Stewart violates the norms of neighborliness and ends up with a mystery on his hands.
Above are two iconic posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954. This is a great movie, but definitively not a film noir—instead it’s a big Technicolor drama, bright and vibrant in a way movies aren’t today. It’s also only nominally a mystery, as the question is never who is the murder suspect, nor who is the murder victim, but whether there was actually a murder at all. This is one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements, with James Stewart at his likeable best even as a voyeur, and Grace Kelly fueling the fantasies of male cinemagoers as the perfect girlfriend Lisa Fremont. Is the movie perfect? No. It fumbles its attempt to underline Stewart’s reckless nature, putting him in a wheelchair for the unbelievable act of running onto the middle of a Formula 1 track to get a photo. It also requires the audience to believe he can see all from his apartment, but his neighbors never notice him. Yet Rear Window overcomes those annoyances and is deservedly considered an all-time classic. Seeing it on the big screen as patrons of the Noir City Film Festival will tonight would be a treat, but see it in any case.
Even visionary filmmakers sometimes don't see clearly.
Vera Miles is most famous as the actress who gets to survive Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. She worked with Hitchcock on many films, but had other worthy roles, including in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wrong Man, and just about every television detective series of the 1970s. She claims she was never able to never please Hitchcock because she wasn’t sexy enough. This shot proves Alfred needed glasses. It’s circa 1955.
Ralph, this wasn’t what I meant when I said I needed a little pick-me up.
Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles joke around on the Hollywood set of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The episode they starred in was the series debut “Revenge,” and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the show’s seven-year run. Meeker would appear in three more episodes of the series and many movies, while Miles would co-star memorably in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The photo dates from 1955.
The mission statement was simple—take potshots at every star in the firmament.
Top Secret is in fine form in this issue from October 1962 as it goes after all the biggest celebrities in Hollywood and Europe. Treading the line between journalism and slander is no easy feat, but take notice—Top Secret’s editors and hacks manage to pull off a high wire act. And of course this was key to the tabloids' modus operandi—they had to present information in a seemingly fearless or even iconoclastic way, yet never actually cross the line that would land them in court.
For example, there’s this dig at Frank Sinatra: “Mr. Snarl, Mr. Nasty, Mr. Do-You-Want-A-Belt-In-The-Mouth was as gentle as a lamb. Gone was the usual sneer, the wise-guy leer. Was this the same surly singer whose idea of a good morning’s exercise had been to watch his bodyguards work over a photographer?”
Grace Kelly takes a few arrows: “It’s a pretty good bet that the immediate bust-up of the marriage won’t come in the next few months, but it sure as shooting looks like her six-year reign as the glamorous princess of that silly little kingdom on the Mediterranean is going to blow up in her prim face.”
Christina Paolozzi gets roughed up thusly: “If anything, Christina in the buff is proof that clothes are an underdeveloped girl’s best friends. Therethe Countess stands with a pleased expression that seems to say, ‘Aren’t I something, Mister?’ But all it takes is one quick look to see that there isn’t really anything to get excited about—unless [you love] barbecued spareribs.”
Anita Ekberg receives this treatment: “[La Dolce Vita] was something like a peek into the boudoir antics of its star—the gal with the fantastic superstructure that looks like nothing less than two tugboats pulling a luxury liner into port.”
And what tabloid would be complete without Marilyn Monroe? Top Secret says she’s dating writer José Bolaños (who the magazine calls a Mexican jumping bean). Editors opt to unveil the news this way: “It seems that this bold bundle of blonde has suddenly gone on a strange Mexican hayride!!! Si, amigo, MEXICAN!”
And then there’s cover star Elizabeth Taylor: “And she acted wilder than ever, satisfying all her most urgent urges for Dickie in the most wide open ways. [She] had jumped from tragedy right into disgrace by having a wild fling with Eddie Fisher a mere six months after hubby Mike Todd had been planted six feet under. ‘Mike is dead, and I’m alive,’ she said cynically after running off for a riotous romp in the fall of 1958 with the guy who just then happened to be married to Debbie Reynolds. 'I’m not taking anything away from Debbie, because she never really had it,' luscious Liz sneered."
This issue of Top Secret is, succinctly put, a clinic in mid-century tabloid writing—alliterative and spicy, insinuative and sleazy, but never quite legally actionable. How could Ekberg argue that the tugboat similie wasn’t interpretable as a compliment? Could Christina Paolozzi deny that her ribs show? Could Sinatra claim that his bodyguards neverslugged a photographer? The magazine skirts the edge a bit with Taylor—did you catch how the editors paired “urges for Dick(ie)” with “wide open ways”?—but was she misquoted or truly slandered? Highly doubtful. Top Secret is pure, trashy genius. Magazines don’t have such writing anymore, and that’s probably a good thing—but it sure is fun to look back at how things were. More scans below.
When Joan Fontaine decided to try her luck in Hollywood her mother reportedly refused to let her use the family’s name—de Havilland, which was being used by her actress sister Olivia—so she chose Fontaine as her last name. After a slow start earning good roles she scored the coveted part of Mrs. De Winter in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Daphne du Maurier adaptation Rebecca and was nominated for an Academy Award. She didn’t win that one, but the next year took home the statuette for her role in Suspicion, becoming the only performer to win an Oscar for acting in a Hitchcock film. From there her career took off, and she worked steadily through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Ironically, when her mother—a former actress—decided to rekindle her own career she did so under the stage name Lillian Fontaine. Of her famous sister, Joan Fontaine once said, “I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it.” The third part of that quip came true when Fontaine—née Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland—died of natural causes Sunday in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
The truth of a man is always revealed by the shape of the shadow he casts.
Above, a Swedish poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Skuggan av ett tvivel, staring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, and originally released in the U.S. as Shadow of a Doubt. The Swedish premiere of the movie was today in 1943, which might be a surprising fact for some, considering the ongoing calamity that was World War II, but Sweden was neutral during the conflict—or perhaps a better way to phrase it is to say it was occasionally helpful to both the Axis and Allies. Anyway, this is an excellent poster that tells the entire story of the film—an outwardly normal man is really a monster, and in the art casts a misshapen shadow that only one young, intuitive woman can see. The line across the top says, “One of Hitchcock’s best!” Of course, he would rise to even greater heights during the 1950s and 1960s, but some still regard this as top five Hitchcock. Us? Not so much, but see it and judge for yourself.
Hitchcock presents thirteen excellent tales of terror.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bar the Doors contains some of the best macabre fiction we’ve ever read. The collection begins with H.G. Wells’ violent, oppressive tale of murder and voodoo in Sierra Leone “Pollock and the Porroh Man.” The story was written in 1895 and comes with the sort of classical styling you might expect, but with a surprisingly modern pacing as the first paragraph finds the lead character caught in the middle of a stabbing. Pollock pulls a gun to defend himself and the Porroh Man flees, but not before casting an infuriated gaze back that promises revenge. Little does Pollock know that revenge can take supernatural form. You’d expect the tale to be laced with racism, and it is—this line from the first paragraph is simply amazing: “At any rate, the Porroh Man stabbed the woman through the heart as though he had been a mere low class Italian.” African characters fare far worse. However in this context of mortal struggle between a voodoo conjurer and a self-entitled Englishman, racism comes off as impotence against overwhelming powers.
“Pollock and the Porroh Man” was written four years before Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Conrad’s work is a novella-length masterpiece, whereas Wells’ story is under ten pages, but Wells is quite successful at exploring a different heart of darkness by bringing to life the deepest colonial fear, the one chortling, brandy-swilling men laugh at as long as they’re in a well lit room bolstered by their own numbers—the fear that munitions and cruelty will suffice to maintain control only insofar as natives aren’t pushed too far. But when that day comes, when native peoples have had enough, then colonials will find that voodoo and magic are real, that technology is truly the illusion, and bloody payment is due for crimes committed against people that wanted only to be left alone.
There are other great stories in the collection—F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth” tells the tale of a man who has an unwanted supernatural visitor in his stateroom every night; Alfred Noyes’ “Midnight Express” preys on readers’ classic misgivings about deserted tube platforms; Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” tackles the Lovecraftian theme of an other-dimensional beast that cannot be seen; and McKnight Malmar’s “The Storm” might be of interest to those who just experienced last night’s thunderous downpours in Great Britain. In fact, the entire collection is stormy night reading. Obviously, we very rarely discuss books in detail here, because—let’s face it—it’s tedious, but we’ve made an exception this time because Bar the Doors is an unusually good collection, first published in 1946 and reprinted numerous times, as the selection of alternate covers above reveals. Highly recommended.
Only the good go to sleep at night.
The French coined the term film noir, so it seems only fitting to feature a collection of French posters celebrating the genre. Above and below are fifteen examples promoting films noir from France, Britain, and the U.S., representing some of the best ever produced within the art form, as well as some less celebrated examples that we happen to love. Of those, we highly recommend seeing Le salaire de la peur, for which you see the poster above, and Ride the Pink Horse, below, which played as Et tournent les chevaux de bois in France. Just a word about those films (and feel free to skip ahead to the art, because really, who has time these days to listen to a couple of anonymous internet scribes ramble on about old movies?).
1953’s Le salaire de la peur is about a group of men stranded in an oil company town in the mountains of South America. In order to earn the wages to get out, four of them agree to drive two trucks filled with nitroglycerine over many miles of dangerous terrain. The idea is to use the chemicals to put out a raging oil well fire that is consuming company profits by the second, but of course the film is really about whether the men can even get there alive. Le salaire de la peur was critically praised when released in Europe, but in the U.S., political factions raised their ugly heads and got censors to crudely re-edit the prints so as to reduce the movie’s anti-capitalist (and by extension anti-American) subtext. The movie was later remade by Hollywood twice—once in 1958 as Hell’s Highway, and again in 1977 as Sorcerer. The original is by far the best.
1947’s Ride the Pink Horse is an obscure noir, but a quintessential one, in our opinion. If many noirs feature embittered World War II vets as their anti-heroes, Robert Montgomery’s Lucky Gagin is the bitterest of them all. He arrives in a New Mexico border town on a quest to avenge the death of a friend. The plot is thin—or perhaps stripped down would be a better description—but Montgomery’s atmospheric direction makes up for that. Like a lot of mid-century films featuring ethnic characters, the most important one is played by a white actor (Wanda Hendrix, in a coating of what looks like brown shoe polish). It's racist, for sure, but within the universe of the film Lucky Gagin sees everyone around him only as obstacles or allies—i.e., equals within his own distinct worldview. So that makes up for it. Or maybe not. In any case, we think Ride the Pink Horse is worth a look. Thirteen more posters below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1964—China Detonates Nuke
At the Lop Nur test site located between the Taklamakan and Kuruktag deserts, the People's Republic of China detonates its first nuclear weapon, codenamed 596 after the month of June 1959, which is when the program was initiated.
1996—Handgun Ban in the UK
In response to a mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland that kills 16 children, the British Conservative government announces a law to ban all handguns, with the exception .22 caliber target pistols. When Labor takes power several months later, they extend the ban to all handguns.
Pierre Laval, who was the premier of Vichy, France, which had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, is shot by a firing squad for treason. In subsequent years it emerges that Laval may have considered himself a patriot whose goal was to publicly submit to the Germans while doing everything possible behind the scenes to thwart them. In at least one respect he may have succeeded: fifty percent of French Jews survived the war, whereas in other territories about ninety percent perished.
1966—Black Panthers Form
In the U.S., in Oakland, California, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale form the Black Panther political party. The Panthers are active in American politics throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but eventually legal troubles combined with a schism over the direction of the party lead to its dissolution.
1962—Cuban Missile Crisis Begins
A U-2 spy plane flight over the island of Cuba produces photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles being installed. Though American missiles have been installed near Russia, the U.S. decides that no such weapons will be tolerated in Cuba. The resultant standoff brings the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. The crisis finally ends with a secret deal in which the U.S. removes its missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing the Cuban weapons.
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