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.
Nothing will work right when he’s done.
Remember those alpha covers we talked about in the past? This one can be added to that group. It’s a decidedly threatening tableau, and with the extra element of a tool taking on the role of phallic symbol. Robert Bonfils was behind this one, 1965, for Greenleaf Classics/Leisure.
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.
She’s so going to need therapy after this.
Here’s a rarity. It’s a poster from the former Yugoslavia (such items are commonly referred to as “Exyu”) for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring a photo, not of doomed Janet Leigh who met her end in the shower, but of Vera Miles, who plays Leigh’s sister. With the help of John Gavin, Miles ends up poking around the Bates Motel looking for clues to her sis’s disappearance. Safe to say she never expected what she found. See a Czech Psycho poster here.
There's a bad moon on the rise.
In our continuing chronicle of mid-20th century tabloid magazines we have a new player—Whisper magazine. Whisper was founded as a girlie magazine in 1946 by Confidential owner Robert Harrison. By the time he sold out in 1958 Whisper was already a clone of Confidential in style and content, although sometimes it sported a simpler cover motif with a celeb framed inside a circle. In this example from 1956, the circle becomes a blood red disc reminiscent of the old Short Stories covers, but which is probably supposed to suggest werewolves. The spotlight here is on George Sanders, one of the more interesting Hollywood characters of the time. Born in Russia, Sanders was British by lineage, and built a film career playing aristocrat types, often with an air of menace. This was most aptly displayed in 1950's All About Eve, a role for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Sanders was known as a smooth operator, but his personal life was a wreck. He married four women over the years—including serial bride Zsa Zsa Gabor, and her older sister Magda. He would have been between marriages at the time of Whisper’s alleged strike out with an unnamed ingénue, but he’d be back in the saddle by 1960, marrying actress Benita Hume. Health problems eventually robbed Sanders of his acting talent and he finished his career in the low budget stinker Psychomania. Eventually, he also lost the ability to indulge in his beloved hobby of playing music, which prompted him to destroy his piano with an axe. Not long after, he took a fatal dose of Nembutal, leaving behind a suicide note addressed to the world that read in part: I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
It's a mad mad mad mad Perkins.
It’s difficult to imagine Anthony Perkins in any role save that of Norman Bates, but he made a number of post-Psycho films, several in France, including this oft-maligned effort by directorial legend Claude Chabrol about murder and mayhem among the feckless Parisian bourgeoisie. Perkins continued to land serious roles through the rest of the sixties and seventies, before the 1983-to-1986 triple whammy of Psycho II, Crimes of Passion and Psycho III entrenched him as cinema’s all time greatest (and twitchiest) madman. In Le Scandale he wasn’t what you’d call clinically mad, but he wasn’t exactly playing with a full deck either. Le Scandale, aka The Champagne Murders, premiered in France today in 1967.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1963—Ruby Shoots Oswald
Nightclub owner and mafia associate Jack Ruby fatally shoots alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of Dallas police department headquarters. The shooting is broadcast live on television and silences the only person known for certain to have had some connection to the Kennedy killing.
1971—D.B. Cooper Escapes from Airplane
In the U.S., during a thunderstorm over Washington state, a hijacker calling himself Dan Cooper, aka D. B. Cooper, parachutes from a Northwest Orient Airlines flight with $200,000 in ransom money. Neither he nor the money are ever found.
1936—First Edition of Life Published
Henry Luce launches Life, a weekly magazine with an emphasis on photo-journalism. Life dominates the U.S. market for more than forty years, publishing scores of iconic photographs that remain some of the most recognizable ever shot, and peaking at one point with a circulation of more than 13.5 million copies a week.
1963—Doctor Who Debuts on BBC
The BBC broadcasts the first episode of Doctor Who, starring William Hartnell as a mysterious alien who time travels in his spaceship, the TARDIS. With his companions, he explores time and space while facing a variety of foes and righting wrongs. The show would become the longest-running science fiction series ever broadcast.
1963—John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated
In Dallas, Texas, U.S. President John F. Kennedy is killed and Texas Governor John B. Connally is seriously wounded as they ride in a motorcade through Dealy Plaza. Lee Harvey Oswald
, an employee of the schoolbook depository from which the shots were suspected to have been fired, was arrested on charges of the murder of a local police officer and was subsequently charged with the Kennedy killing. He denied shooting anyone, claiming he was a patsy, but was killed by Jack Ruby on November 24, before he could be indicted or tried. Today, Americans who believe JFK was killed as the result of a conspiracy are routinely dismissed
in the press, yet the vast majority of them believe Oswald did not act alone.
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