Don't look now

Peeping Tom revolted critics in 1960. Now it is a classic. But then the man who wrote it is not quite as he seems.

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, a psychological thriller about a troubled young fellow (played by Carl Boehm) who likes to film the death- terrors of the women he murders with the bayonet-sharp tripod of his camera, opened in 1960 to the kind of reviews a director dreams about. Dreams about, that is, if he has dined lavishly on raw meat, rotten eggs and laudanum. "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom," wrote CA Lejeune in the Observer. Hers was one of the more generous notices. The New Statesman critic said that it "stinks more than anything else in British film since The Stranglers of Bombay"; the Daily Telegraph called it "nasty", the Daily Worker "perverted nonsense... wholly evil"; Tribune's man declared that "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."

Understandably, the career of Michael Powell - once one of Britain's leading directors, famous for The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - went into a tailspin from which it never pulled out. He worked in television, made a couple of features in Australia and spent a lot of time and energy setting up projects that went nowhere. In one sense, his glory years were over. In another, they were just about to dawn. From around 1970 onwards, critics and directors gradually began, as they say, to "rediscover" the work of Powell and his long-term collaborator Emeric Pressburger, and his last years were spent bathed in the agreeable adulation of the young.

This revival is understandable enough: most viewers today will respond warmly to that seductive blend of fantasy, humour, passion and restraint that characterises the best Powell-Pressburger films, from I Know Where I'm Going to The Tales of Hoffman. But what of Peeping Tom, that despised, sordid little exploitation flick, that mad aberration made (in effect) at the end of Powell's career, after he had split from Pressburger? If the jury is still out, the defence has put up some extremely heavyweight witnesses: Susan Sontag, who in On Photography calls Peeping Tom "an extraordinary movie"; Pedro Almodovar, who in this month's Arena magazine nominates it as one of the 10 best European films; and, most famously, Martin Scorsese, who considers it, with Fellini's 8 1/2, the greatest film ever made about film-making. "8 1/2 captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making," he says in Scorsese on Scorsese, "while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates."

It is easy to see why directors as possessed by the medium of film as Scorsese should be at once enthralled and appalled by this portrait of the director as psychotic, and should giggle nervously at one of Peeping Tom's most quotable lines: "All this filming - it's not healthy." The question of how far this movie for directors is also a movie for the general public may become clearer in the next few weeks, following the release of Peeping Tom on video (including its sublimely tacky trailer, featuring a booming voice-over by Valentine "The Man in Black" Dyall).

Sadly, Powell himself is no longer with us to join in the debate or enjoy the rare spectacle of critics dining on humble pie. (The late Dilys Powell, who had joined in the original mugging of Peeping Tom, wrote a few years ago: "Today, I find I am convinced it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise.") But Leo Marks, the man who originally conceived this weird fable about seeing and slaying, is vigorously alive.

Marks's career, in many respects a good subject for the cinema itself, has impinged on the movie business in many curious ways. His father owned the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road later immortalised by Helene Hanff and made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins. He wrote the original story for Sebastian, a thriller starring Dirk Bogarde and John Gielgud, co-produced by Powell. And for the well-loved Carve Her Name with Pride, the story of the wartime intelligence heroine and martyr Violette Szabo, he provided a short poem which has haunted so many people over the years that it remains, according to staff at the South Banks's Poetry Library, the English verse about which most callers enquire. It runs thus:

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours

The love that I have

Of the life that I have

Is yours and yours and yours

A sleep I shall have

A rest I shall have

Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years

In the long green grass

Will be yours and yours and yours

"The public seems to have the utmost difficulty," Marks recalls, "in reconciling the author of that poem and the author of Peeping Tom. But to me, Peeping Tom is the poem." The explanation for this cryptic remark lies in the field of cryptography. Marks's words for Szabo were not a spontaneous lyrical effusion, but an ingenious code, one of many such created by him when he was head of agent codes for Special Operations Executive during the Second World War - the full story will be revealed in his autobiography Between Silk and Cyanide, to be published later this year.

It was during his time with SOE that he first dreamt up the character of Mark Lewis, Peeping Tom's anti-hero, whose name, as critics have pointed out, is rather like a scrambled echo of "Leo Marks". (There are other oddities in the film, whose script is full of mischievous jokes: challenged at one point by a policeman who wants to know which paper he represents, the voyeuristic Lewis replies, "The Observer.") Though Marks had, in fact, known SOE agents afflicted by scopophilia, defined in the film as "the morbid desire to gaze" ("They didn't attempt to treat it in those days, they just sent people to prison"), the film has no other basis in his wartime experience apart from the interesting consideration that "if you invent code, you have to think visually" - that is, to strengthen your memory by imagining visual structures, much as classical rhetoricians advised.

Marks - who still looks much like the "short, rugged, dark" cigar-smoking figure in a formal black suit described by Powell in his memoirs - regards Peeping Tom and its director with a combination of affection and exasperation. (Though he admires all Powell's work, "my favourite would be A Matter of Life and Death. Not Peeping Tom - that was more `a matter of death and death'.") "He could be a difficult man, but he was also completely open to suggestions. I remember that there was one dialogue scene he loved, but I thought of a better idea: to scrap the dialogue and show Peeping Tom kissing his camera. I phoned Michael at three in the morning - you could do that - explained it to him and he said, `It's in!'."

As one might expect from the hand of a master cryptographer, the structure of Peeping Tom is permeated with secrets. One of the reason why critics and theorists became so excited about the film in the Seventies is because of the connection it appears to draw between Marks's morbid desire to gaze and our own fascination with the cinema. But one aspect of the film has been little discussed - the precise nature of the film-within-the- film that Lewis is making, sometimes defensively describing it as a "documentary", though there are hints that it is really a feature film. In the original version of the script, according to Marks, "we saw a scene from the film that Peeping Tom is directing. But Michael cut that scene so he could put in a dance routine by Moira Shearer. I have never forgiven that dance routine. But would you like to know what the film Peeping Tom was making is all about? The only other living person I've told the plot to is Martin Scorsese, and he said, `That would make a wonderful movie!' " And so Marks explains to me the story of the film-within-the-film of Peeping Tom. I'd love to pass it on, but, as Marks knows better than anyone, it's important to keep secrets under wraps.

n `Peeping Tom' is released next Monday by Warner Home Video's Terror Vision label, pounds 10.99

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