Film: Revenge of the mad camera fiend

In 1960, 'Peeping Tom' disgusted the critics and nearly ruined Michael Powell. Tonight, it's on TV. By Ian Christie
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Late this evening, if history is anything to go by, there will be a storm of telephone complaints to Channel 4's duty officer. They will be protesting against the sickness, perversion or general nastiness of a 1960 film, which has attracted similar outrage on its rare previous television screenings. But the film in question, Peeping Tom, has also become a kind of modern classic, venerated by film makers, critics and students of cinema. In fact, both responses are quite understandable; and their opposition points to what makes this a truly disturbing parable about cinema itself.

To recreate the consternation that greeted Peeping Tom in 1960, we could try imagining that, for instance, Richard Attenborough had just made a low-budget shocker about a British royal and telephone sex. But the truth is that we are vastly less shockable today than in an era when horror comics and films were seen as a novel threat to morality, and when the British censor was still preoccupied with Albert Finney's bad language in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. However, the original reviews still make choice reading (see excerpts, below).

Reviews like this may not have kept audiences away, but they did make senior film industry figures nervous - a knighthood was rumoured to be at stake - and they dealt a fatal blow to the faltering reputation of Britain's most original and ambitious film-makers, Michael Powell. He would direct only one more feature in Britain, two in Australia and a low-budget children's film. Peeping Tom was certainly not the only problem facing Powell after the break-up of his 15-year partnership with Emeric Pressburger in the mid-Fifties, but it may have been the final straw.

Before we rush to pour scorn on the reviewers of 1960, some of whom appear in Channel Four's documentary about the film and its reception - and who only three months later would be wondering if Hitchcock, too, had lost his sanity with Psycho - it's important to consider just why Peeping Tom was, and remains, so genuinely shocking. For however much The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or more recently Crash, may have since raised the visceral stakes, it remains a deeply disturbing experience, and especially so for anyone who loves, or mistrusts, cinema.

There have been many other films about the film-making process. Hollywood alone produced Singin' in the Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful in the same year of 1952; then Europe responded with Fellini's 81/2, Godard's Le Mepris (Contempt), and Truffaut's Day for Night (La Nuit americaine). What most of these have in common is that they are essentially optimistic and "life-affirming". Fellini, Truffaut and Godard all show the director exorcising his demons through the collective fantasy-work of cinema. But Peeping Tom is different. The normal activity of the film studio is relegated to a brittle background satire. Its protagonist isn't even a director, but only a camera assistant, who sleepwalks his way through days in the studio before taking to the streets by night as a sadistic killer. Forget the French New Wave's talk of a "camera-stylo": Mark Lewis's chosen instrument is a deadly camera-stiletto.

At one level, Peeping Tom is a parable about the bad conscience of British film-making, shown to be trapped in an artificial parody of cinema, while its repressed energies can only spill over into perverse extra-mural activities, or take refuge beneath the trappings of period "horror". In fact, Peeping Tom appeared just as Hammer was starting the series of Dracula and Frankenstein variations which would breathe new life (so to speak) into Sixties popular British film-making.

Another strand of the British "horror" revival was the reworking of Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in ways that explored that classic's somewhat neglected sexual implications. This suggests another way of understanding what makes Peeping Tom both so typically "British" and so unnerving to the British. For Stevenson's fable about the lure of brutish instinct, like Oscar Wilde's near-contemporary Picture of Dorian Gray, puts a plausible moral frame around what would otherwise have been unacceptably shocking. The subversive implications of these two challenges to Victorian morality and its inbuilt hypocrisy can be read by anyone who wishes, but they can also be ignored.

Not so with Peeping Tom. What alarmed the critics of 1960 - and continues to alarm many today - is the film's calm refusal to make Mark a monster. He's positively nice, and certainly to be pitied as much as pilloried. This is partly the result of one of those happy accidents of casting which were a feature of Powell's career. Originally, he had hoped that Laurence Harvey, fresh from his triumph in Room at the Top, would play Mark. But when he got Carl Boehm instead, who had previously played the young Emperor Franz Josef and Schubert in German films, then Mark became a shy, intense charmer with a puzzling foreign accent.

This also allowed him to enter the sleazy world of Soho prostitution and pornography with a believable innocence. Like a modern Orpheus, with 16mm camera instead of a lyre, he moves through this underworld in search of - well, what? Many were particularly incensed by the film's explanation of Mark's murderous passion in terms of "psychology". Alexander Walker, who reviewed the film in 1960 and is still at work as a critic today, put his finger on the dilemma: "it trades in the self-same kind of obsession that it relates".

Does Peeping Tom make voyeurs of us too? Does it encourage us to become Mark's unwilling accomplices as he films the faces of fear, or at least to enjoy guiltily his efforts? For one of the film's most famous champions, Martin Scorsese, this is precisely the issue. He recalls how a friend once phoned him while Peeping Tom was running on television to say that a line had suddenly seemed highly relevant to Scorsese - "all this filming, it's not healthy". For Scorsese, Peeping Tom, together with Fellini's 81/2, encapsulates the "danger" of film-making, and some years ago he personally promoted a rerelease of the film in the US.

By "danger", I think Scorsese means the inescapable voyeurism of the medium - its capacity to override our judgement and make us at least temporary accomplices in almost any vice or crime. This is territory that Scorsese himself has explored, in The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and his own "stalker movie", Cape Fear. But Scorsese's methods are more visceral. What remains truly disconcerting, as well as unique, about Peeping Tom is its manifest tenderness, allied to its sharp humour.

The movie started life as a project proposed by spymaster-turned-scriptwriter Leo Marks who wanted to make a film about his former profession. This then became a biography of Freud, until John Huston announced his Freud - The Secret Passion. Finally, Marks proposed a film "about a young man with a camera who kills the women he photographs". When Powell accepted Marks's idea and worked with him to create Peeping Tom, he could not have known this would become both his apologia as a film-maker and very nearly his swan-song. It's also unlikely that either of them knew one of the most bizarre of all early British films, James Williamson's The Big Swallow of 1901, in which a man threatened by a "camera fiend" finally finally devours the intruder in a stunning close-up. As another admirer, Claude Chabrol, said of Peeping Tom, it is a very British film, which perhaps explains why it still has the power to provoke us more than others.

Leo Marks has just completed his memoirs, and has long hinted at a sequel to Peeping Tom. But to come anywhere near the strangely knowing innocence of Powell's film this would require more than a clever script. It would need a director with the same reckless devotion to cinema.

There's a poetic irony about the timing of today's television screening of Peeping Tom. This afternoon, Michael Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, will be giving a masterclass on editing at the National Film Theatre in London. The editor of all Scorsese's films since Raging Bull (for which she received an Oscar), she knows well the tightrope walked by any film-maker who refuses to play safe in pursuit of his or her vision.

'Arthouse' (C4, 9pm tonight) reassesses the work of Powell and Marks; it is followed by the first British television screening of 'Peeping Tom' (10pm). Ian Christie will be interviewing Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell at the NFT today at 3pm.