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Psycho vs Peeping Tom: Why was Hitchcock’s twisted murderer not a career killer?

Two films about psychopaths were released in 1960 by famous British directors. Both are now considered classics. So why did ‘The Red Shoes’ director Michael Powell’s reputation never recover, asks Gerard Gilbert

Monday 04 May 2020 07:00 BST
Seediness, voyeurism and grisly fates met by female protagonists: Janet Leigh (left) and Brenda Bruce in the original poster artwork for ‘Psycho’ and ‘Peeping Tom’
Seediness, voyeurism and grisly fates met by female protagonists: Janet Leigh (left) and Brenda Bruce in the original poster artwork for ‘Psycho’ and ‘Peeping Tom’ (Shamley Productions Inc/Anglo-Amalgamated)

In the late spring and summer of 1960, two films by world-renowned British directors opened in cinemas. Both movies shocked critics and audiences alike, but while Psycho was a massive hit and became Alfred Hitchcock’s signature creation, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom – with its similar seedy ambience, censor-nudging dissection of voyeurism and grisly fates met by female protagonists – apparently destroyed the director’s career overnight and was hastily withdrawn by distributors.

Both films portrayed their leading actresses (Janet Leigh in Psycho and Moira Shearer in Peeping Tom) being stabbed to death by young men with mental health problems stemming from traumatic childhoods – Leigh, of course, while having a shower at the Bates Motel, Shearer impaled by the bladed end of a camera tripod, her body then stuffed into a trunk. And while Leigh was nominated for an Oscar for her role as sacrificial victim Marion Crane, Shearer’s movie career juddered to a halt. She was first and foremost a dancer anyway, whose oeuvre was largely restricted to Powell’s films – she was the lead in the revered The Red Shoes (1948) – but her cinematic fate became inextricably linked to that of the director.

Under the aegis of The Archers production company, Powell and his writing partner Emeric Pressburger had enjoyed a pre-eminent position in the British film industry, with a run of lavish, often idiosyncratic classics such as A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, all of which they co-produced and directed. Peeping Tom marked a startling change of direction for Powell (having parted company with Pressburger and working solo from a script by the more abrasive Leo Marks), what might later be called a “slasher movie” in which a voyeuristic focus-puller for a film company based in Soho (played by the German-Austrian actor Carl Boehm) gets his kicks from stabbing women with a knife concealed in the tripod of his camera, and filming their horrified reactions.

Watching in a Soho screening room virtually indistinguishable from the old pre-video porn cinemas (the film makes explicit links between filmmaking, newspapers and pornography), the critics universally hated Peeping Tom. The Observer’s CA (Caroline Alice) Lejeune ostentatiously walked out and declared herself “sickened”, a reaction echoed by the rest of the reviewers in comments such as “beastly” (Financial Times), “corrupt and empty” (London Evening Standard) and “perverted nonsense” (Daily Worker).

Inflamed word of mouth: Vera Miles in ‘Psycho’ (Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Fortunately for Powell, Peeping Tom has endured far longer than the Daily Worker, and he lived long enough to see its reputation restored in the late 1970s after he was championed by a new generation of American directors – especially Martin Scorsese, whose editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell went on to marry. He never made another film worth mentioning, however, having decamped to Australia in search of work before going to ground in Gloucestershire.

Not everyone agrees, however, with the conventional narrative about Peeping Tom destroying Powell’s career. “I think it’s a real stretch to say one film killed it,” says Jo Botting, BFI National Archive curator of fiction. “If you look at Powell, after Tales of Hoffmann in 1951 he really struggled to find funding. His films were expensive – extravagant, Technicolor… he spent a fortune on sets and costumes... the British film industry could not support this kind of filmmaking. I strongly suspect his career was grinding to a halt anyway.”

Botting compares Powell’s record in the 1950s with that of Hitchcock, and why the latter (aged 60 at the time and five years older than Powell) was able to ride the storm of protest that met Psycho three months later. “Hitchcock had had a stunning decade,” says Botting. “He’d made his best films in the Fifties – Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief – he was so well established that it was going to take something fairly major to unseat him from his throne.”

Hitchcock also enjoyed another advantage over Powell. His agent Lew Wasserman had brokered an extraordinarily generous deal from a nervous Paramount Pictures so that the director owned not only 60 per cent of any profits but also the distribution and advertising rights to Psycho. Hitchcock could market the film in his own way, which was that of a natural showman. An edict was duly sent out that nobody could enter the theatre after the film had started (audiences came and went as they pleased at the time), cardboard cut-outs of Hitchcock wagging his finger appearing in theatre lobbies.

‘Beastly and corrupt’: Anna Massey and Karl Boehm in ‘Peeping Tom’ (Studio Canal/Shutterstock)

Hitchcock also circumvented the critics by releasing Psycho as widely and as quickly as possible, the now common, post-Jaws practice of a blanket opening. “The reviews never made much difference because of the fantastic launch that the film received,” writes David Thomson in his 2009 book, The Moment of Psycho. “The trailer and the tight security over admissions inflamed word of mouth. And people who saw the film early were shattered by it.”

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But audiences wouldn’t have been able to be quite so shattered by the film if the censors had cut Psycho as assuredly as Norman Bates slashed Marion Crane in that bathtub. That scene lasted less than a minute on screen but took seven days to film, so determined was Hitchcock to make viewers think they’d witnessed Crane being stabbed while simultaneously being able to show the censors that in reality they had seen nothing at all.

“In post-production, he fought brilliant battles with the censors, until they were lost in the film’s details and prepared to let it pass,” says Thomson. “The picture represents a crossroads moment when a great rift appeared in the thing called censorship.” Hitchcock even managed to get in the first flushing toilet in American movie history (“It really is quite exhilarating to see what tender creatures we were in 1960,” adds Thomson).

Botting points out that the shower scene murder in Psycho is far more explicit than the murders in Peeping Tom. Why, then, are Michael Powell’s scenes somehow more distasteful? The answer to that might be the differing points of view – Hitchcock switching between Norman Bates, as “mother”, and Marion Crane (partly played in this scene by Janet Leigh’s body double, Marli Renfro), before cutting to the shower head and the gurgling bath plughole. Powell retained the killer’s point of view – therefore making the cinemagoers’ complicity much more explicit. “It is the tone of the film which is a problem as much the actual events depicted,” says Botting.

Censorship was liberalising in Britain, too, in part thanks to the influx of European films, art movies as well as exploitation pictures, with a more relaxed attitude to sex and violence. “The late Fifties was when it really started to change,” says Botting. “The censors had to start loosening up because that was what was being made and what people wanted to see. One of the British films that started to change it all was Room at the Top [Jack Clayton’s 1959 film of John Braine’s novel], with a much franker approach to sex. In some ways Michael Powell was trying to keep up with what was happening, and Hitchcock certainly was. To some degree, critics were out of step with what was happening in cinema.”

One of those critics was arguably a whole staircase out of step. CA LeJeune had been reviewing movies since the early 1920s, and having walked out of the screening of Peeping Tom, she promptly tendered her resignation after watching Psycho (she walked out of that screening, too). Lejeune was only three years older than Hitchcock at the time of Psycho, but David Thomson could almost have her in mind when he writes of this pivotal cinematic year of 1960: “Sex and violence were ready to break out, and censorship crumpled like an old lady’s parasol. The orgy had arrived.”

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