The Other Psycho

2 04 2010

Carl Boehm in 'Peeping Tom'

Two films are released this week to mark the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The first is Psycho itself, re-released in all of its stab-happy, monochrome glory just in time for the Easter holidays. The second is Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take, a sly and elusive piece about the place of doubles both in Hitchcock’s work and in wider American culture during the Cold War.

But if Hitchcock’s most famous film is justly fêted for its innovative and visceral impact, then the work of another British director has, it seems, been overlooked. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was released just three months before Psycho, and covered much the same ground as the American shocker. Starring Carl Boehm and Anna Massey, it tells the story of a lonely, voyeuristic cameraman, who is obsessed with murdering women so that he can film their last moments. 

The reception that the two films received couldn’t have been more different. Hitchcock’s film played to packed houses and took a healthy 11 million dollars at the box office, while Peeping Tom was pulled from UK cinemas after just a week, in the wake of an unprecedented critical backlash.

Powell, who had co-directed some of the greatest British films of the ’40s and ’50s, was branded perverted and sadistic for bringing Leo Marks’ script to the screen. In later years, he struggled very hard to revive his career, and had to go abroad – to Australia – just to continue working. For his part, Hitchcock famously did not allow preview screenings of Psycho, partly to protect the film’s dramatic plot-twist, but partly, as he later admitted, to protect himself from the kind of critical mauling that had been dealt out to Powell.

So what was it in Peeping Tom that contemporaries found so shocking? And why did British critics react to it so much more harshly than they did Psycho?

At a distance of fifty years, it can be hard to tell. After all, both films feature lonely killers who are, at least in some ways, sympathetic. Norman Bates carries the weight of an overbearing mother and Mark Lewis – Powell’s anti-hero – the scars of a childhood presided over by a sadistic biologist father. Women are murdered in both films, and both killers are voyeurs: Bates through a peephole in a motel room, Mark through the lens of his ever-present cine-camera. Both killers live in their dead parents’ houses too, and both form shy, seemingly innocent relationships with nice young women.

Alfred Hitchcock

Taking no chances: Hitchcock publicises 'Psycho'.

Despite these similarities though, it was Powell’s film that had the greater capacity to get under the skins of early ’60s audiences in ways that they weren’t entirely comfortable with. For a start, there’s the basic fact that his killer is a cameraman, a movie obsessive who works at a thinly-disguised Pinewood Studios as a focus puller. The murders that he commits are set up with the precision of a film shoot and the audience is forced to watch as his camera, a deadly blade fixed to the front, closes in on its victims. More than thirty years before Michael Haneke, Powell was drawing an explicit link here between audiences and on-screen violence, and making the former squirm in their complicity.  

Also against Powell was the fact that Peeping Tom was so obviously about the process of directing films. The director himself plays the father who torments Mark in childhood home movies and the young Mark is played by Powell’s son, Columba. There is something genuinely creepy about these scenes, and many felt that Powell had got ‘too close’ to the story and had allowed his own ‘perversions’ to spill over onto the screen. Such an idea seems ludicrous today, of course. We expect our artists to offer up all of themselves for public consumption, even (and especially) the dark and imperfect parts of their personality (see Antichrist or The Wrestler). But this was 1960, the year of the Lady Chatterley trial, and Powell was a director a little too far ahead of his time.

In terms of wider society too, Peeping Tom offers up criticisms, or at least observations, that would have been deemed passé in 1967 or ’68, but which in 1960 still had the power to shock. In an early scene, for example, Mark waits in the corner of a seedy newsagent’s shop while a respectable looking gent buys The Times and The Telegraph and, oh, some ‘views’ (pornographic pictures) too, as a deliberate afterthought. “Well he won’t be doing the crossword tonight,” says the newsagent after the man has walked out. The suggestion is clear: beneath the veneer of respectable Old England lies a nation of voyeurs, pornographers and perverts. The killer is different from the rest of us only in that he follows through with fantasies that most of us keep to ourselves. Hitchcock had suggested similar things too, of course, but he was by now doing so at a safe distance, probing American anxieties rather than specifically British ones. For British critics Peeping Tom was sacrilegious and hateful, Psycho a guilty, thrilling pleasure.

And the point is? 'Peeping Tom'

So in many ways, as Johan Grimonprez would no doubt suggest, Peeping Tom was the ‘double’ or the ‘twin’ of Psycho, and an evil twin at that. For years it gathered dust in the proverbial attic while its near-contemporary enjoyed worldwide success and notoriety. That it is still known to us today is thanks largely to a group of influential American admirers – among them Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola – who in the Seventies and Eighties both celebrated and promoted it as a lost classic. 

And where would Psycho be today without its evil twin? Did Powell’s film somehow prepare the ground for Norman Bates, or was Hitchcock just luckier and shrewder than his fellow Brit?

Well, the truth is that, in amongst the positive reviews and the even more positive box office receipts, Psycho did take a fair amount of flack too. But, unlike Powell, Hitchcock had a reputation already as a director who liked to explore the dark and the devious. His brand of avuncular creepiness was already familiar to audiences, both from his TV appearances and from the deadpan trailers that he made for his films. He was, in Rumsfeldian terms ‘a known-known’, and he had the advantage of working in an America in which Freudian psychoanalysis had been absorbed and popularised with remarkable speed. Powell, on the other hand, was working in a British cinema which still had a lot of growing up to do. Peeping Tom can be seen, then, as the first ugly pimple of its adolescence.



One response

14 04 2010
Are you the British Coen Brothers? – Chris Blaine

[…] a great piece by Matinee Idle about Peeping Tom and Psycho, released so close to each other and yet received so differently, which attempts to answer why […]

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