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.

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8 10 2009
'Looking for Eric'

'Looking for Eric'

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are standing in a movie line waiting to see Bergman’s Face to Face. Behind them, a man in a tweed jacket pontificates loudly to his date about the ideas of cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan and the failings of Fellini. When challenged by Woody, he proclaims himself to be an academic who teaches a course on media at Columbia University and who thus has plenty of valuable insights into such matters.

Woody responds by bringing Marshall McLuhan out from behind a pillar. “You know nothing of my work,” he tells the unfortunate academic. “How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” 

The scene is from Annie Hall and the cameo is the way that cameos used to be: brief and to the point. Whether it was Hitchcock walking a couple of terriers in The Birds or Richard Branson being frisked at an airport in Casino Royale, the point of the cameo was to provide a little, usually comic, diversion from the main narrative.

Recently though, this seems to have changed. In films like Being John Malkovich, JcVD and now Looking for Eric the cameo has become the narrative, with stars taking leading roles in films about themselves and using the opportunity to examine, unravel and poke fun at their own celebrity status.

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