1960 thriller combined voyeurism, repression, child abuse, and sexual crime long before the public was ready.
Hollywood lore is sprinkled with tales of maligned cinematic masterpieces. British director Michael Powell’s 1960 voyeuristic thriller Peeping Tom is one of them—a film so savagely reviewed that it irreparably damaged what had been an acclaimed directorial career. While Powell should not have suffered so brutal a fate, his film’s rebranding as a work of incandescent genius is also not fully deserved. In the end Peeping Tom is a perfectly decent piece of filmmaking, amazingly forward-looking but also flawed. It deals with a man-child obsessed with filming women at the moment the fear of death appears in their eyes, and our villain does this of course by murdering them, and he manages to kill, film, and keep his subjects in frame at all times by using a spear-like contraption attached to his camera tripod. As you can probably guess, his carefully balanced existence is upset by the arrival of a prospective love interest, and we know from the moment she appears that she’ll be in front of his lens at some point.
In the U.S., Peeping Tom came after Alfred Hitchcock’s similar Psycho, but it Britain it arrived first. Censorship was slipping in British cinema, but to get a sense of how prudish authorities still were, consider the fact that Hitchcock’s movie caused controversy not only for its showermurder and for showing Janet Leigh in her bra and in bed with a man, but for being the first film to show a flushing toilet—an affront to bluenoses though the contents were merely a torn up note. Peeping Tom pushed the envelope farther and did it first, showing the killer Mark Lewis preying on sex workers and nude models, showing nudie reel star Pamela Green sprawled topless on a bed just before her murder, and drawing out the killings to agonizing length as Lewis coaxes the perfect expression of terror from his victims. Powell develops his killer to the extent that the audience must understand him as a human, and uses point-of-view to make the character’s films-within-the-film the equivalent of snuff movies.
The list of technical achievements goes on—Powell deftly manages to make Peeping Tom brutal without spilling a drop of blood, and his visual approach is engrossing. So why isn’t the movie a 10? Well, there are a few glaring script incongruities, some of the acting is below professional level, the killer seems careless for someone that has been at it for a while, and the idea of so obviously disturbed a man—stuttering, mumbling, visibly shying from any form of human contact—being able to attractevan a woman as kind and credulous as Anna Massey just doesn’t ring true. There are men who are projects, and there are men who are lost causes—are we right, girls? That’s what the Pulp Intl. girlfriends say anyway. But Peeping Tom is a film every cinephile should see. The moral objections of contemporary critics seem quaint now—many hated being forced to experience the murders from the killer’s perspective, but the viewer’s loss of choice echoes the killer’s helplessness to control himself, and that may very well be Powell’s best trick.
The Noir City Film Festival ends tonight with a pairing of Peeping Tom with the Michelangelo Antonioni classic Blow-Up, which means here at Pulp Intl. we’ll close the book on the fest and move back into the more diverse subject matter that usually makes up our website. We wanted to use Noir City as an excuse to delve into the film noir catalog and we managed to watch sixteen of the twenty-five films on the schedule—some for the second or third time—and write about twelve of them.
This all made for a quite enjoyable week, with much wine drunk and popcorn noshed (we have a Whirley popcorn maker we had sent over from the States that does a bang-up job), but it was also a bit of work. At this point we doubt we’ll go through all the considerable effort of screening next year’s Noir City slate, but you never know. Next January is a long, long way off—or at least, it should seem that way if you’re living life the way you should. We'll marinate on it and see.
Nothing will work right when he’s done.
Remember those alpha covers we talked about in the past? This one can be added to that group. It’s a decidedly threatening tableau, and with the extra element of a tool taking on the role of phallic symbol. Robert Bonfils was behind this one, 1965, for Greenleaf Classics/Leisure.
Even visionary filmmakers sometimes don't see clearly.
Vera Miles is most famous as the actress who gets to survive Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. She worked with Hitchcock on many films, but had other worthy roles, including in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Wrong Man, and just about every television detective series of the 1970s. She claims she was never able to never please Hitchcock because she wasn’t sexy enough. This shot proves Alfred needed glasses. It’s circa 1955.
Ralph, this wasn’t what I meant when I said I needed a little pick-me up.
Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles joke around on the Hollywood set of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The episode they starred in was the series debut “Revenge,” and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the show’s seven-year run. Meeker would appear in three more episodes of the series and many movies, while Miles would co-star memorably in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The photo dates from 1955.
She’s so going to need therapy after this.
Here’s a rarity. It’s a poster from the former Yugoslavia (such items are commonly referred to as “Exyu”) for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring a photo, not of doomed Janet Leigh who met her end in the shower, but of Vera Miles, who plays Leigh’s sister. With the help of John Gavin, Miles ends up poking around the Bates Motel looking for clues to her sis’s disappearance. Safe to say she never expected what she found. See a Czech Psycho poster here.
There's a bad moon on the rise.
In our continuing chronicle of mid-20th century tabloid magazines we have a new player—Whisper magazine. Whisper was founded as a girlie magazine in 1946 by Confidential owner Robert Harrison. By the time he sold out in 1958 Whisper was already a clone of Confidential in style and content, although sometimes it sported a simpler cover motif with a celeb framed inside a circle. In this example from 1956, the circle becomes a blood red disc reminiscent of the old Short Stories covers, but which is probably supposed to suggest werewolves. The spotlight here is on George Sanders, one of the more interesting Hollywood characters of the time. Born in Russia, Sanders was British by lineage, and built a film career playing aristocrat types, often with an air of menace. This was most aptly displayed in 1950's All About Eve, a role for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Sanders was known as a smooth operator, but his personal life was a wreck. He married four women over the years—including serial bride Zsa Zsa Gabor, and her older sister Magda. He would have been between marriages at the time of Whisper’s alleged strike out with an unnamed ingénue, but he’d be back in the saddle by 1960, marrying actress Benita Hume. Health problems eventually robbed Sanders of his acting talent and he finished his career in the low budget stinker Psychomania. Eventually, he also lost the ability to indulge in his beloved hobby of playing music, which prompted him to destroy his piano with an axe. Not long after, he took a fatal dose of Nembutal, leaving behind a suicide note addressed to the world that read in part: I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
It's a mad mad mad mad Perkins.
It’s difficult to imagine Anthony Perkins in any role save that of Norman Bates, but he made a number of post-Psycho films, several in France, including this oft-maligned effort by directorial legend Claude Chabrol about murder and mayhem among the feckless Parisian bourgeoisie. Perkins continued to land serious roles through the rest of the sixties and seventies, before the 1983-to-1986 triple whammy of Psycho II, Crimes of Passion and Psycho III entrenched him as cinema’s all time greatest (and twitchiest) madman. In Le Scandale he wasn’t what you’d call clinically mad, but he wasn’t exactly playing with a full deck either. Le Scandale, aka The Champagne Murders, premiered in France today in 1967.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1962—Canada Has Last Execution
The last executions in Canada occur when Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin, both of whom are Americans who had been extradited north after committing separate murders in Canada, are hanged at Don Jail in Toronto. When Turpin is told that he and Lucas will probably be the last people hanged in Canada, he replies, “Some consolation.”
1964—Guevara Speaks at U.N.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara, representing the nation of Cuba, speaks at the 19th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City. His speech calls for wholesale changes in policies between rich nations and poor ones, as well as five demands of the United States, none of which are met.
2008—Legendary Pin-Up Bettie Page Dies
After suffering a heart attack several days before, erotic model Bettie Page, who in the 1950s became known as the Queen of Pin-ups, dies when she is removed from life support machinery. Thanks to the unique style she displayed in thousands of photos
and film loops, Page is considered one of the most influential beauties who ever lived.
1935—Downtown Athletic Club Awards First Trophy
The Downtown Athletic Club in New York City awards its first trophy for athletic achievement to University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger. The prize is later renamed the Heisman Trophy, and becomes the most prestigious award in college athletics.
1968—Japan's Biggest Heist Occurs
300 million yen is stolen from four employees of the Nihon Shintaku Ginko bank in Tokyo when a man dressed as a police officer blocks traffic due to a bomb threat, makes them exit their bank car while he checks it for a bomb, and then drives away in it. Under Japanese statute of limitations laws, the thief could come forward today with no repercussions, but nobody has ever taken credit for the crime.
1965—UFO Reported by Thousands of Witnesses
A large, brilliant fireball is seen by thousands in at least six U.S. states and Ontario, Canada as it streaks across the sky, reportedly dropping hot metal debris, starting grass fires, and causing sonic booms. It is generally assumed and reported by the press to be a meteor, however some witnesses claim to have approached the fallen object and seen an alien craft.
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