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How Michael Powell's 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom destroyed his career

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Brenda Bruce as Dora in Michael Powell’s controversial ‘Peeping Tom’

Brenda Bruce as Dora in Michael Powell’s controversial ‘Peeping Tom’

L-R: Editor Reginald Mills with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reviewing film for the ‘The Red Shoes’

L-R: Editor Reginald Mills with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reviewing film for the ‘The Red Shoes’

The LIFE Picture Collection via

Brenda Bruce as Dora in Michael Powell’s controversial ‘Peeping Tom’

It is interesting to compare the fates of Psycho and Peeping Tom, two psychological horror films with similarly transgressive themes that appeared within weeks of each other 60 years ago. Alfred Hitchcock, as we noted a couple of weeks back, battled with his studio over Psycho and ended up financing it himself. It was a box office triumph.

Peeping Tom, on the other hand, destroyed Michael Powell's career: the vitriolic reception that greeted it in the UK ensured he never made another film there. In fact, though he lived on for 30 years, he hardly made another film anywhere, and ended up in genteel poverty, unable to heat his house. It was a sad finale for a man who should be seen as one of the great geniuses of 20th-century British cinema, on a par with Hitchcock, or David Lean. A reappraisal that began in the 1980s and was led by Martin Scorsese has restored Powell's reputation, and his great films are sometimes shown on television. But one feels that he is admired rather than loved, in part perhaps because of his work's stern originality, and its oddness.

His name is synonymous with that of Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian exile whose dramatic and literary gifts elided perfectly with Powell's artistic vision: together, as The Archers, they made 19 feature films, a good half-dozen of which are peerless masterpieces. I Know Where I'm Going, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death: anyone with a deep appreciation of cinema has a place in their heart for these strange, colourful, endlessly inventive films. And they were beloved in their time too, which perhaps explains the viciousness with which British critics reacted to the release of Peeping Tom.

Born in Kent in 1905, Powell was working in the British film industry by the time he was 20, and learnt a great deal from Hitchcock while employed as a stills photographer on Champagne and Blackmail. By the early 1930s, he was directing films himself, and earned kudos for his handling of The Crowded Hours (1931), The Phantom Light (1935) and in particular The Edge of the World (1937), a sombre tale of depopulation shot in the Outer Hebrides.

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L-R: Editor Reginald Mills with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reviewing film for the ‘The Red Shoes’

L-R: Editor Reginald Mills with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reviewing film for the ‘The Red Shoes’

The LIFE Picture Collection via

L-R: Editor Reginald Mills with directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger reviewing film for the ‘The Red Shoes’

That film attracted the attention of Alexander Korda, the great Hungarian-born producer, who decided Powell would be the right man to fix a movie called The Spy in Black, intended as a vehicle for Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson but in reality a bit of a shambles. It needed a new director. It needed a rewrite: enter Emeric Pressburger.

In his memoir, A Life in Movies, Powell remembered a small, dapper, continental-looking man who turned up at a script meeting organised by Korda. "Emeric produced a very small piece of rolled-up paper, and addressed the meeting," Powell recalled. "I listened spellbound… I had worked with some good writers, but I had never met anything like this… He had stood the plot on its head and completely restructured the film."

An urbane Hungarian Jew, Pressburger had cut his teeth as a screenwriter in Paris and Berlin, whence he fled to the UK in 1938 for obvious reasons, by his own account leaving the key in his apartment door to "spare the Stormtroopers the trouble of breaking it down".

As Powell had immediately spotted, Pressburger had a witty, precise, sophisticated and insightful way with words that felt distinctly European. Together they saved The Spy is Black and would go on to make 18 more films together, mostly as the writing-producing-directing team The Archers.

Their first few collaborations were blandly patriotic, but their 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp revealed Powell and Pressburger's daring and even subversive potential. Loosely based on a satirical comic strip, it starred the wonderful Roger Livesey as Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, a veteran of many campaigns who still believes that war should be conducted by the rules, like a cricket match. He's commanding the Home Guard in the early 1940s when he reflects on his long life, and military career, which has coincided with the decline of the British Empire.

The film was an affectionate send-up of that Empire, and of the British tendency towards stick-in-the-mud stuffiness which, in the early 1940s, seemed reassuring. Filmed in drenched Technicolor, it was also a kind of requiem. Writing many years later, the New Yorker's Anthony Lane assessed its significance best: "It may be the best British film ever made, not least because it looks so closely at the incurable condition of being English."

It was indeed a great film, but there was much, much more to come. In A Matter of Life and Death (1946), David Niven played a dashing RAF bomber pilot who bails out high above the English Channel and somehow survives the fall. He has a brain injury, and as he is tended to by an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) and a kindly country doctor (Roger Livesey again), we come and go between our world and a highly organised paradise to which the pilot was supposed to ascend. It's a charming film, simultaneously whimsical and profound, full of bravura effects like time-freezing and that wonderful slow escalator to the heavens.

Black Narcissus (1947), which (along with Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death) gets shown on Film Four from time to time, is a gorgeously photographed melodrama starring Deborah Kerr as the Sister Superior of an Anglican mission in the Himalayas who struggles to keep the inflamed passions of her charges from boiling over. And in The Red Shoes (1948), a beautiful ballerina (Norma Shearer) is forced by her stern instructor to choose between dancing and love. Full of high colour and sumptuous symbolism, it's Powell and Pressburger's most celebrated work.

These great films managed the twin feats of artistic excellence and box office success, and there are others too, less well-known but equally interesting, such as their baroque adaptation of Jacques Offenbach's opera Tales of Hoffmann. But by the early 1950s, the pair were considered old-fashioned, quaint and out of step: they ended their collaboration amicably in 1957, and began working on other projects.

Powell had high hopes for Peeping Tom, a startlingly original film written by Leo Marks and starring Karlheinz Bohm as Mark Lewis, a reclusive maniac who used a hidden camera to record the dying expressions of the women he kills. The story was complex, and explored the childhood traumas that had warped Lewis - his psychologist father had used him as a guinea pig for home experiments on the nature of fear.

But this was strong stuff for 1960, and though Peeping Tom has since been hailed as a masterpiece, contemporary critics were outraged. Bohm later poignantly recalled that at the end of the film's premiere, not one person came up to shake his or Powell's hands. "Nauseating!" fumed the Daily Express; "it's a long time since a film disgusted me as much," said Caroline Lejeune in The Observer; and The Tribune's Derek Hill reckoned it should be flushed "down the nearest sewer".

Though he did make a couple more films in the late 60s and 70s, Powell's career never recovered. Diaries found after his death in 1990 reveal that he never stopped planning large-scale projects. And though Powell and Pressburger's films fell for a time disastrously out of fashion, their reputation was restored in the 1980s and 90s by Martin Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who is also Powell's widow.

What is special about those films? Well, their oddness, their slightly skewed and inebriated and dream-like way of seeing the world. Powell and Pressburger's films seem so different to anything else released in their era. And when they started playing on American television, budding cinephiles including Spielberg and Scorsese were watching keenly.

Indo Review