Archive for the ‘Film Essays’ Category

Atheist. Provocateur. Eccentric. Foot fetishist. Luis Buñuel was all of these things and more. A Surrealist through and through, Buñuel was able to subvert even mainstream cinema, often working within ridged studio systems to produce films that were still deeply personal, that reflected his own sensibilities as an artist. Buñuel was also a dead-on satirist who crafted some of the most striking, controversial and visually stunning films ever made— a true original that produced images that would become iconoclastic. Who can forget the razor blade slitting the eye of a woman from his first film, Un chien andalou (1929)? His was a single-minded, uncompromised vision, tackling variations on the same themes for over 50 years: the Catholic Church, human desire and bourgeoisie society. He mined these tropes for decades, getting more mileage out of these ideas than most directors could have with dozens more. With The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the second to last film that Buñuel made for retiring for good, everything he had learned as a filmmaker, as satirist, as an artist was applied with truly groundbreaking results.

Perhaps the most subversive, audacious and freewheeling of Buñuel’s films, The Phantom of Liberty is also a movie that echoes the pure surrealism of his earlier works like Un chien andalou and the L’Age d’or (1930) as well as later films, Simon of the Desert (1965) and The Milky Way (1969). All of these films use non-narrative story structure to elaborate their particular scenarios, but it is the The Phantom of Liberty that is the most accomplished, the most daring. The film is structurally complex, revealing layer after layer, a charge of seemingly disparate scenarios that bleed into each other, one after the other. The brilliance of Buñuel’s conceit is that the film feels effortlessly random, truly dream-like (one of the tenants of a true Surrealist film). Unlike other films that claim to be “dream-like”, The Phantom of Liberty actually succeeds at this notion because Buñuel allows the film to give into this structure, or anti-structure, fully.  He uses traditional story genres like the gothic novel, with the more radical impulses of the Surrealists to tear apart both forms, to remake all storytelling in his own vision.

Part of a final trilogy of brilliant films—The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) the other two—The Phantom of Liberty boldly declares that Buñuel would never compromise his vision, even as one of the elder statesman of a movement that ceased to be relevant (he was 74 when he made The Phantom of Liberty). Indeed, these are some of his most pointed, funny and scathing statements on modern life. And with The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel was returning to, no, embracing his surrealist roots with this film: the essential randomness of the overall structure fell in line with the original mantra of the Surrealists that Buñuel began working with in the 1920s. John Baxter, author of the insightful biography, Buñuel, pulled from Buñuel’s own memoirs in his section on The Phantom of Liberty with this quote: “Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”

The Phantom of Liberty is an incendiary work, and, within the film’s non-narrative structure, Buñuel crafted a potent critical analysis of modern morals. This is in no small way related to fact that Buñuel took the film’s title from the opening of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism”), a work that takes critical aim at the establishment of the day. But even more profound, and less literally, Buñuel seems to be saying that society is an irrational, utterly corrupt institution, that it provides the illusion of freedom, of free will, when in fact chance governs all.

The Phantom of Liberty is composed of episodes that seamlessly blend into one another, each one working its way into the next, scenes within scenes, one collapsing into the next. We begin in the Napoleonic Wars and then move into present day via nanny who is reading aloud the prior events from a book on the subject. Characters and situations evolve in what seem like random, disparate events, leaving the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. There are 72 actors credited in the film, and Buñuel uses the expansive cast to develop a wide-cross section of types. He seems more interested in the type of work a character does, or what stereotype they fall into rather than developing that character, and, in many ways, this works to the film’s advantage. The audience is never able to grasp any underling motivation of the characters, they are more often than not subject to chance in many ways, and again this routes directly back to the main argument of coincidence versus free will. Are the characters simply victims of a cruel universe (or in this case a cruel director) or can they navigate their own destiny? Perhaps they are simply victims of their of desires, lustful or otherwise, trapped in a cycle of self-imposed impulse, much like Fernando Rey’s brilliantly lecherous character in Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Trapping his characters in one circumstance or another is nothing new for Buñuel—he has done this many times with amazing results: the party guests who cannot bring themselves to leave the dining room in The Exterminating Angel (1962), or the friends who are endlessly attempting to sit down to dinner but are continually thwarted by one thing or another in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Buñuel cleverly undermines certain conventions of storytelling, playing with the audiences expectations with often genuinely funny results. In one episode, much is made of a certain French postcard, which we assume to be erotic in nature, but once it is shown turns out to be a completely banal photo of a the country side; in another episode, party guests take their food and eat it in private in the bathroom, while the others sit on toilets instead of chairs at a table full of food which is never eaten.

In many ways The Phantom of Liberty is all about the audience’s expectations and how Buñuel disrupts those assumptions by giving us what is closer to a dream rather than a film in any traditional sense of the word.

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Jayne Mansfield always reminds me of summer, as strange as that sounds. Perhaps it’s all the photos of the smiling, phosphorescent leggy blonde in bikinis, often lounging by a pool, sunning herself, sultry and white-hot in the bright sunlight. Jayne Mansfield is the summer of Americana, of bygone eras that always appear glamorous in photos, always feel nostalgic despite whatever reality they actually inhabited. Vacationers lingering by pools, by lakes; the heady smell of newly cut grass, of hot dogs and hamburgers grilling, of ice cream pops dispensed from musical trucks; lazy days that stretch on and on, skies at dusk fading to a burnt-orange color. All around the sound of kids shouting and laughing, adults drinking and talking until it was dark.

This is the history that is exhumed, minus the racial chasm, the gangsters, the junkies, the crooked politicians, all of the foriegn entanglements—shot through the lens of a movie camera. Mansfield was certainly part of that; the American movie-of-the-mind, a summer drive-in double feature of sand and sun and the and good-looking young men and women dancing to transistor radios blasting static-ridden bubblegum pop.

But then there is the flipside: her often bizzare later career which spawned such tacky treasures as The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968), and her terribly sad death in a car crash that killed nearly everyone aboard. This is the dark side of my associations of Jayne Mansfield. I cannot help but imagine that car accident when I think of Mansfield, the lurid details not only played out in the tabloids, but immortalized in film maker Kenneth Anger’s tell-all book of the dark underbelly of Hollywood, Hollywood Babylon. Much of the book is wholly imagined of course–amplified rumors and innuendo, or out-right lies, but these are the details that stick, the images that remain, the hot-bed of a public’s collective memory. This is the evil twin of the cotton-candy nostalgia: the awful, turgid realities that are twisted and distorted for the bizarre glee of an audience wanting all of the dirt on people who seem larger-than-life.

Still, Mansfield occupied a certain space, along with her “blonde-bombshell” counterpart, Marilyn Monroe, in the American landscape. Monroe mixed sexuality with innocence, but Mansfield was all raw sexuality. She was uninhibited and wild; she held nothing back, or so it seemed. Surely Monroe has posed by enough pools, retained that same sun-kissed glow of summer, but somehow Mansfield has become indelibly linked to all of those thoughts of summer, remaining somewhere in the back of my mind.

She lingers in black and white, sometimes in color, a woman who symbolized a nation’s new-found sexuality, bubbling with optimism, the sun as bright and intense as her short-lived career.

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Dick Powell is a glutton for punishment. More specifically, Powell’s Philip Marlowe is a glutton for punishment. In the 1944 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farwell, My Lovely, renamed Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell played the part of the famous private detective as if it might be the last acting gig he ever got. He is funny, strangely charming, clumsy and a joy to watch even as he’s repeatedly beaten over the head, drugged, tossed in an insane asylum, and temporarily blinded by gunshot fire. Powell doesn’t simply play Marlowe as the typical tough-guy detective—there was always more to Chandler’s character than that—his version is fully formed; vulnerable, really vulnerable, which makes him more likeable, certainly more sympathetic. Much of the unintended glee in watching this film are Marlowe’s dealings with the somewhat sociopathic nitwit, Moose Malloy played deftly by Mike Mazurki. Moose is all blunt, dumb menace and is constantly annoyed by the wise-cracking Marlowe; his first instinct always violence.  As twisted as the plot can sometimes become, the interplay between these two actors helps to ground the film.

Many consider Humphrey Bogart’s take on the seminal literary figure in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep to be the best rendition of Marlowe (Elliott Gould’s turn as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is certainly odd, not bad, just odd), but Dick Powell is my personal favorite; his reverence for the hardboiled dialogue comes through in every scene and really, truly, he looks and acts the part. In my mind, this is Marlowe, sinking into the seedy shadows of old Los Angeles, waiting for the next case to walk through the door.

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The Untouchables (1987)

Director: Brian De Palma


Barrels of Technicolor blood. Limitless rounds of ammunition. The melodramatic and the absurd. Innocence and clear-eyed reality. All these things run together in the universe that is Brian De Palma’s version of the late 50s TV show, The Untouchables. The violence is graphic, sometimes cartoonishly so, as it always is in a Brian De Palma film—his obvious affection for Italian cinema, especially that of the Giallo genre, bleeds through, gloriously staining his entire visual approach—but it is also operatic and lavish and weirdly seductive, an over-the-top rendition of Prohibition-era America that lives in the other-reality that is the Hollywood Movie. De Palma is clearly swinging for the fences here; he wants to create a film that is larger than life. He is aiming at mythos rather than any sort of historical accuracy (there are plenty of inaccuracies in this film), the myth of not just the gangster in America, but good and evil writ large. It is beautiful and repulsive all at once.

As a gangster film, more specifically a modern gangster film, The Untouchables is certainly different. The film does not focus on the mob life, the trappings of family obligations, of traditions. It does not track the history of any one clan. More to the point, it does not feel like any of the Godfather films, or Goodfellas (1990), or Casino (1995) or even Once Upon A Time in America (1984), which tackles the same era. The Untouchables is cut from the same cloth of the gangster films of the 30s and 40s, and it that respect, it falls more readily in line with the TV show upon which it is partially based. It is a crime film, mixed with adventure elements. And possibly because of this, it is hardly mentioned as a film of merit in this genre when compared to the Godfathers and Goodfellas, which is too bad. Quite possibly, this is one of my favorite films of this particular sub-genre because it feels like such an interesting departure. There are scenes that I never grow tired of, dialogue that still crackles as much as it as it did when I first saw this movie in the theaters.

The Untouchables opens with a roar: Al Capone (Robert De Niro) flippantly declaring to the press that “there is violence in Chicago, but not by me and not by anyone I employee”, juxtaposed with a scene of a little girl and other patrons of a drugstore killed by a bomb meant to send a message to other businesses. We are then introduced to government agent, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) sent to Chicago to lead the clean-up illegal alcohol activity and its subsequent turf warfare. Ness is clean-cut and wide-eyed; his notions of right and wrong are steadfast, unwavering. He wants to “do some good”, but learns quickly that things are not what they seem, and that even those in the police force may not be trustworthy. Chicago is corrupt from the bottom up, and his mission may be simply be a fool’s errand.

We soon meet the “poor beat-cop” Jimmy Malone, wonderfully played by Sean Connery. Connery’s Malone has seen it all, and had may have once been as clear-eyed and optimistic as Ness, but after years as a cop in Chicago knows the real score, and this is when Ness’ real training in the “Chicago Way” begins.

The rookie cop, George Stone, played by Andy Garcia and the bumbling accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), round out the “Untouchables” and their war against Capone and Chicago corruption is soon underway. No scene is wasted, nothing feels frivolous or belabored, and every frame furthers the steamrolling plot. De Palma deftly cuts together scene after scene, trying to one-up himself as he races toward the finale of the film. The war becomes bloodier and tragedy unfolds at every corner. Even with hyperbolae of some of the situations, De Palma is able to deliver much weight to the deaths of blank and Malone, partly because Mamet has written such likeable characters, but also because their deaths are so horrible particularly that of Malone, which De Palma juxtaposes with the Capone’s attendance of the opera, Pagliacci.

Then there is the infamous train station sequence, the centerpiece and first climax of the film, a stark, blatant homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps Sequence from his groundbreaking film Battleship Potemkin (1925). Quentin Tarantino may receive plenty of flak for exceeding simple homage, but certainly Brian De Palma is guilty of the same thing with this particular sequence (as well as his take on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) which became Blow Out (1981) and Dressed to Kill (1980) which is seedy mix of the Giallo genre and Hitchcock films). It’s difficult to say how far is too far when it comes to artistic lifting such as this, but the scene is utterly breathtaking. De Palma is a master of pacing and the train sequence shows this quality in spades.

By the end of the film, Ness is forced to do the one thing that he has railed against. It seems the De Palma is tellling us Ness’ brutal killing of Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), is not only necessary, it is also cathartic. Nitti gets his in the end because he is evil and that is the way a just universe should work, but at what price? By this point, Ness doesn’t seem bothered by killing his enemy as he did previously; violence begets violence, the “Chicago Way” plays itself out.

True, much of the The Untouchables is surface and no substance. De Palma is clearly in love with the clothes and the architecture of the period; there are extreme worm’s-eye-views of the interiors of court buildings, of churches, he relishes shots of mobsters decked out in period-inspired Armani suits. And De Palma does not delve too far into the true motivation of any of the characters. De Niro’s Capone is cartoonish and all flash compared to his nuanced, sometimes tender turn as the young Vito Corleone. De Palma is almost fetishistic about the violence of the film, lingering on shots of blood spreading slowly outwards in all directions, the spray of bullets choreographed in slow motion. Clearly, subtly is not what De Palma is striving for in The Untouchables. It is all blood and thunder. That’s what makes it so thrilling. That’s what makes it endlessly watchable.

And if it is De Palma’s measured vision that makes the film endlessly watchable, then it is David Mamet’s screenplay that makes it endlessly quotable. “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word”, “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the “Chicago” way! And that’s how you get Capone”. Although the script lacks much of Mamet’s signature cadence, his character development and deep psychological interspection, you can still you can hear the odd juxtaposition of language that he his is know for (especially in the latter “That’s the Chicago way” speech). There has been much made about De Palma ‘s and producer Art Linson pulling apart of Mamet’s original script, so it is hard to say what exactly remained in tact, and how much of Mamet’s story was altered (much of the train sequence was De Palma’s idea), but it is hard to dispute the sheer excitement of the hearing dialogue delivered; it staggers and pitches, deploying period slang as readily as a gangster unloads his weapon.

Of course, the third part of the holy trinity that came together to make The Untouchables, was without a doubt composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone produces one of his most memorable scores, and, in large part, is one of the driving forces of the film. From the opening theme, Morricone is setting the relentless pace of the rest of the film, mixing elements of pop, classical and period influences, he creates a score that doesn’t exactly represent the period in which it was set, but presents something that is boldly out of time, and arguably iconoclastic. You know a Morricone score when you hear one, and you know that you are watching The Untouchables with this particular score: the two are so inexorably intertwined with one another.

The Untouchables ends on a sober note to be sure: half of the squad dead, a trail of slain mobsters left behind, Ness thinking back upon the past events and remarking, “so much violence”. Of course this is more of a comment on the film itself rather than any real summary of the era; De Palma is utterly complicit in the filmic carnage, and in some ways might relish it. With The Untouchables he is out to create larger than life characters whose only recourse begins and ends with violence. De Palma wants to add a chapter to the myth, not record an historical document; even the truth in this case is almost too banal for a Hollywood movie.



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Two of Sam Fuller’s best films, The Naked Kiss (1964) and Shock Corridor (1963), have recently received an overhaul from the Criterion Collection. Now, besides HD digital transfers, they both include the extras that fans of the Criterion Collection have come to expect: interviews, documentaries (Shock Corridor features the wonderful 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera) and two box illustrations by cartoonist Dan Clowes. Both Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss represent Sam’s Fuller’s disdain and bizarre admiration of tabloid journalism. To be sure, they were sensationalistic b-movies in the truest sense; they sought to scandalize and titillate audiences with the dark material being presented. But Fuller wanted to also illuminate the human condition, to tackle subjects that were not merely taboo at the time, but that were as dangerous as a loaded gun.

Below, I am reposting my essay from last year on Fuller’s seminal work, The Naked Kiss.


The Naked Kiss (1964)

Director: Samuel Fuller

A sudden explosion of violence. A woman advances toward the screen, brandishing her purse like a weapon and smacking the hell of some drunken palooka who’s just trying to escape. Frenetic jazz music heightens the sense of chaos as the screaming woman continues her assault. Then the man pulls her hair off—her wig we realize— revealing a woman who is completely bald. When she finally wrestles him the ground with the help of a bottle of spray seltzer, she removes a wad of money from his wallet declaring that she is taking only what is coming to her.

This is the opening scene in Samuel Fuller’s 1964 film, The Naked Kiss.  These stark events unfold, rapid fire, in the first few moments following an initial title card. Using mainly a hand-held camera and frequently cutting to a P.O.V. shot of the retreating man, the audience itself feels like it’s under attack. It is a sly, utterly convincing conceit on Fuller’s part. The scene is unexpected and unnerving and once the main character, Kelly’s (Constance Towers) wig comes off it gets weird, really weird (this opening scene itself is really worth the price of admission). We realize in short order that Kelly is a prostitute that’s had it with her pimp and is ready to severe all ties. But Kelly is also someone with morals, even in this dirty business. This is a theme that Fuller would return to again and again over the course of the film.

The Naked Kiss is a movie strangely out of time. I still don’t know what to make of it. It certainly feels like film noir, with its snappy dialogue and pulpy storyline, but it also exists in b-movie territory; low-budget and off-kilter, it lurks about in lurid, often taboo material. At the same time it seems to fit the mold of the 50s melodrama, movies mostly geared toward women. Fuller undermines all of these genres, pulling from them at will, using their hallmarks as subversion, as a way into darker issues. Indeed, the topics that Fuller tackles are still weighty subjects to this day and I can only imagine that movie goers at the time must have been either scratching their heads or utterly incensed by the scandalous content. This is grotesque stuff indeed, a film that doesn’t fit the mainstream mold, that’s not the typical “Hollywood” picture. Fuller had long been know as director with a maverick bent, churning out films like The Baron of Arizona (1950), Pickup on South Street (1953) and Shock Corridor (1963) ; The Naked Kiss only helped solidify this notion.

After Kelly’s initial attack on her pimp, the film skips ahead several years. Kelly arrives in a small town called Grantville, stepping off the bus with only a few pieces of luggage and a new head of hair. Posing as a saleswoman, she quickly takes up with the town cop, Griff (Anthony Eisley), as her first “john” in the new town. Griff offers her work at the town’s brothel, Candy’s. Instead, Kelly decides to shed her past once and for all and takes a job as a nurse helping handicapped children at a local hospital. Once Griff learns that she rejected his offer for work at the club, he begins to shadow her, not believing that she can relinquish her unsavory past.

Kelly soon meets Grant (Michael Dante), the town millionaire and a supposed beacon of the community. They quickly fall in love and Grant proposes. Kelly has several initial reservations about marrying Grant, her former life as a prostitute being one. True to her nature, she comes clean, revealing her past to Grant. To Kelly’s surprise he doesn’t care and still wants to marry her. But, the strangest, out-of-left field twist is still to come.

Fuller executes the story with precision and economy, as he did with most of his films, but like Shock Corridor, the movie that preceded The Naked Kiss, he also allows for detours into dream-like moments, exposing the psyche of the characters, especially that of his heroine, Kelly. They are often odd, unsettling moments: Kelly imagines floating down the streets of Venice in a gondola as the living room of Grant’s mansion vanishes into a sort of stagey darkness; handicapped children singing a song that is recorded for posterity, that we hear again later and is made all the more creepy by the events that follow it.

Cinematographer Stanley Cortez helps solidify Fuller’s dark, moody vision of small-town America. Cortez shot the one of the most gorgeous black and white films, The Night of the Hunter and brings many of same sensibilities to bear in The Naked Kiss. Large, almost empty rooms are defined by hard-edged shadows. Fuller lingers mostly in wide and medium shots, only occasionally going into a close-up. He moves the camera only when it serves a purpose.  There is nothing extraneous; he expedites the storyline efficiently with camerawork that only serves further the plot.

With the The Naked Kiss Samuel Fuller creates a pulpy, sensationalistic assault on small-town morality. It is a film that doesn’t pull its punches, literally. The Naked Kiss reveals its horrors and hypocrisy at a singular, unrelenting pace. Kelly is a woman shunned by society, a pariah, but it is she who is really the moral force of the film. The town holds horrible secrets and is itself corrupt to a degree; from the cop to the philanthropist, they are in league, these two archetypes, ready to expose the failings of others while holding themselves as examples of societal “norms”.

But in Fuller’s world there is no room for notions of good and evil, these thematic manifestations simply don’t jive with his world view (Kelly is no saint, but neither is Griff). His is bare-knuckled social commentary, the kind born from years as a newspaper man working in tabloids (in his teens Fuller was a crime reporter for a newspaper called “The Graphic” and continued working in tabloids until turning to Hollywood where he wrote novels as well as directed movies). Indeed, the dialogue itself feels like it was ripped right out of dime store pulp novel. After discovering that a fellow nurse at the hospital made 300 dollars in one night at Candy’s club, we get this monologue from Kelly:

“All right, go ahead. You know what’s different about the first night? Nothing. Nothing… except it lasts forever, that’s all. You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life. Oh, you’re a beautiful girl, Buff. Young… Oh, they’ll outbid each other for you. You’ll get clothes, compliments, cash… And you’ll meet men you live on… and men who live on you. And those are the only men you’ll meet. And, after a steady grind of making EVERY john feel at home, you’ll become a block of ice. If you do happen to melt a little, you’ll get slipped a tip behind Candy’s back. You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Why, your world with Candy will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman.”

True, some of the writing stretches into the realm of cornball, but there is an interesting cadence to it as well, like the writing of James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard, both of whom have an ear of how dialogue is delivered, not simply how it exists on the page. This bit of monologue sums up Kelly’s character fairly neatly, because, after all, it is Kelly’s story. Fuller peppers his script with punchy dialogue such as this throughout the film; as hardboiled and cartoonish as it might seem, it also reveals Fuller’s social conscience and his desire to tell stories that were honest, that exposed humanity for what was.

Perhaps most illuminating of all, Fuller cast his tough-as-nails character, Kelly, as his lead, a role he usually reserved for men. It’s a reversal that is fascinating to watch, especially given the time period in which it was made. Kelly doesn’t need a man to survive, and when she does let her guard down, when she fails to abide her instincts, it leads to her downfall (the “Naked Kiss” of the title refers to the kiss of a degenerate, the taste of ugliness and despair; this was a feeling she experienced with Grant, something she ignored). She is vindicated in the end but chooses to leave town; there is nothing left for her, whatever good she had done was already tainted. She must keep moving, seeking a life that remains elusive, that remains a dream.

Kelly is a woman who knows who she is; perhaps the only character in the movie with enough guts to allow herself this sort of honesty. She will ultimately be alone; made an outcast not by her past, but because of what she believes.

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To kick things off for this year’s festivities, my previous review of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is being included on Radiator Heaven’s John Carpenter Blogathon. While technically not brand-new, and not really a horror movie perse, this essay was a blast to write, and the John Capernter Blogathon is an amazing compendium of all things Carpenter, which, in my estimation, is a great way to start off the spookiest month of the year.

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Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is a nasty gem of a film. Obsessive, provocative, disturbing, deeply sad—Peeping Tom is all of these things and more. This year marks the 50 year anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but it also marks 50 years of Powell’s Peeping Tom, another film about a homicidal maniac, that was released just three months prior to Psycho. While Psycho was a success out of the gate, Peeping Tom became a career killer for Powell (he continued making films for years after, but it was difficult to get studio backing and much less box office attention was paid to the unfairly maligned director). The British press abhorred it, and the dark subject matter was met with a sharp sting of controversy across Britain. It was Powell’s first film after breaking with longtime co-director, Emeric Pressburger, and as a solo effort it had a decidedly singular vision. Written by Leo Marks, Peeping Tom is the culmination of Powell’s obsession with obsession; its destructive power can be seen thematically through many of his films, but here, it is all-consuming, an idea brought to a most devastating conclusion. 

Mark Lewis (Carl Bohem) is a lonely, tightly-wound cameraman (specifically a focus-puller) working at film studio. In his off-hours he shoots pin-up photos of women which he sells for a tidy little profit to a newsagent on his block and labors over an ongoing personal project: documenting the moment of fear before someone is killed. A young Anna Massey plays his naive neighbor, Helen who has a serious crush on Lewis. Massey is wonderful in this role, playing the mousey woman to its full potential; Helen is simultaneously frightened, repulsed and excited by Lewis and his hobbies. Only Helen’s blind mother, played by Maxine Audley, suspects that there is something truly sinister about Lewis.

In many ways, Peeping Tom is much more unsettling than Psycho, its sadistic nature more overt. Powell’s character study is certainly more layered. Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates could, at times, be ah-shucks charming, but Carl Bohem’s Mark Lewis is downright creepy, a filmmaker with a troubled past and a present that is getting decidedly worse. Bates is a sociopath, it is clear, and, as Hitchcock alludes to, this probably had something to do with the relationship with his mother. Powell on the other hand is far more forthcoming with his character; experiments into fear conducted by Lewis’ father no doubt lead to the killer’s anti-social behavior. Lewis’ father is an even greater monster than he, which complicates matters. Many critics have said that Powell draws a sympathetic character with Lewis; I’m not sure how sympathetic he is, but the origin of his sickness is something that the audience is hard pressed to dismiss. And where Psycho’s voyeurism was a metaphor for the relationship between the audience and cinema, Peeping Tom’s voyeurism is all about the voyeuristic nature of the cinema itself, and of filmmaking. Powell is not beating around any metaphorical bushes with this film, and perhaps this is what shocked so many people at the time: the very implication that the sadistic filmmaker and the audience are so inexorably tied together.

Like all of Powell’s films, Peeping Tom is gorgeous to look at. His love of red is everywhere, the color drawing even more meaning with this film in particular. There are also shocking blues and greens, golds that do more than just shimmer; they intensify the very scenes they are in. Powell used the process of Technicolor better than most directors, taking advantage of its inherent un-naturalism to give his color films an other-worldliness. (The vivid color and lighting of Peeping Tom often reminds one of the early color films of Mario Bava, like Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1963); it would be interesting indeed if Peeping Tom had some influence on Bava’s approach). The color palette Powell uses is sumptuous and vivid, it’s so inviting that you find yourself falling easily into this world, which is all the more unsettling.

Had Peeping Tom been made in the United States, it might not have met with such rancor. Directors like William Castle made a career out of films with this sort of subject matter (of course, Powell was not necessarily operating on the level of exploitation or b-movie horror). In sharp contrast, by the beginning of the sixties, Alfred Hitchcock had been making films for years within the American studio system, and had become, essentially, an “American” director, his much more mannered English films far behind him. Powell was very much an Englishman, but his approach to films could be decidedly, un-British; politeness, restraint, these were not ideas he practiced. He often delved into the darkness of humanity in operatic ways (especially with films like The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947) ) and frequently undermined the domestic realism that was the cornerstone of British cinema.

Peeping Tom and Psycho seemed to be forever linked, as much for their close release dates, as for their similar subject matter. Both are films that have withstood the test of time to be sure, their shock value still firmly intact, but with Peeping Tom, Psycho’s demented cousin from across the pond, the horrors  run deeper, often nightmarishly so.


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