A “Peeping Tom” returns

This is not the first time I’ve posted about the great thriller Michael Powell made with writer and famed WWII cryptographer Leo Marks. Released the very same year as “Psycho,” “Peeping Tom” was also about a serial killer, but was much more stylized and shot in eye-filling Eastmancolor. It featured, I believe, not a single drop of onscreen blood. Yet, it more or less permanently disabled the career of one of the greatest directors of all time.

Below the often thoughtful but highly tendentious BBC film critic, Mark Kermode, is on his absolute best behavior as he provides terrific interviews with Powell’s widow, famed film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and her boss/colleague and #1 Powell fan and friend, Martin Scorsese, as they try to explain just what made, and makes, “Peeping Tom” so powerful and relevant today.

The irony of the completely opposite post-serial-killer movie fates of Alfred Hitchcock and Powell, who were of roughly the same generation and peers in the English film industry at one point, never fails to stun me. I’m also endlessly impressed by the fact that there was a time and a place where movie critics could not only destroy a film, they could end a career. I wonder how “Peeping Tom” would have been received if it came out in North America first.

You can see the even more excellent complete 22 minute interview with Martin Scorsese over at The Guardian which, among other topics includes some discussion of the upcoming “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” and Scorsese’s thoughts on shooting the film in 3D. As for, “Peeping Tom,” let’s hope, that restoration hits the States before too long.

  

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Sundance and stuff

* The Sundance Film Festival, easily the second most influential film festival in the world, both for better and for worse, unveiled its 2010 schedule this morning. Anne Thompson takes a close look at the impact of Jim Cooper, who is now running the festival after the departure of Geoff Gilmour. At the one and only Sundance I attended back in 2005, I heard a number of catty, though possibly not inaccurate, remarks to the effect that Gilmour had gone a bit Hollywood in a somewhat James Lipton-esque way. Apparently, things are changing and change is often a good thing.

* Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film is supposedly not about Scientology and, therefore, Philip Seymour Hoffman will not be playing a variation on L. Ron Hubbard. Still, sounds cool. Boy, I wish I had time to check out Anderson’s last film and huge creative departure, “There Will Be Blood,” a second time right now. Jason Zingale’s review might have been short of adoring, but that one has really stayed with me. P.T. Anderson might not be the second coming of Orson Welles, but then, Welles wasn’t exactly the second coming of John Ford either.

* Roman Polanski isn’t going to be set free this week, but he is going to the Milky Way — the name of his digs in the swanky Swiss ski resort town of Gstaad.

* Rupert Everett, who made a bit of history a decade or so back as the first borderline A-list actor to be openly gay, has warned younger actors not to follow suit in new book promo interview in The Guardian. Personally, I’d advise gay performers to take his words with a gigantic grain of salt. Everett is a first rate actor I always enjoy watching but he has, to put it kindly, a big mouth and has said many really questionable things over the years while also saying some really smart things. Not being gay or a famous thespian, I’m perhaps not qualified to judge, but being out sure hasn’t hurt Neil Patrick Harris any lately. I guess the real test will be if the highly accomplished ex-Doogie is  ever allowed to play a more or less serious romantic lead opposite a female.

Nikki Finke has the thoughts of “coming-out PR guru” Howard Bragman:

There may well have been other reasons Rupert didn’t become the leading man he imagined himself going to be. But this isn’t about your bank account. This is about your soul.

* Bloody Disgusting has word that the remake of Alfred Hitchcock‘s “The Birds” is getting a change of directors and will be heading in a direction that will be, yes, more bloody and disgusting.

* In Michael Powell’s horror classic, “Peeping Tom,” a silent-film era cameraman is driven to become a serial killer by the bizarre, fear-inducing experiments performed on him as a child by his psychologist father. A linguist named d’Armond Speers might have been less cruel than the dad in the movie, but speaking only Klingon to his son for the first three years of his life seems like it’s taking some kind of risk. Fortunately, as passed along by Geoff Boucher, it appears the kid turned out normal, linguistically speaking, anyhow. That’s good. Still, I wonder what the word in Klingon is for “meshugeneh.”

fishermansworf1

  

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1960, the year graphic horror broke, part 3

So, as we saw in part 1 of this brief series of trailers inspired by this week’s box office rivalry between “Paranormal Activity” and “Saw VI,” in England in 1960 director Michael Powell made an artful but, at least by today’s standards, gently disturbing film — without a speck of blood or gore — about a sympathetic serial killer. The film scandalized the press and essentially ended his British filmmaking career, despite his status, apparently forgotten, as arguably the greatest English director. Around the same time, in part 2, we saw that France’s Georges Franju made an ultra-creepy tragedy with a notorious surgery scene that took decades to develop its international reputation as a horror classic.

In the U.S., Michael Powell’s old contemporary, Alfred Hitchcock, took on a film with a very similar killer to “Peeping Tom.” However, his approach was sneakier. First, we became sympathetic, then we learned who was actually doing it. The angle of voyeurism was present, but downplayed. But as for blood — well, in just under three minutes Hitch broke one small taboo by showing a toilet and by the end, he made it acceptable to show a naked women being hacked to death on screen in a mainstream Hollywood film. He was already probably the most famous director in the world but, as a result, he became even richer and more famous and as identified with horror as he had already been with suspense. The sad part is, I’d argue that “Psycho” isn’t nearly as good a movie as “Peeping Tom,” though I know that’s a controversial statement and I say it as a huge fan of Mr. Hitchcock.

On the other hand, the promotion of Hitch’s film was a million times better and more canny than “Peeping Tom.” That, my friends is how movie history usually works. And now, my vote for the greatest, smartest movie trailer of all time. Don Draper himself must have been impressed.

  

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1960, the year graphic horror broke – part 1

As graphic mayhem (“Saw VI”) and the power of suggestion (“Paranormal Activity“) battle at the box office this weekend, I’ll be presenting trailers from three movie milestones all made in 1960 that all broke the longstanding cinematic taboo against what was then deemed extreme horror and violence.

Now, this trailer isn’t classy and it’s a lot more lurid than the movie, but it is fun, though it didn’t do much good for the success of “Peeping Tom.” The film was mired in obscurity for decades on both sides of the Atlantic, known only to hardcore film nerds, and even mocked with zero affection by TV horror hostess Elvira. Today’s it still not well known enough for my taste. Not even close.

“Peeping Tom” actually contains no onscreen blood at all as far as I can remember, but its content so horrified English film critics that they effectively scared away audiences and it actually became a virtual career-ender for its director, Michael Powell, who only made one more notable film before passing away thirty years later. Ejecting Powell from the British film industry was like ejecting John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock from American films, though the fact that he was best known in tandem with screenwriter Emeric Pressberger perhaps made it seem like it was okay to disregard him after the collaboration was over. Despite such earlier worldwide hits with Pressberger as “The Red Shoes,” Powell wound up something of a movie refugee before eventually settling down in New York, befriending Martin Scorsese, and marrying his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Going back at least to the premiere of 1931’s “Frankenstein,” the British have always been much harder on horror and violence than Americans and, despite the natural restraint and subtlety of Powell’s portrayal of a serial killer who shoots film of his victims as he murders them, it was, in fact, a film about a serial killer who films his victims. That was that. The most horrified reviews you might now read for a “torture porn” flick were absolutely nothing compared to the throttling Powell received from the British press.

It wasn’t fair, of course. I’d argue that, at least until “Silence of the Lambs” was released, “Peeping Tom” was easily the class of the entire psycho-killer genre — and I know what movie you’re thinking must be better, but I disagree. Powell’s is a film that explores the roots of violence and our fascination with it. It’s actually a work of great taste and beauty though if I’d written that for an English newspaper back then, I’d likely be fired.

  

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