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Top Marks: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Peeping Tom (The Cutting Room, November 2010)

This year (2010) is the 50th anniversary of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the film that shocked the critics and scuppered his career.

Hitherto Powell had enjoyed a productive and successful filmmaking partnership with the screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, always billing themselves as “The Archers,” but that had ended in 1956. For Peeping Tom there was another writer to enhance Powell’s visual gifts.

Leo Marks had been Codemaster at Special Operations Executive during the war, creating coded poems for agents in the field, most famously “The life that I have” for Violette Szabo, as depicted in the film Carve Her Name With Pride. His father ran Marks & Co at 84 Charing Cross Road, the subject of Helene Hanff’s book that was later made into a film.

Marks had written three film scripts and Powell chose Peeping Tom first. As Powell explained in an interview with The Times in July 1960, “As usual at the moment, I had two or three stories in preparation, and this was the one that the companies wanted to finance, so I made it first.”

However, Powell’s cantankerous reputation preceded him and investors were difficult to find. Eventually it was one of several films financed by Anglo-Amalgamated to take advantage of the then increasing interest in “horror” films.

Dirk Bogarde was approached to play the film’s protagonist Mark Lewis but he rejected the part. Laurence Harvey, whose star was rising from Room at the Top the previous year, was also asked but remained unavailable. Eventually Powell found the young German actor Karlheinz Böhm, anglicised to Carl Boehm.

At Powell’s insistence a dance scene was inserted to showcase Moira Shearer, who had shone in The Archers’ The Red Shoes. That Powell played a part himself was less to do with Freudian psychology than with budgetary concerns.

The breathless publicity drummed up by Anglo-Amalgamated gave no hint of what was to come from the press. As well as producers, Powell had a history of upsetting the sensibilities of critics.

Caroline Lejeune declared in The Observer, “It’s a long time since a film disgusted me as much… I don’t propose to name the players in this beastly picture.” Derek Monsey of The Sunday Express called it “sick and nasty.”

Famously, Derek Hill of Tribune suggested, “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer.”

Anglo-Amalgamated panicked and cancelled British distribution after only five days. It was released in the UK only three months before Psycho, which was received with barely a murmur of complaint. Shrewdly Hitchcock did not show the film to the press. Psycho gained four Oscar nominations; Peeping Tom damaged Powell’s reputation so badly that he never made another feature film in the UK.

For the US release by Astor Pictures in 1962 the film was cut from 109 to 86 minutes and dumped on the urban grindhouse circuit.

Astor went bust within a year after trying to launch art house films. Peeping Tom was sold with other Astor films to independent TV stations and renamed Face of Fear.

Before a 1977 trip to London Martin Scorsese had seen only the truncated Astor Pictures version. He subsequently arranged with Corinth Films, a small New York-based distributor, to supervise the first uncut US release of Peeping Tom.

The film cast a spell over Scorsese’s work: there are parallels between Mark Lewis and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, two socially inept outcasts driven to murder. Scorsese even used Leo Marks as the voice of the Devil in The Last Temptation of Christ.

In her review in the Sunday Times of 10 April 1960, Dilys Powell (no relation to Michael) wrote that “(Powell) did not write Peeping Tom; but he cannot wash his hands of responsibility for this essentially vicious film.”

But she recanted in the same paper in June 1994: “Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country’s most distinguished filmmakers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise. Something more than a change of taste must exist.”

Always appreciative of irony, Powell remained bemused by its reassessment: “I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.”

Lost Classics: Gone to Earth (The Big Picture, 2010)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of two of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s less heralded films, Gone to Earth and The Elusive Pimpernel.

Although very different in style and theme, the two films share some things in common. They were both released in 1950 under the auspices of Alexander Korda, with whom Powell and Pressburger had signed a five-picture deal in 1948, ceding the independence of their production company The Archers.

Finance for both films came from American partners. Korda needed the money – his company London Films was flat broke due to currency restrictions. He had co-produced The Third Man with David Selznick, who had been dazzled by The Red Shoes and was enthralled by the prospect of working with its creators.

Based on a popular novel by Mary Webb to which Korda had the film rights, Gone to Earth was intended by Selznick as a vehicle for his wife Jennifer Jones. It is the story of Hazel Woodus, a child of nature in late nineteenth century rural Shropshire where she lives with her father and pet fox. The local squire Jack Reddin seduces her but she marries the Baptist minister Edward Marston. Torn between passion and duty, she falls to her death while protecting “Foxy” from a pack of hounds – “gone to earth,” as the huntsman cries when a fox has escaped to its lair.

Powell had roots in Shropshire so was attracted to the novel’s setting in the Welsh Marches. Pressburger enjoyed meeting Selznick in May 1949 at the Krönenhalle restaurant in Zurich. It all looked extremely promising.

Once filming began in July Selznick, who fuelled himself with Benzedrine and amphetamine, bombarded the set with semi-hallucogenic memos that were up to ten-pages long. The ever-courteous Pressburger never read them before throwing them away but would always reply, “Thank you for your useful comments. We shall take the utmost account of them.”

Selznick was not the only challenge. During the location shoot at Much Wenlock there were objections from the British Field Sports’ Society, which prevented its members from lending packs of hounds because they felt the film was anti-blood sports. Eventually the Welsh farmer Daniel Stephens offered the use of his pack of hounds – he is seen in the film as “Master of Fox Hounds.”

After seeing the final cut in December 1949 Selznick claimed that it “varied in substance” from the novel and tried to block the film’s release. A judge ruled in April 1950 that because Selznick had approved the shooting script the film could be released in the UK. It was first screened to the public in November 1950.

The problems with Selznick continued even after the film had been released. His deal with Korda allowed him full control over the “western hemisphere” version of Gone to Earth: Powell and Pressburger were powerless to prevent alterations to the film. Selznick used Rouben Mamoulian to reshoot several scenes for the US version, including close-ups of Jones that were comically undermined by shots of her carrying what was obviously a stuffed fox rather than the live version of the first cut. It was released in America in July 1952 as The Wild Heart, using only 35 minutes of Powell’s footage.

In Gone to Earth, Powell uses symbolism rather than the cinematic alchemy of The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death. Sometimes the symbolism is rather heavy-handed, such as the half-made coffin that frames Hazel’s first entrance to the cottage she shares with her father, or the flowers trampled underfoot by the squire when he seduces Hazel.

The Technicolor photography of Chris Challis is particularly fine; the extensive outdoor scenes were a literal breath of fresh air in an era that was still largely studio-bound. Brian Easdale’s brooding score contributes to the film’s otherworldly atmosphere.

Jennifer Jones gave a good if sometimes melodramatic performance with an accent that sometimes slips as much as her off-the-shoulder gowns. Perhaps her Hollywood lipstick and teeth are rather too perfect for a Shropshire country girl.

Gone to Earth was the third and final appearance by David Farrar in a Powell-Pressburger production; he remained the only actor ever to be personally contracted to The Archers. Esmond Knight and Hugh Griffith contributed entertainingly goggle-eyed performances as Hazel’s father Abel Woodus and Squire Reddin’s servant Andrew Vessons respectively. By contrast, Cyril Cusack plays Edward Marston understatedly.

Powell was dismissive of Gone to Earth in later years, calling it “a disaster… except for Jennifer’s performance, which I thought was absolutely wonderful.” It lacks the flamboyance of Powell’s most famed work but has endured better than he might have imagined. Steve Crook of The Powell & Pressburger Pages website suggests that the scene in which Jack Reddin stands in the rain outside the chapel house was the inspiration for a similar scene in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear.

Probably the importance of Gone to Earth is less to do with its cinematic values and more to do with Powell and Pressburger’s first experience of the Hollywood machine. The Elusive Pimpernel caused problems with its co-producer Samuel Goldwyn and proved conclusively that The Archers were too free-spirited for Hollywood. Their loss was our gain.

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