Wednesday, September 20, 2006

#60: Autumn Sonata

Autumn Sonata, 1978, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Philip Larkin doesn't get a credit on Autumn Sonata, but the movie does seem at times like it was adapted from "This Be The Verse." That's the one that starts like this:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Bergman's movie doesn't start with the same jolt Larkin's poem does. You would be forgiven for believing it to be much more sentimental from the opening sequence, a reunion between a mother and daughter.

They seem happy to see each other, and in the moment, they probably are. That's the last exterior shot until nearly the very end of the film, however; from here on out it's all interiors. If that sounds claustrophobic, it is. If it doesn't sound all that cinematic, it's not. Autumn Sonata has more in common with theater than film, from the limited number of locations to the soliloquies to the lengthy aside from Halvar Björk that begins the film.

I can't remember the last film I saw that was so play-like. What's more, Autumn Sonata's progenitors are not the kind of plays that people imitate for films these days. Think about it: when's the last time you heard someone describe a movie as "Strindbergian?" People adapt Miss Julie for film every ten years, but writing something new in that vein takes a special kind of madness. Which Ingmar Bergman apparently has in spades.

Bergman takes a lot from Strindberg, from the Norwegian setting to the structure of steadily escalating secrets and revelations. He even has his characters spend all night over a bottle of wine, like in Miss Julie. But he also has tools Strindberg never did. Most of the time, when talking about the difference between film and theater, we're talking about things like camera movement or special effects. Which leaves out the dramatic power of a merciless close-up.

That wouldn't really play in theater, even on a very small stage. Of course, half the reason that close-up is so hard to take is because that's not just any face, that's Ingrid Bergman. You know, Ingrid Bergman:

Casting a star like Bergman in a naturalistic drama like this one has a certain perverse genius to it, particularly in the part of Charlotte. Ingrid Bergman seems a little out of place, a little too theatrical, like casting Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. (Of course Ingrid Bergman only looks a little overdramatic when compared to the cast of an Ingmar Bergman movie—to seem overdramatic compared to the cast of a Billy Wilder movie is a different thing entirely). But Charlotte, like Norma Desmond, is both overtly theatrical and past her prime. As a young woman (and as a middle-aged woman, and as an old woman), she neglected her husband and daughter for the demands of her profession as a concert pianist. As the movie plays out, she is called to account by her daughter, Eva, played by Liv Ullmann. At the opening of the film, she comes across as something of a milquetoast:

Shortly after her mother's arrival, however, she has a conversation with her husband that shows just how much anger she's got stored up inside her. Her husband (a pastor) tells her, not really thinking about it, that he "longs for" her. She replies:

Those are very pretty words. Words that don't mean anything real. I was brought up with beautiful words. Mama is never furious or disappointed or unhappy. She is pained. You have a lot of words like that too. It's a kind of occupational disease. If you long for me when I'm here, I begin to be suspicious.

You have to be careful about people who can't take a compliment. In a lot of ways, the point of Autumn Sonata is a series of revelations about just how damaged and angry Eva and Charlotte both are.

Which is to say nothing of Helena, the truly damaged member of the family. Eva keeps her in an upstairs room, which is not as cruel as it initially sounds, given that Charlotte had sent her to a home (and not seen her for six years at the beginning of the film). She's suffering from some sort of degenerative nerve disease, and serves as a sort of inarticulate symbol of the rotting mother-daughter bond downstairs.

The days are pretty much gone when you can use someone with a handicap as a symbol in a movie, too (unless he or she is a symbol of "triumph over adversity"). But Helena's nearly incomprehensible shrieks of anger and fear when she realizes her mother has left again seem like Eva's id made flesh, not like a separate character. Anytime Helena is on screen, things tend to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. And in fact, her very existence is the first nasty surprise for viewers, and for Charlotte. Eva doesn't tell her mother that Helena is now living there until she has unpacked. She says she didn't tell because Charlotte wouldn't have come to visit if she had known; but shortly thereafter she takes real pleasure in telling her husband how hard Charlotte tried not to look rattled when Helena's name was mentioned.

But if Eva has to plant little traps to make Charlotte feel miserable, Charlotte just has to be herself . There's a telling moment early in the film where Eva shyly tells her mother that she's recently given a small recital. Almost without thinking of it, (and in a tone that says nothing more aggressive than, "Well, what a coincidence! I've done something like that recently myself!") Charlotte tells her that she's just held a series of sold-out shows for schoolchildren in Los Angeles.

There's a special hell for children of very talented parents. In the film's most remarkable sequence, Charlotte, trying to be gracious (at least on the surface), sees sheet music for Chopin's preludes and asks Eva to play for her. Eva demurs at first, but then sits down and plays his Prelude in A Minor. While she's playing we stay on a tight closeup of Charlotte watching her. She's brought to tears by Eva's playing, but when Eva asks her if she liked it, she answers "I liked you." That's not good enough for Eva, and she presses the subject. Charlotte won't answer at first, but when she does, she has an answer all ready, saying, as she walks to the piano, "Your technique wasn't at all bad, though you might have taken more interest in Cortot's fingering. But let's just talk about the conception." After giving Eva a harsh speech about her concept of the Preludes (among her constructive criticisms: "Chopin was not a mawkish old woman!"), Charlotte plays her version of the Prelude. I've never seen a filmmaker ask the audience to tell the difference between competent and brilliant playing (especially in classical music), but Bergman has us listen to both versions in their entirety. It's a crazy move but it works; the difference is striking. While Charlotte plays, the camera stays still and we see a lifetime of never being quite good enough for her mother flash across Eva's face. It's devastating.

Both Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman give amazing performances throughout, which is especially important in the film's third act (or movement, if you want to think of it as a sonata). As Eva gradually lets more of her rage show, and Charlotte is able to hide less and less of her guilt and fear, we enter territory that could easily stray into melodrama. In fact, on the page, I think this section of the script reads terribly. But Ullmann and Bergman keep things real; Ullmann in particular is frighteningly believable.

As Eva changes during this act from milquetoast to Charlotte's tormentor and accuser, permanently aggrieved, I thought less of Strindberg and more of Harold Pinter. Eva would be right at home in Old Times. Towards the end of the film, Eva asks her mother, "Is my grief your secret pleasure?" That question, the film suggests, is at the heart of any parent-child relationship, and it goes both ways. Its answer, for Ingmar Bergman, is yes.


  • I liked this so much better than The Seventh Seal it's not even funny. Between these movies, Ingmar Bergman learned how to explore abstract themes without making abstract movies. Eva, Charlotte, and Helena may be archetypical figures, but they're also real and recognizable people.

  • If the main movie seems play-like, it has nothing on the flashback sequences, which literally look like they're taking place on a stage. Here's a representative sample:

    Again, there's a nearly completely static camera for these sequences. Bergman stages these sequences like this because he believes we remember things this way, as though they took place on stage.

  • I stand by my previous assertion that Ingmar Bergman would have been an incredible horror director and offer as further evidence the brief nightmare sequence in Autumn Sonata. But since I liked Autumn Sonata, I no longer think of this as a great loss for the horror industry.

  • I imagine that not too many interviewers asked Ingrid Bergman that classic of lazy press junket journalism, "So how much like your character are you?" Bergman, like Charlotte, abandoned husband and child for a lover (in her case it was Roberto Rossellini, and it was a very public scandal). I suspect that the personal resonances of the script have a lot to do with Ingrid Bergman's near-perfect performance in this film. It came with a lot of struggle, though: the two Bergmans argued constantly during the production. Peter Cowie relays a story on the commentary track about an excruciating table read which Ingrid performed 40's style, complete with florid intonation, reducing the rest of the cast and crew to despair. But what actually ended up on film is nearly perfectly pitched; Bergman's excesses match with Charlotte's theatricality.

Update (9-22-06):

Sven Nykvist, D.P. on Autumn Sonata and many of Bergman's other films, died the day I posted this. Which makes me feel awful for not mentioning how beautifully it was shot and lit. Nykvist has no fewer than ten films in the Criterion Collection, most with Bergman. The only one I've seen so far besides Autumn Sonata is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which also features fantastic cinematography.

Update (8-1-07):

Bergman has joined Nykvist. Autumn Sonata was my favorite of his films that I've seen so far, so this is where I'll note this. For an interesting look at his films from Viktor Morton, see here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

#59: The Night Porter

The Night Porter, 1974, directed by Liliana Cavani, screenplay by Liliana Cavani, story by Barbara Alberti, Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati, and Amedeo Pagani.

About halfway into The Night Porter, one character says (of therapuetic "trials," of which more later), "the more shock value they have, the more effect they have." This is advice that Liliana Cavani seems to have taken to heart. And The Night Porter certainly has shock value. But I don't think it has much effect.

The film is set in 1957 Vienna. Charlotte Rampling plays Lucia, a wealthy young woman touring Europe with her conductor husband.

As you can tell from her expression, all is not well. Following the logic of melodramas, the happy couple stop at a hotel where Lucia's former lover, Max (Dirk Bogarde), is working as a night porter. Scenes of high emotion and tension ensue.

The initial premise is actually very similar to Casablanca (of all the hotels in all the towns in all the world, Lucia had to walk into Max's). But if Rick could tell Ilse that they'd always have Paris, all Max can offer is Mauthausen. Here's their love at first sight, seen in flashback:

As we learn from the flashbacks, Max and Lucia had a sadomasochistic relationship while she was an inmate and he a warden; when they meet again, they pick up where they left off. This isn't a bad idea for a movie; as Roger Ebert noted:

I can imagine a serious film on this theme—on the psychological implications of shared guilt and the identification of the slave with the master—but "The Night Porter" isn't such a film.

The reason The Night Porter fails is that it is nearly completely lacking in details and characterization. The script treats its two leads so superficially that their actions seem meaningless. All we know about Lucia is that she was the daughter of a socialist and hence not necessarily Jewish, steering away from the more interesting relationship between Amon Goeth and Helen Hirsch in Schindler's List. Lucia rarely speaks throughout the film, and despite Charlotte Rampling's expressive face and eyes, we barely know her. We see a little bit more of Max, but despite Dirk Bogarde's best efforts, he doesn't add up to a complete person. At times, he is a tittering monster, the kind of man who gives his lover a severed head in a box because, as he later puts it (laughing as though he has just told an amusing story at a party), "I couldn't resist!"

But for a man willing to recount such flamboyant violence, Max also ruthlessly protects his past—he kills a collaborator who could tie him to Lucia. He lives under an assumed name in Austria, apparently planning to fade out into the sunset "hidden away like a church mouse." We're asked to take him seriously when he says that he works nights because "I have a sense of shame in the light." That's a little hard to square with the fact that he keeps his SS dress uniform hanging in his closet, armband and all:

The end result is a shambling cartoon whose behavior seems motivated only by whatever emotion the film is trying to provoke at any given moment. Again, you could make a serious movie about the mixture of shame and pride that an ex-Nazi ("officers of the finest corps of the Third Reich," as one character puts it) would feel. But this is not that movie. I hate to say it, but Apt Pupil has more moral seriousness.

The inconsistant and poorly drawn characters at the film's center would be enough to ruin The Night Porter. But I haven't even touched on the film's most ridiculous aspect. Max belongs to a sort of ex-Nazi support group that meets and holds mock trials for its members, presenting all the evidence and witnesses against them before burning the evidence and murdering the witnesses. Here's how one member describes their aim:

We must try to understand if we are victims of guilt complexes. If so, we must be freed of them.

I can buy the idea of a group of ex-Nazis dedicated to destroying all evidence that links them with their pasts. But only in the 70's could someone make a film that asks audiences to accept a Nazi Feelgoodery aimed at curing the century's greatest murderers of their neuroses.

But suspend disbelief and allow the filmmakers their Nazi support group. Now ask yourself: what would the leader of such a group look like? Remember, one of their goals is not to be publically denounced as Nazis. Furthermore, one of the leader's duties is sneaking documents out of the records of the War Crimes Commission and the War Documentation Center. So close your eyes and imagine the kind of anonymous-looking man who could easily smuggle original documents out of these places. Got it? Now take a look at Klaus:

Again, remember: The Night Porter wants us to take it seriously, even as it asks us to believe that a group of Nazis in hiding would be led by a man who looks like Colonel Klink. Lest you think I chose that still unfairly, here's Klaus again, wandering around 1957 Austria in an outfit from 1944 Berlin:

If Bogarde isn't meeting his eyes, I suspect it's so he can keep a straight face. And even if you forgive the scar, forgive the black leather jacket, forgive the fedora, forgive the monocle, consider this: Klaus can't even be bothered to wear the monocle in the same eye.

That's not a reversed negative; both coats are buttoned left-over-right and the lettering in the background is correct. Worse yet, Klaus isn't even the campiest Nazi. That title goes to Bert, who as a young man danced ballet for the amusement of the SS:

If you still think the movie has any link with reality, ask yourself, what exactly is happening in this scene? Where is this empty room, where ballet is performed under SS banners and a photo of Himmler? Exactly how many Nazis would spend their afternoon this way? Leaving that for the moment, here's how Bert avoids attention in Vienna in 1957:

Yes, that's a diamond-encrusted "B" on his cravat. And judging from the costume and hair, it's more likely to stand for "Bela" than "Bert."

You could read the Nazi sections of the film as intentionally overblown, a counterpart to the more nuanced relationship between Max and Lucia, but the centerpiece of the movie, a flashback of Lucia performing a Marlene Dietrich song in an SS cap ("Wenn Ich Mir Was Wünschen Dürfte,"), is just as unbelievable:

This is probably the best staged scene in the film. But the emphasis is on staged: what is this room? Why is one man wearing a top hat, and another a mask? Even Klaus shows up (his only appearance in the flashbacks), with a date that would have gotten him in trouble with his superiors:

Well, Cavani was hardly the first person to link the SS's death-obsession with sexual adventurism. But the film really has no interest in what's going on in any of its character's heads. The characters aren't living or breathing, they're cardboard cutouts. I have no intrinsic problem with cardboard Nazis: I love the Indiana Jones movies. And I have no intrinsic problem with movies about sadomasochism, or exploitative relationships; I love Lolita as a novel, even if I think both filmed versions have problems (and The Night Porter consciously evokes Lolita: Max repeatedly refers to Lucia as "my little girl," and dresses her in a pink frock). So what's wrong with The Night Porter? Susan Sontag has written very eloquently about sadomasochism and fascism, in a 1975 essay in the New York Review of books:

Between sadomasochism and fascism there is a natural link. "Fascism is theater," as Genet said. As is sadomasochistic sexuality: to be involved in sadomasochism is to take part in a sexual theater, a staging of sexuality. Regulars of sadomasochistic sex are expert costumers and choreographers as well as performers, in a drama that is all the more exciting because it is forbidden to ordinary people. Sadomasochism is to sex what war is to civil life: the magnificent experience. (Riefenstahl put it: "What is purely realistic, slice of life, what is average, quotidian, doesn't interest me." As the social contract seems tame in comparison with war, so fucking and sucking come to seem merely nice, and therefore unexciting. The end to which all sexual experience tends, as Bataille insisted in a lifetime of writing, is defilement, blasphemy. To be "nice," as to be civilized, means being alienated from this savage experience—which is entirely staged.


The rituals of domination and enslavement being more and more practiced, the art that is more and more devoted to rendering their themes, are perhaps only a logical extension of an affluent society's tendency to turn every part of people's lives into a taste, a choice; to invite them to regard their very lives as a (life) style. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism is about: a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental.

Sadomasochism has always been the furthest reach of the sexual experience: when sex becomes most purely sexual, that is, severed from personhood, from relationships, from love. It should not be surprising that it has become attached to Nazi symbolism in recent years. Never before was the relation of masters and slaves so consciously aestheticized. Sade had to make up his theater of punishment and delight from scratch, improvising the decor and costumes and blasphemous rites. Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.

Cavani knows the shock value of this "master scenario." But she evokes it so carelessly, and with so little interest in her film's characters, that the end result is not just exploitative, but boring. The Night Porter conflates the after-the-fact, theatrical embrace of Nazi symbols with their historical reality. Bert and Klaus (and Max) are a modern-day sadomasochist's version of Nazis, cartoonishly evil, props in a staged ritual of domination and submission. They're not characters; they're costumes. And yet Cavani wants us to take them so damn seriously.


  • Despite The Night Porter's flaws, I should note that Liliana Cavani went on to direct the excellent film adaptation of Ripley's Game. It never got a theatrical release but is available on DVD.

  • My girlfriend pointed out that Max's predatory use of a handheld camera is reminiscent of Peeping Tom. The shots of Max filming were actually the best of the flashbacks, I thought—although I don't give the camera the same primeval power that Michael Powell did, I do think that the camera and spotlight work very well to make Max genuinely frightening here.

  • The historical inaccuracies in The Night Porter are too numerous to list (and not surprising, given its cartoon Nazis). But just to start, the War Documentation Center is in Amsterdam, not Vienna, and it would have been difficult for Max to have worked in Hungary, where there were no concentration camps.

Monday, September 04, 2006

#58: Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom, 1960, directed by Michael Powell, screenplay by Leo Marks.

I can't remember who said it, but here's a bit of career advice. If you've never directed a film, you're supposed to accept any piece of crap directing job you can get, just to get your name on a feature film, any film. Once you've convinced someone to put you behind the camera, even if that camera is filming How To Stuff A Wild Bikini, you're a director, and every other job is just arguing over your fee. One of the reasons this is good advice is that career-killing movies are very, very rare. Try it: how many can you name? Heaven's Gate slowed Michael Cimino down but it didn't stop him. Kevin Costner not only worked after Waterworld, he worked after The Postman. The only honest-to-God "last movie you'll ever make" film I can think of is Ishtar. That, and Peeping Tom. Here's Michael Powell in one of the last happy moments of his career, at the premiere:

Powell is on the left; to the right are screenwriter Leo Marks1, star Karl Böhm, and actress Pamela Green. They may as well have been sailing off on the Titanic. Here's how Böhm described the evening in an interview for A Very British Psycho, a documentary about Leo Marks that's included on the disc. I've kept his German syntax intact:

The first time when I remember I saw it when I came to London for the official opening. What then happened I can never forget in my life. There were some very famous people invited as honorable guests, and Mickey Powell and myself, we stood outside in the foyer, and um, when the film finished there was an absolute deadly silence and we stood there and the doors opened and first at the doors were the honorable guests, the guests of honor were there. And then they came down, and they walked towards us, and suddenly they turned to the left, and they went outside even without looking at us—without shaking hands, oh well forget it, but they weren't even looking at us, as if everything would be stinking what's down there. (?) We were speechless, we looked at each other, we waited till somebody at least would comment, but nothing.

It was the reception Bialystock and Bloom dreamed of. Powell was less thrilled, however, and it was more or less the end of his career. Critical reception of the movie was sensationally vitriolic and spiteful. The Observer's C. A. Lejeune went so far as to leave out any of the actors' names, writing instead, "I don't propose to name the players in this beastly picture." Most of the reviewers seem personally disappointed in Michael Powell (who, with Emeric Pressburger, had directed a number of less seedy films, including The Red Shoes). I was reminded of Tibor Fischer's line about Yellow Dog: "It's like your favorite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating." After a thorough shellacking in the press, Peeping Tom was pulled from distribution and more or less disappeared. Michael Powell finished the movie he had begun shooting while Peeping Tom was in post, then fled to Australia, where he worked mostly in television.

So why did people hate Peeping Tom so much? And what's it doing in the Criterion Collection now? The first shot provides a pretty good clue:

Yep, this is one of those movies that implicates the audience for enjoying watching bad things happen on screen. Karl Böem plays the Peeping Tom of the title, a nice young man named Mark Lewis. We only see him behaving like a typical Peeping Tom a few times, though, looking through the ground-floor windows of his house (he has lodgers):

But Mark doesn't really like watching things with his own eyes. His real passion is for recorded experience. Specifically, the recorded experience of women's deaths. In addition to his day job as a focus puller and his sideline as a pinup photographer, he has a third part-time job: making snuff films for his own enjoyment. Here he is in his private screening room, rising from his chair as one of his movies (and, perhaps, its director) reaches a climax:

If this looks unpleasant and sordid, it is. And make no mistake about it: Mark's world is not the seedy-yet-glamorous one that you sometimes see in films set in and around pornography. Here, for example, is Mark's employer for his nude photo shoots, showing a customer a book of "views," as he calls them:

The actor's name is Bartlett Mullins; his rosy-cheeked priggishness sucks all the allure out of a room pretty quickly. The customer, by the way, is Miles Malleson, a character actor who was known by 1960 for playing absent minded, doddering old men, usually in comedies. In other words, the epitome of a"kindly old man." Here's how he appears just seconds later:

I used the Fischer line about a beloved uncle masturbating in a schoolyard advisedly. In fact, his raptures are interrupted when a schoolgirl comes into the shop—he carries out his book of pornography (he buys the whole lot of pictures), neatly wrapped in a brown paper bag labeled "EDUCATIONAL BOOKS." Now there's a character the audience doesn't mind being identified with!

But surely the embarrassing nastiness of the business end of pornography doesn't extend to the women themselves, you're saying, and to some extent, you're right. After all, one of the models is played by Pamela Green, a real-life fifties pinup. And it's true, she's easy to look at:

Of course, one of the first things she says to Mark during her photo shoot is, "Fix it so the bruises don't show." Worse yet is the other model, there for her first nude shoot:

Lovely. Until she turns, revealing a spectacular harelip:

Well, as she tells Mark, "You needn't photograph my face." It's not hard to see why viewers responded passionately to a film that insists, again and again, on punishing the audience for the act of watching. Powell needs the world of Peeping Tom to be this disturbing and degraded, however, because Mark Lewis isn't the movie's villain. There's no tough-but-noble cop on his trail, as in most serial killer movies. Here's our hero at his most noble and troubled:

For the film to work, you have to believe that Mark was produced by his environment. He's the opposite of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs in every way; shy, poorly spoken, sweet in a painfully awkward way. Hitchcock did a similar thing with Norman Bates in Psycho the same year, but with a crucial difference: we don't know Norman's a killer till later in the film (or we wouldn't, if we were seeing the film for the first time in 1960). The first scenes of Peeping Tom, on the other hand, show Mark murdering a prostitute, filming the murder, watching the film, and then filming her body as police carry it out of her apartment. So making Mark sympathetic is a little more... challenging. Powell succeeds at this because of the fumbling romance between Mark and Helen Stephens, his downstairs lodger, played by Anna Massey.

Helen is a bit of a wallflower in a way that is appealing to Mark. Although she is having a birthday party when we first see her, for the rest of the film she is almost always seen alone with her blind, alcoholic mother. As one would expect in a movie where seeing is almost always a predatory act, the mother is the movie's moral center, able to sense that something is terribly wrong with Mark. Yet she can't tell precisely what Mark's sickness is, even when she sneaks into one of his private screenings. She urges him to get help, which he seeks from a psychiatrist assisting the police investigation of one of his killings. But psychatrists are the problem, not the solution; as we see in some old home movies, Mark's scopophilia (or scoptophilia, as one of the film's psychiatrists incorrectly calls it) was deliberately induced by his father in the interests of science. Mark, it seems, was his father's test subject for at a study on fear that spanned at least six volumes:

When psychiatry is as predatory as pornography, and pornography as predatory as filmmaking, there's not much hope for a happy ending. Helen's dreams of a life with Mark (she plans to collaborate with him on a children's book called "The Magic Camera) amount to a sick joke about her naïveté. Mark has his own magic camera, and it's not suitable for children.

As you can tell, the film is filled with gallows humor and jokes about the movie industry. Mark is working on a movie called The Walls Are Closing In, and if you look at the incompetent director's chair (and are familiar with the Boy Scouts), you can spot Powell having a joke at his own expense:

It's not "Vivian Darkbloom," but it'll do. The film-within-a-film stars a difficult redheaded ingenue who is completely unable to act, constantly infuriating the director. Powell, of course, famously didn't get along with Moira Shearer, another redhead, during the filming of The Red Shoes. But apparently having an airheaded actress as Shearer's stand-in wasn't exquisite enough a revenge. Powell actually casts the real Moira Shearer as the film actress's actual stand-in, a woman edging past her prime who dreams of stardom while technicians adjust the lighting for the real actress.

If that weren't enough, he has Mark kill her. The sequences surrounding her murder and its aftermath are the movie's best, in my opinion: we see her death through the viewfinder of Mark's camera, as in earlier sequences:

This is intercut with normal footage of her as the scene reaches its conclusion:

Later, we see Mark developing his footage:

Finally, in my single favorite shot in the film, Shearer's face turns into something ghostly as Mark stands in the path of his movie's projection:

So does the movie hang together? In my opinion, not completely. Powell has two goals here that aren't entirely complementary. He wants to make a critique of the act of looking, but he's stuck with some of the conventions of serial killer movies. Doing both requires giving Mark's camera more power than I think it possesses. Towards the end of the film, Mark knocks out a window of his apartment to film the police storming his building (he is, as he tells a coworker, making a documentary about the police investigation into his hobbies). Well and good—but when one policeman tells the other "It's only a camera," it strains belief to have the other respond, "Only?" Powell may give the camera this kind of totemic power, and Mark certainly does. But policemen do not, and Powell overreaches here. Of course, it's impossible to give directors too much godlike power when your audience is other directors, and I think this is why Peeping Tom was championed by Scorcese and Coppola as a lost masterpiece. It's not—but it is very, very good.


  • Leo Marks, who wrote the screenplay for Peeping Tom, led a more interesting life than any of his characters. He was perhaps the best British cryptographer not working at Bletchley Park during World War II, serving as spymaster for the SOE. One of his most noteworthy innovations was using original poems as keys for spies, rather than works that might be stumbled upon by German codebreakers. To this end, he actually wrote many of the poems they used; one, beginning "The life that I have/Is all that I have/And the life that I have/Is yours," became mildly famous in its own right. A Very British Psycho also gives him credit for inventing the one-time-pad, which is a somewhat dubious claim, given that Vernam and Mauborgne held the relevant patents before Marks's tenth birthday. His innovations in practical cryptography for undercover agents are undeniable, however. In any event, credit Marks's cryptographic background for the film's verbal playfulness.

  • Scorcese, a fan of all things Michael Powell-related, had Marks give the Devil his voice in The Last Temptation of Christ.

  • Peeping Tom features the first nudity in British cinema. Here's Pamela Green moments before Mark ends her life (offscreen):

    Green was a real-life pinup model, and runs a website featuring some of her work from the fifties. The site also includes her recollections of the shooting of Peeping Tom. Of course, I only read her website for the articles.

  • Michael Powell seems to have been quite determined to have as many looping self-referential traps in Peeping Tom as possible. He played Mark's cruel and exploitative father in the flashbacks. Here he is giving young Mark his first camera:

    The young boy who Powell makes cry was played by his own son, and the corpse of his mother was convincingly played by his wife and son's mother. He's interviewed for A Very British Psycho, and seems remarkably untroubled by the experience. I'd be interested to know whether his apartment has a darkroom.

1Actually, second from the left is Stuart Levy, Vice President of Anglo-Amalgamated, the film's production company; hat tip to Steve Crook of The Powell and Pressburger Appreciation Society for the correction. I am, as it turns out, half German and half Anglo-Amalgamated myself, so I should have known this...