Underrated Movie #148: Peeping Tom

Title: Peeping Tom
Year: 1960
Director: Cockeyed Caravan favorite Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Stars: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

The Story: A psychopathic cameraman gives women screentests, then murders them with the sharpened end of one leg of his tripod, while capturing the horror on their faces. Can the love of his neighbor keep him from killing again, or will it take the police?

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a bit of a stretch. It was certainly unfairly ignored and/or condemned at the time of its release, but it has long-since been discovered and lauded by Scorsese and others. But it’s still not a household name, and it deserves to be ranked alongside its close cousin, Psycho.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Powell’s career consistently paralleled Hitchcock’s, except for the fact that when Hitch left for America and became a broadly popular master filmmaker, Powell stayed home in England and became an increasingly strange and unique artist. Then, in 1960, both geniuses had the same idea: Throw propriety to the wind and make a lurid little serial killer movie that broke every taboo. Amazing, Hitchcock succeeded in bringing his audience along with him down this dark hole, but Powell didn’t. Audiences were revolted by this movie and Powell’s career was ruined. But for fans of both, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. (One big difference, though, is the presence of color. No director has ever made a more poetic and bold use of color than Powell.)
  2. This is the movie that launched a thousand film theorists. In the ‘80s and ’90s, “gaze theory” was all the rage. It explored the viewer’s fetishistic craving for horrific images, especially of violence towards women. Boehm’s killer tripod became the ultimate expression of this theory, but it also showed the problem: these theorists sought to condemn both viewers and filmmakers as un-self-aware partners in victimization, but Powell was all too aware of his own culpability, and he forced his viewers to accept theirs as well. All too often, these theorists claimed that they were revealing accidental subtext when they were really just re-stating the text.
  3. The backstory is that our killer was raised by a B.F. Skinner-like psychiatrist who filmed his son’s entire childhood, subjecting him to terrible things and capturing his reactions on film. So how does Marks reveal this horrific backstory? Does Boehm tell someone about it? No, that’s not visual. Does he watch the films over and over by himself? Slightly better, but too bleak. Here’s the best version: His flirtatious neighbor barges into his apartment and asks to see a movie in his home theater. He can’t resist showing these “home movies,” though it may ruin the budding relationship. This way, our hope and despair are intertwined.
  4. Here’s the ultimate example of the ticking clock for a scene. Boehm is in the middle of developing the film of his last victim’s death when his crush stops by again. The conversation is pleasant, but if he keeps talking to her too long, he will ruin the film of his previous kill. Powell literally intercuts the timer in the darkroom with their flirtatious conversation, until Boehm is ultimately forced to decide between the two.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other underrated post-modern psycho-sexual thrillers from the ‘60s include Sam Fuller’s Naked Kiss and Bogdanovich’s first movie Targets.

How Available Is It?: For once, we have a print that looks absolutely gorgeous on Watch Instantly. There’s also a Criterion Collection DVD, but I haven’t seen it.

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Underrated Movie #116: The Small Back Room

Title: The Small Back Room
Year: 1949
Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Powell and Pressburger, based on the novel by Nigel Balchin
Stars: David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough

The Story: A brilliant, wounded scientist does what he can to continue the fight from the homefront as one of the vaunted “back-room boys”. Along the way, he tries to avoid being overwhelmed by petty inter-office politics and his own personal bitterness. Things come to a head when he becomes obsessed with defusing a deadly new type of booby-trapped bomb.

How it Came to be Underrated: All of Powell’s movies (with or without Pressburger) were underrated for years. Most of them have been gradually re-discovered recently, but this one has still fallen through the cracks, unknown even by many of Powell’s fans.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is one of the best movies ever made about the day-to-day struggles in the lives of scientists. In one scene, they hear that the minister is coming by so they mock up a phony bubbling-beaker experiment to make it look like they’re “doing science,” since there’s nothing that looks worse than a room full of well-paid people sitting around just thinking.
  2. During wartime, Powell and Pressburger made lots of thrilling “we can do it” war movies to help the effort. It’s shocking to see them revisit the same events after the war with a far more jaundiced eye. Farrar’s increasing desperation to have a drink to dull the pain of his wound allows their more expressionistic side to come out.
  3. Two great ways to juice up a scene: (1) Two mature adults agree to keep the peace by not talking about something, then someone immature comes in the room and that’s all they want to talk about. (2) An endlessly-ringing phone that the characters refuse to answer. We’ve all felt the urge to not answer, but we all know how it unbearable it becomes after too long. For the most part, voicemail has taken this wonderful cinematic device from us.
  4. Whenever I see a movie that re-unites the stars of another movie I can’t help but imagine that it’s the same two characters who have moved on to very different lives, which would mean that Farrar and Byron, before they became a secretary and a scientist, had a secret history as a crazy nun and a randy mountain-man in the Himalayas (as seen in Black Narcissus).

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: You can find more addiction-cursed post-war blues in Billy Wilder’s The Long Weekend and Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice Criterion DVD with an excellent commentary by a veddy-British film historian.

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Underrated Movie #87: 49th Parallel

Title: 49th Parallel aka The Invaders
Year: 1941
Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Emeric Pressburger, story co-written with Rodney Ackland
Stars: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns (The Court Jester)

The Story: A Nazi U-Boat crew, after getting bombed in Hudson Bay, must smuggle themselves across Canada, seeking the safety of neutral America across the titular line. What they haven’t counted on is the bravery of the Canadian people. One by one, the crew gets picked off as they flee through a series of Canuck communities.

How it Came to be Underrated: Though it did win a screenplay Oscar, Americans aren’t big fans of movies that imply we’re a bunch of Nazi-loving shirkers who lack the courage of our neighbors to the north. As a result, this hasn’t been re-run anywhere near as often as other WW2 classics.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Powell’s more personal movies, like Black Narcissus, were bizarrely expressionist, but he was equally good at making straightforward nail-biters. Of course, they always reflected his ear for ironic dialogue, his love for quirky personalities, and his flinty humanism.
  2. Since it was a good script for a good cause, this attracted an all-star line up both in front of and behind the camera (it was edited by David Lean and shot by his future collaborator Freddie Young) Olivier was the biggest star at the time but he gives the weakest performance, chewing the scenery as a broadly-sketched French-Canadian trapper. He doesn’t stick around for very long, though, as there’s still a long parade of heroic Canadians to showcase.
  3. Though the Nazis were bombing the hell out of Britain and the writer was of Hungarian Jewish extraction, they still choose to create three-dimensional villain-protagonists. How better to condemn villains than to humanize them? Monsters can’t be blamed for their actions, but humans who choose to do evil are fully culpable.
  4. In one neat little scene, the Nazis have taken refuge with an unsuspecting community of Hutterites. One complains to a local about the terrible bread, which leads to an explanation of how work is assigned on the commune, each according to his ability. And what do you do? Well, the local admits with some embarrassment, I’m the baker. It’s a nice reminder that each bit of dialogue can have its own beginning, middle and end.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: In rapid succession, Powell and Pressburger made four crackerjack thrillers about the courage of various peoples that were standing up to the Nazis in the early days of the war. The other movies were Contraband (the Danes), The Spy in Black (the Scots), and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (the Dutch). This is the best but they’re all great.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a Criterion Collection DVD and it’s available to Watch Instantly (as are most of Powell’s films!).

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Underrated Movie #74: Black Narcissus

Title: Black Narcissus
Year: 1948
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Powell and Pressburger, adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden
Stars: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons

The Story: An order of nuns takes over a former brothel on a remote mountaintop in the Himalayas and tries to civilize the natives. Instead, they are slowly driven mad by the “fresh air”.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a beloved movie, so it’s a stretch to call it underrated, but Powell remains a criminally underrecognized director outside the hardcore-film-buff community. He should be as well known to the public as his most devoted fan, Martin Scorsese.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Most film buffs in my generation discovered this movie through the great documentary Visions of Light, which singled it out for having some of the best cinematography of all time, and indeed Jack Cardiff’s lush, otherworldly color pallatte and unnerving compositions make this a singularly intense experience, unlike anything else ever shot before or since, but it’s not just the look-- the total film is a masterpiece, including the script, direction and performances.
  2. The story could not be more shockingly irreverent: a bunch of racist nuns are destroyed by an erotic madness! (In a big budget movie from 1948??) But it also drives one thing home: If you’re writing an irreverent movie, then you’re writing a movie about reverence. Powell doesn’t approve of these women’s choice, but he performs an extraordinary feat of sympathy anyway. If you want to criticize someone’s world then you must learn to recreate their world, and to recreate their world you must understand them. Sure, they may change at the end, or maybe you just get your point of view across by poking holes in theirs-- what the movie “means” is defined by how it ends, but getting there requires that the writers must first totally sympathize with any world they want to criticize.
  3. What was it about Deborah Kerr? She looked and dressed like a very proper lady, but directors saw in her quivering eyes a deep longing for wildness. This was her ultimate showcase. Though her habit never budges, she packs even more fire into her eyes than all the heat she generated making out with Burt Lancaster in those crashing waves in From Here to Eternity.
  4. The film is both wildly ahead of its time and a product of it. The colonialism of the venture is unreservedly condemned, but the native Indians are still seen as primitive (for which they are both praised and criticized). Still, they have strong individual personalities and separate interior lives, which is a lot more than can be said of most “third world”-set movies of the time, even those that purported to be anti-imperialist.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Powell, Sabu, and producer Alexander Korda first teamed on a great adaptation of The Thief of Baghdad. Kerr got another chance to do creepy repressed eroticism in The Innocents.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a Criterion Collection DVD or you can Watch it Instantly on Netflix.

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