If you're a fan of classic British movies, you're certainly familiar with Michael Powell. Born in 1905, the acclaimed director created most of his movies through his production company The Archers, which he set up with collaborator Emeric Pressburger. In 1981, the duo were awarded the prestigious BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, in honor of a lifetime of outstanding cinematic work.
But critics hadn't always been so universally approving of Powell's films. The 1960 movie Peeping Tom, a horror thriller about an amateur filmmaker who murders women and finds pleasure in filming their last moments, is widely believed to have ruined Powell's career.
Peeping Tom Was Deemed 'Essentially Vicious' When It Was First Released
The main character of Peeping Tom, Mark Lewis, is a shy and introverted man whose deranged tendencies later turn out to have been caused by his father's experimentations on him. Adding to the disturbing factor of the story, it was Powell himself who played the father, and his son who stepped in as a younger version of Lewis.
The movie was so unsettling that critics didn't hold back, with The Sunday Times' Dilys Powell writing it was "essentially vicious." Caroline Lejeune, from The Observer, had long been a fan of Powell's, but when she saw the movie she wrote a scathing review:
"It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as 'Peeping Tom.'"
Lejeune is also the reporter who famously walked out of Hitchcock's Psycho projection and resigned from her post as a film critic for The Observer. Now a cult classic, Psycho had been received in a similar way to Peeping Tom when it was first released.
The Movie Ended Up Getting The Praise It Deserves
So why the hate? The Sunday Times' Powell eventually apologized, stating that she had to admit the movie was excellent work.
"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 apologize."
Peeping Tom was restored, and Powell lived long enough to see it getting the credit it deserved. Eventually, he was cited as an inspiration by none other than Martin Scorsese, and the reason for his admiration of the film might provide us with an explanation of why it was rejected by its first viewers.
"I have always felt that 'Peeping Tom' and [Fellini’s] '8½' say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. 'Peeping Tom' shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates."
Ultimately, Peeping Tom deals with voyeurism, and reminds us that we can all experience it at least to some degree — even as moviegoers.
"It's almost like a pathology of cinema. You want to possess the people on film, you want to live through them. You want to possess their spirits, their souls, in a way. And ultimately you can't stop. It has to be done. Until you get to the bitter end. The only thing to do is to make another picture. It's gotta be done again."
It's a fascinating explanation for the timelessness of this horror movie, isn't it?