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October 1996, Week 4


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Leo Enticknap <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 26 Oct 1996 20:02:20 BST
text/plain (110 lines)
On Thu, 24 Oct 1996, following comparisons between "Peeping Tom" (1960, Powell)
"Psycho", Peter Latham wrote:
> My questions for the list are how did these two very different (but
> British born) directors come to share so similar a view? And with such
> similar views, how could these films have had such directly opposite
> results for the careers of their directors? In this regard, it should be
> noted that "Psycho" augmented Hitchcock's already magnificent reputation,
> while "Peeping Tom" badly damaged Michael Powell's for a time.
On my MA course (taught by Charles Barr) last year, precisely this comparison
 was made: and
several of us in seminars attempted to address it by tracing their two careers
 back to the point
at which H[itchcock] emigrated, when his career had already been well
 established, and
P[owell], having just achieved his first critical (although not popular) success
 with "The Edge of
the World" (1937), made the decision to remain in the British film industry,
 despite what was
clearly an impending war.
The answer, I feel, lies in what happened to P during the period 1946-60.
 During the war, he
vociferously attacked his former colleagues, including H, who had gone to
 America, denoucing
them as "traitors", and suggesting they had "gone with the wind up" to the
 safety of California
shortly after (or in some cases before) 3/9/39 (Daily Mail, 2/1/40, p. 17).  P
 was one of the
direct beneficiaries of the huge increase in institiutional support (from the
 Ministry of
Information) and financial support (from the Rank Organisation) which turned
 British film
production around during the war, just as H was able to exploit the production
 facilities of
Selnick's company.
At the end of the war, these similarities ended.  Without the exigencies of war
the nationalist discourse that had enhanced the popularity of such films as
 "49th Parallel",
"Blimp" etc, the poetic realism that was P's hallmark fell flat - both "Black
 Narcissus" and "The
Red Shoes" lost money, and after the latter, Rank declared that P would never
 work for him
again (G. Macnab, "J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry", London, 1993,
remember page ref)  H, on the other hand, increased his prominence within the
establishment, as 'his' genre - the suspense thriller - was one with which the
audience could indentify (Cf. Ford and the western).
P, on the other hand, became steadily more remote from his public - his
 romanticist depictions
of 19C popular literature and musical culture, like "Gone to Earth", "Oh
 Rosalinda" and "Tales
of Hoffman" can be seen on a textual level as precursors to "Peeping Tom" (for
the Moria Shearer character in "Hoffman"), but they made no concession to the
audience, and so did not enhance his stock within the film industry at all.  The
identifiable strand to P's work in the 1950s was his three revisionist war
 films, "The Small Back
Room", "Battle of the River Plate" (for a detailed discussion on this, see Tony
 Aldgate's article
in the most recent issue of 'History Today') and "Ill Met by Moonlight".  These
 are much more
difficult to place into the context of "Peeping Tom", but they too would have
audiences more than, say, "Reach for the Sky".
Thus, by the late-1950s, H's work was being critically acclaimed largely due to
 his reputation,
whilst P was seen to have declined steadily throughout the decade.  These are
 divisive terms,
and I can't really work out the relationship between critical responses and
acceptance/rejection, especially where British film criticism comes is involved.
  But, addressing
the "Peeping Tom/"Psycho" issue, one point immediately comes to mind:  the
 'serious' press
critics who had established themselves during the war - C.A. Lejeune, Dilys
 Powell, Paul Holt,
Roger Manvell, Basil Wright, etc. (Winnington died in 1953) were the very people
 who slated
"Peeping Tom".  I'm 99% sure (but will look this up) that it was Lejeune who
 made the
notorious remark that it should be "taken from the projection room and flushed
 down the
nearest drain, but even then the smell would linger".
To sum up, then, P had steadily distanced himself from the institutions of the
 British cinema,
whereas H had grown in stature throughout the decade.  The critics and the
 public, therefore,
were probably more willing to accept something challenging from a "local boy
 made good" than
the by now remote Powell.
Leo Enticknap
PhD student, University of Exeter, UK
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