Year: 1960 

Director: Michael Powell 

Cast: Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley 

Peeping Tom is a UK film that was ahead of its time.  It is sometimes compared to Hitchcock’s extremely successful and critically acclaimed Psycho, however, unlike Psycho it was not well received at the time, despite a modern cult following.  It lacks the explicit visuals of many modern horror films yet there is something very unsettling, disturbing and fascinating about this film even 50 years later.  Part of that fascination has to do with a subject that is deeply disturbing, the idea of snuff films; killing someone on camera.  The movie follows an introverted focus puller who works for a British film studio and the disturbing obsession he pursues in his free time.  He refers to it as a documentary that he is working on, meanwhile people are turning up dead. 

Part of what makes Peeping Tom so interesting is how it portrays the main character.  Unlike so many horror movies from the early days of film that feature purely evil villains and monsters, this movie explores in greater depth the psychology of the main character.  He is rounded out, and his motives are explored, which makes the movie all the more engrossing.  In some respects it is more satisfying.  Of course, that sort of psychoanalyzing of characters is much more common place in modern movies and television, but at the time, it must have been alarming to audiences when they started to feel sympathy for a man involved in such hideous crimes. 

Another interesting aspect worth looking for and contemplating while watching the movie is the subtext which discusses the use of film within this film.  It is an exploration not only of psychology, but of filmmaking and the motives and mindset of those behind the camera and those who consume that which is recorded by the camera; both moving and still pictures.  The main character works in the “legitimate” world of film, but he also takes suggestive photographs for a man who sells pornographic and suggestive material behind closed doors, and then there is his “documentary.”  He is part of what is accepted, what is underground but consumed, and part of what is taboo and criminal, yet they all have to do with film.  

Karlheinz Böhm is fantastic as Mark Lewis.  He manages to depict the perfect blend of awkwardness and menace.  Peter Lorre springs to mind; creepy, but vulnerable, and Böhm’s performance keeps the viewers glued to his every mannerism.  He is driven by his damaged childhood and his obsessions, but at the same time he is clearly fighting his awful urges, so while hopefully most reading this short article aren’t tempted to kill, I think he does sort of hold the mirror up to our own behavior, as we try to keep control of our own demons, but at the same time are tempted to act out and satisfy our more primal and sinister desires.  Peeping Tom is both smart and spine tingling.  It is a must-see, especially for fans of thrillers and horror. 

 

Don`t Bother to Knock (1952)

 

Year: 1952

Director: Roy Ward Baker

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft, Elisha Cook Jr.

Much like The Set-Up, a movie from 3 years earlier, Don’t Bother to Knock attempts to tell a story in real time or at least near real time.  This is a stylistic choice that was rarely made in films of this era, in fact it has rarely been attempted in the entire history of film.  A few examples come to mind, such as the television show 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, and the 2003 film Phone Booth as well as 88 minutes with Al Pacino.  Rope (1948), which was Directed by Alfred Hitchcock also employed an attempt at this near real time approach.

Much like Rope, Don’t Bother to Knock begins to feel somewhat claustrophobic.  The fact that it all takes place in the same location, a hotel in New York, also adds to the claustrophobic feel.  These choices serve the story, for Marilyn Monroe’s character is not entirely stable, in fact, she has spent some time in a mental institution.  Those three years in the institution supposedly did a lot of good for her, but the one night she spends in this hotel might do just as much bad for her.  It is as if her isolation in one location unravels the positive results of her isolation in another location.

Besides the ambitious efforts to tell this story in real time and in one location, the other most impressive aspect of this film has got to be Marilyn Monroe and her performance.  Here we see her in the first few years of her film career, with a whole decade of film roles ahead of her, and already we can see that she is more than just a pretty face and a set of seductive curves, but an impressive actor as well.  She is an actress who much like other early well known method actors, such as Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger, used method acting to great success.  Don’t Bother to Knock is arguably one of her greatest successes as an actress, and ironically came fairly early in her career, much before a lot of criticism arose.  After watching a movie like Don’t Bother to Knock, it is ironic that her talents were often questioned by critics of the time and the present.  Her performance is clearly the best thing this film has going for it.

The story is about a young woman, who is haunted by a melancholy and apparently sadly repressive past.  Part of what is engaging about this film is trying to not only figure out exactly what in her past might have caused her mental and emotional damage, but also whether or not the supposed clues to that past point in the direction one might assume when watching the film.  Viewing Don’t Bother to Knock certainly leads one to want to read the source material, a novel by Charlotte Armstrong entitled Mischief.  A movie such as Don’t Bother to Knock must have pushed the censorship guidelines of the time for film.  Surely, the source material must contain some juicy details that would fill out the story.  That, coincidentally, is another connection to the movie Rope, which makes no mention of homosexuality, but is often talked about now as a movie that discusses the subject, which was certainly taboo at the time.

What exactly happened to Marilyn Monroe’s Nell Forbes?  What demons are in her past?  What exactly is the nature of her relationship with her uncle (played quite well by talented actor Elisha Cook Jr., who interestingly had no children, but did spend some time raising a niece)?  What will happen next to Nell?  These questions are basically unanswered, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer, serving as sort of a psychological analysis of the viewer, and an exercise in dissecting dialogue and hunting for subtext.

Despite all the unanswered questions, one thing is clear however, Marilyn Monroe could definitely act.

 

Good news, Hitch fans (especially those of you who like some of his more obscure films)! MGM/Fox is releasing a whole bunch of his movies on DVD this year. Some of his better loved ones – Rebecca, Notorious, and Spellbound– which all have OOP Criterion releases, will received the re-release treatment, and lesser known ones – The Paradine Case, The Lodger, Sabotage, and Young and Innocent will also be released.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t much word yet on art or special features.

And, in related news, still waiting on definite word on the Borzage/Murnau set, concerning exactly what movies will be included, which features, and the cost.

I’ll let you know as soon as I hear. And if you hear anything, let me know!