Here’s another movie, like Persona, that I felt compelled to watch twice. I could appreciate the craft of it on the first viewing, but the movie didn’t quite connect with me. Insisting that I must have missed something (and having the movie continue to be available for free on TubiTV), I let the movie sink in for a couple of weeks and revisited. I’m really glad that I did.
The movie is more of an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional one, while at the same time it’s challenging the audience on its implicit acceptance of the behavior on screen. I can see why the movie would have caused a row in early 60s Britain. It’s not that the violence on screen is that horrendous or that the behaviors it demonstrates were that out of line with other thrillers going on. Instead, it was the point of view character and the fact that the movie really draws you into his thinking. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but it’s all handled by one of the most intelligent directors Britain ever produced, Michael Powell.
Thematically, the movie feels like it would be easily at home in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, but it’s visually too different. The use of colored lights, and the almost literary use of imagery is miles away from the more geometric approach of the other British master. Powell invites the audience into a film where the ideas of voyeurism aren’t just at play, but are directly asking the audience what they are doing sitting in the theater watching a young man kill several women in a row.
That young man is Mark Lewis, a supposedly British born man who speaks with a vaguely German accent. He owns a large house inherited from his genius and depraved psychological father and, in order to keep up with the payments associated, rents out several of the rooms. He’s inward and barely speaks to anyone outside of official capacities at his two jobs, one as a camera assistant at a film studio and the other taking lurid pictures of naked girls in a small studio to be sold under the counter at the drug store underneath. Everything about his life is about viewing other people through lenses and, more generally, glass.
Viewing things through glass is a common motif in the film and extends beyond just Mark. He meets a young girl, Vivian, who boards at his house with her mother. Vivian only sees Mark as a gentle soul, withdrawn from the world, but her mother, who is blind, sees through Mark instantly. It’s the sound of his footsteps that tell her something’s wrong with him (“I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.”). Tying it back to the motif of glass, she’s always viewed with a glass of whiskey in her hand. It’s the glass through which she sees the world, much as Mark sees the women he kills through the glass lenses of his cameras.
Mark is on a mission to document something, but it’s never quite clear until the very end. He films the women he kills as he kills them, hoping to capture looks of genuine fear, an extension of the experiments his father (played by Michael Powell himself) performed on him when Mark was a child (played by Powell’s real life son). However, he can never quite capture it right, and when Vivian asks to be photographed, Mark reacts almost violently in his small way. He knows that if he were to photograph her, he would need to kill her, so he refuses even though she can never quite understand why.
In the background there is a police investigation of the murders going on that steadily works its way to the quiet and unsuspicious Mark. Mark’s final move, with the police bearing down and Vivian still insisting that Mark is a good man at heart, show Mark throwing himself at his instrument of death (a spiked end to the tripod on his camera) as he stared into a mirror, trying to capture his own state of complete fear, essentially completing his father’s experiments.
It’s a really intellectual, almost literary in construction, type of film that still asks you to connect with a psychopath. I felt it at a distance the first time, but the second time, I knew that it was something special. It’s something to contemplate and ruminate over.
On top of that, it’s really well made. Powell had been making films just outside the British studio system for decades, usually alongside Austrian import Emeric Pressburger, and he made classically constructed films that often challenged the status quo in the most polite of ways. Their The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp did that with the nature of war and the degradation of the human state in the presence of such a conflict, much to the chagrin of Winston Churchill in the middle of World War II. Powell extended that antagonistic streak to the nature of film itself, asking audiences how they could watch this stuff, and his career never recovered.
Which is really too bad, because he was a great director and he probably could have made a few more great films if he had found the funds.