A Matter of Life and Death

What is trauma if not, as in the original Greek, a kind of wound? In cinema, though, it is something more: a wound that seldom heals, a deep wounding of body and soul from which, often, the subject does not recover. Hence, the critical formula for the outcome of the trauma picture: at the least, significant damage; at the most, violent death.

If film horror often sources the supernatural, film trauma focuses on the fears of the natural world. What is out there as waking nightmare in a dangerous world is often a mirror of what is hidden in here, in the human heart. The monsters that horror films project onto the screen are often the monsters of our dream worlds. The wounding events of the trauma film are by contrast a fusion of life and dream.

In film, there is no absolute borderline between these opposites – human trauma and supernatural horror ­ but the question of emphasis, one way or the other, is crucial: the threat of aliens, mutants, werewolves, monsters, robots, slasher killers, vampires et alia, or the threat of evil that is here and now, that is contingent and recurrent in the life-world, yet also seems onscreen to inhabit the world of dream. Horror is, thus, the popular genre of superhuman evil, trauma its human and dreamlike subset.

I would like to argue here the trauma film is a driving force in British Romantic cinema between 1940 and 1960 and, at the centre of it, is the name of Michael Powell.

Let us look at other key differences between trauma and horror. Sigmund Freud has suggested that fear has a distinct object, whereas fright is non-specific. Horror often plays on the eventual appearance of the object of fear after filmic premonitions eliciting fright: spidery shadows, slamming doors, creaking footsteps, heavy breathing, howling wind, anonymous phone calls, trails of blood, etc. Something at first non-specific it, then becomes the exact opposite when the spectre of monstrosity appears – and strikes.

Trauma often works the other way round: a specific event, a fearful, unexpected happening, and then the fear spreads outward and forward in time to attach itself to random happenings where normal patterns of logic in the life-world are effaced. And, thus, the wound does not heal. Film trauma also trades on what most neuroscientists have noticed: the close relationship of emotion and perception, where to feel is to perceive and to perceive is to feel. Trauma is not just visceral, then, signifying aversion to the threat of the monstrous Other or the devastating Event, it also incorporates the anxiety of incomprehension – the Other or the Event that defies understanding – and the emotional breakdown it induces. The labile otherness of the Other, the blunt facticity of the Event: these are feared and diffused in the psyche precisely because they defy true knowledge and cannot be absorbed into the fragile self.

Sometimes, we cannot figure out what exactly it is that troubles us or, if by an effort of will a partial understanding is achieved, we then hit a further obstacle. We cannot then figure out why ‘evil’ is what it is. Trauma-fright relates not just to the palpable presence, or imminence of threat, but to the incomprehension of its true nature. We demand to know but cannot know. There is no true angle, no hook, no formula that puts it to rest. And, cruel irony, what may be considered a threat may not really be a threat after all. To be is to be perceived as human evil. But how and why? And is the fear of a diffuse evil a spur to desperate retaliation that may well be evil itself? Or is such a desperate remedy simply a function of a besieged victim losing their mind?

We can now formalise things analytically by looking at the open, enigmatic and fleeting remarks on trauma in Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and later, near the end of his life, his brief return to the topic in Moses and Monotheism. Freud, writing in 1920, was taking on board the traumatic effects of combat-experience on front-line soldiers in the Great War, often lumped together under the label “shell-shock”. He contends that trauma occurs with the unexpected event that penetrates our protective carapace against external stimuli, a breach that can later haunt us later in dreams and nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations. (1) It is not caused at source through excess anxiety but that absence of anxiety that allows us to be caught off our guard first time around. Often our obsession with the event is to ensure its non-repetition, but that in turn can induce the compulsion to repeat the original circumstance where, this time, we will have the requisite anxiety ensuring that we are not caught off guard a second time around. In cinema, the plight of Scottie Fergusson (James Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is the prime and pure case. The ‘pleasure principle’ is put in abeyance to try and ensure the non-recurrence of pain. Yet, the compulsion to repeat may well have the opposite effect than that intended: the neurotic effect of the original trauma is intensified, not diminished, and with it is enlarged the feeling of pain. The nightmare of the compulsion to repeat is a vicious circle with no resolution.

In the fleeting trauma-discourse of Moses and Monotheism, Freud hints at the loss of that fabric of meaning that Moses had given his exiled people through his ethical God and that was to be rediscovered by the Jewish people only centuries later. He thus makes a key analogy between disassociation prompted by the traumatic Event (modern) and the loss of the Ethical God (ancient). Just as trauma hides in latency and returns in altered form, so does Judaic Monotheism, where the Ethical God of Moses is collectively forgotten then surfaces years later, collectively remembered. But should we see this observation of the exiled Freud in London nearing the end of his life as simple analogy or key secular substitution for the loss of the sacred? The double substitution of the Freudian project: ab initio psychoanalysis for theology, at his life’s end theology for psychoanalysis? Moreover, is the delayed pain of the event made worse by the loss of a cosmic cognition which monotheism provides? In any event, we can see in cinema a secular parallel in trauma-narrative: the horror of cognition-loss matching the terror of original wounding. Know thine enemy and know thy God, the ethical injunction goes. But what happens if you end up, in the full sense of the word, ‘knowing’ neither?

Trauma as Melodrama: Thorold Dickinson and Anton Walbrook


We can start with Thorold Dickinson’s Gaslight (1940), the original screen version of Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian drama, Angel Street. Anton Walbrook plays Paul Mallen a ‘respectable’ sociopath trying a variety of different tactics to drive his wealthy spouse, Bella (Diana Wynyard), insane. The authority of the Victorian patriarch is used for purposes of secret torment: only this patriarch is a fake with a secret murderous past and a deadly agenda. Knowing nothing of this, the innocent (and flaky) Bella cannot predict when, where or how he will strike, or why he treats her, a loyal devoted wife, so badly. Yet, she knows the resurgence of his venom will come and this fills her with dread and déjà vu as if her life is locked in a cycle of repetition over which she has no control. At one point when she is desperate to escape the house in which she has seemingly imprisoned, he appears to relent and takes her to an exclusive music recital, only to drag her out in the middle and humiliate her in front of all the guests. So far, so Gothic. He will hide objects and accuse her of stealing them, flirt with female servants in her presence, tell their mutual acquaintances she is deeply ill. Secretly prowling the adjoining house for some rubies he has failed to find after murdering Bella’s aunt some years before, his use of the shared gaslight suddenly lowers the flame in Bella’s room and deepens her fears of hallucination. Knowing on his return the accusations will come thick and fast, Bella tries to inure her fragile self, but the cunning of the sociopath lies in the timing. She is never to know when, how or where, so her married life is locked in a trauma of repetition. As this is melodrama, good finally wins out. Paul is unmasked as an impostor and murderer, a bigamist called Louis Bawer, by, conveniently, an ex-Scotland Yard detective: so, justice is done, just in the nick of time.

In the subsequent history of British film, trauma subjects are usually not so lucky – including Anton Walbrook the second time around. Dickinson cast him again, opposite Yvonne Mitchell, in his 1949 version of Alexander Pushkin’s “Pikovaya dama”, The Queen of Spades, shot seductively in high-contrast black and white by Otto Heller. Again Walbrook, this time as the Russian captain Herman Suvorin, is a scheming seducer, but this time the old woman who dies is different, not his wife’s Aunt but a rich countess superbly played by Edith Evans, who turns the tables by opening her eyes on the scheming captain in her coffin, having earlier given Suvorin a fake formula for success at cards – a Queen of Spades who grins back at the obsessive gambler as he finally loses a fortune. The old lady, thus, gets her revenge – and perhaps, too, for the old lady Suvorin has murdered in the earlier melodrama. Taken as a Dickinson double bill, the traumatiser is truly traumatised.

Juxtaposition: A Matter of Life and Death and Dead of Night

Just as Freud’s famous discussion of trauma takes place just after the First World War, so British cinema’s first great confrontation with trauma takes place just after the Second. Two films at the war’s end but like day and night: one is in breathtaking Technicolor and deals in metaphysical healing, while the other is in black and white and deals in perpetual nightmare. One is the Archers partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger at their best; the other is an Ealing Studios composite, with three writers and four directors.

Of course, A Matter of Life and Death (1946) does have a monochrome afterlife, but visually the romantic rapture of a multi-coloured English countryside, the here-and-now triumphantly prevails. Dead of Night (Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Chrichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, 1945), by contrast, has its sinister country-house located in Turville, Buckinghamshire, the site of local treason in the wartime Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti, 1942). Cavalcanti directed on both features and no rural idyll is forthcoming in either.

And what of commercial success? The uplifting A Matter of Life and Death with a special royal première was a magnet for post-war audiences, the dark, unrelenting Dead of Night a film they avoided in droves. When your country has been battered by a monstrous war, you want to savour victory and then move on. That is what A Matter of Life and Death explicitly allows you, and what Dead of Night implicitly denies you. Yet, I would argue against the critical grain that, of these two great films, the Ealing composite is just as enduring. For sure, A Matter of Life and Death has some of the boldest sequences in British cinema and, with back-to-back scenes in the bomber’s doomed cockpit and an unsteady walk by pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) out of the sea to the broad sand-dunes of the Devon shore, one of the most imaginative openings of its epoch. But the film is also poised precariously between direct material trauma and dense metaphysical fable. In a way, it was Powell’s drive to ground Emeric Pressburger’s lofty fable in the material world of war and traumatic breakdown (by consulting medical case-files) that saves it. The lesion in the brain caused by the force of the airman’s fall is what gives rise to the spatial hallucinations of a dying consciousness, in Powell’s framing, so that we have on view the direct psychic consequences of severe physical trauma refined into a cinematic imaginary. In other words, poet Peter Carter is placed poetically on the margin between life and death as if his flair for language had been translated under duress into a flair for extraordinary images. (2)

A Matter of Life and Death

At the same time, the logic of the afterlife trial that at one level may indicate survivor’s guilt on Carter’s part also has a momentum of its own as metaphysical fable. It works as part of the film’s remit: to celebrate the Anglo-American special relationship as victory against Germany is finally achieved. And here, arguably, classical narration and its hard-edged concern with outcome clash with the overripe romantic imagination and its concern with spectacle, as they often do in Powell’s films. The banality of dialogue and acting mannerisms often undermine the transcendental staging. This prompts consideration of Raymond Durgnat’s notorious Powell put-down:

His central problem as an artist, is another permutation of [David] Lean’s, his tendency to escape from realism, yet only play with romanticism […] Powell lived in a class and a country, and generation which suspects, fears and undermines emotion. Thus his diversity of qualities rarely find their holding centre. (3)

Durgnat disrespects the romanticism in both directors: they do not play with it. They are romantics. But he does probe the contradiction he detects in Powell between ‘the Tory and the pagan’, which is an endless source of fascination. At his best, Powell transcends this contradiction, but often it can undermine his vision as he ping-pongs from one to the other, from the archaic stiffness of rural bourgeois tradition (very southern English) to the imaginative uncovering of a deeper mythic world. And the former, as Durgnat rightly says, does hold back the latter so many times …

Yet, A Matter of Life and Death sets the baseline of Powellian trauma in its hero’s clinical condition and deepens it in his subsequent films with David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1948) and The Small Back Room (Powell and Pressburger, 1949), and before the unnerving thriller made without Pressburger, which obliquely refracts war-trauma some fifteen years on, Peeping Tom (1960). With Alfred Junge’s grand monumental design and the film’s concern to transcend death, A Matter of Life and Death recalled nearly all of Weimar Fritz Lang from Der Müde Tod (1921) through to Metropolis (1927). In its staging of the afterlife, no other British film had ever looked like this or would ever do so again.

If A Matter of Life and Death absorbs and remakes the transcendental sublime at the gates of death, Dead of Night does something a bit more familiar. It invokes the demonic figure in Weimar film of the destructive ‘scientist’, ironised here in the character of its hapless psychiatrist, Dr. van Straaten (Frederick Valk), but with clear echoes of those two archetypal doctors of death from Weimar: Mabuse and Caligari. In the Ealing film, of course, with its English country house, the demonic Doktor is transformed into something more banal: a crass, insensitive shrink. The film sets him up to become an unexpected victim of his most troubled fellow guest, architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns). But, in the end, the question hovers in tantalising ways: Has his crassness set up the context for his sudden and shocking strangulation? Has his ‘rational’ talk in fact been a catalyst to madness, rather than its cure? Has the storytelling game among the assembled guests, intended to exorcise fright and fear of the inexplicable, only added to its ineffable power?

There is none of A Matter of Life and Death’s grand staging here, simply the village (somewhere in the Kentish countryside) and country-house exteriors, plus the cosy studio house interiors and spaces and places where five separate stories unfold. It is quintessential Ealing. The second (“The Haunted Mirror”) and fourth (“Golfing Story”) are lightweight ghost stories: the former a children’s tale and the later a pretext for bringing on the comic double-act of Ealing regulars, Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne. But all five tales are still linked via the framing device of Craig’s ‘first’ visit to the house in which he claims a strong case of déja vu and correctly predicts a number of incidents that duly happen in the course of the film. The girl’s tale thus brings up the atmosphere slowly and the golfing tale is a comic interlude before the climactic, most harrowing tale of all, van Straaten’s account of the descent of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) into homicidal madness (“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”). Van Straaten, who has a smug commentating role on all the previous tales, is thrust to the fore for the film’s finale as the key taleteller, with shocking consequences. The build-up is crucial, the spacing of narrative suspense vital. Three trauma-stories with damaged bourgeois protagonists, all male, are told to an architect who is also middle-class and equally damaged, and even more damaged after he has heard the damage-tales: narration intensifies suspense by the chain-effect of upping insanity in spaced instalments.

The build-up is crucial. The first tale (“Christmas Party”) is told by the subject himself, the second by the subject’s wife and the third (“Hearse Driver”) by the subject’s post-arrest psychiatrist. The staged distancing from male madness here offsets its growing intensity with each story, metaphorically speaking, like a back-track compensating for a forward zoom. (Let us not forget the actual use of this as a trauma shot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo as Scottie unsteadily ascends the Mission tower.) Yet, as the teller shifts further from the subject with each tale (self to spouse to shrink), so the impact of the tale moves in each case closer to the heart and mind of its main listener, the traumatised Craig, the ultimate case study of the traumatised subject further traumatised by increasingly harrowing tales of trauma.

Dead of Night

As the tellers shift mode from subjective (personal confession of the crashed racing-driver) to intimate (frank admission by young bride of spouse’s growing paranoia and uncanny hallucinations in the ‘haunted mirror’) to objective (the doctor’s diagnosis of the mad ventriloquist, Maxwell, possessed by Hugo, his dummy), the listener shifts from distant sceptic to deranged participant until he identifies completely with the gaoled ventriloquist and promptly strangles the shrink who has failed to cure either the ventriloquist or his new double, the visiting architect who is now Maxwell Frere’s frère, his brother-in-madness.

The staging and the enquiry, through a series of related tales, seems at times a pastiche of the country-house mystery – Agatha Christie style – where the investigator examines each of the guests in turn before resolving the puzzle of the whodunit. Here, however, there is no whodunit, only a Chinese Box formula of trauma-tales in infinite regress doomed to repeat themselves to infinity, a steady state universe with no end or beginning.

The social import of the film should not be missed. Each of the young males starts out as assured, polite, self-confident, successful, but each in turn is disrupted and damaged by the dangerous Event; two step back from the brink. The third is not so lucky. Hugh Grainger (Anthony Baird), the crashed racing driver, steps back from the bus that will then crash because the conductor (“Room for one, sir”) has the same face as the hearse driver who earlier invited him in a nightmare to his own funeral. Peter Cortland (Ralph Michael), the jealous husband obsessed by the ‘haunted mirror’ that shows him a room from its previous owner’s past, will be hauled back from the brink when Joan (Googie Withers) manages to smash the mirror’s glass as he tries to strangle her. Maxwell Frere is not so fortunate.

In Cavalcanti’s eternal triangle with queer sub-text (“The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”), Frere becomes insanely jealous at the attention bestowed on dummy Hugo by rival ventriloquist, Sylvester Kee (Hartley Power). He shoots his rival and, later in his prison cell, when van Straaten tries to reunite him with Hugo, crushes his beloved dummy into powdered pieces. This double crime of passion duly takes its toll. When Kee, now recovered, visits Frere in the asylum, the inmate speaks with the voice of the destroyed Hugo. Identity is no more and the scene is now set for the onset of Craig’s own madness in which he strangles Van Straaten and hallucinates condensed Freudian variations on all the tales that he has been told, before waking up in his own bed in his London flat, and then being invited down to the country so that the process can start all over again.

The war, only just finished, is never mentioned, so the tales of the three men really function as allegories of lasting damage, juxtaposed against a world in which the war might just as well have not happened. The film versions of Nigel Balchin’s novels, Mine Own Executioner (Anthony Kimmins, 1947) and The Small Back Room, will subsequently give a literal reading of war-trauma in their damaged male subjects, as does to some extent John Maybury’s recent Dylan Thomas biopic, The Edge of Love (2008). Maybury’s retro-pastiche with its surreal flourishes offers a portrait of army captain William Killick (Cillian Murphy) as a posh self-confident officer in the Blitz, who woos Vera (Keira Knightly) midst the nightly bombing, but ends up a traumatised veteran after guerrilla combat in Greece, gun-toting, alcoholic, insanely jealous of Matthew Rhys’ slimy poet.

If we return to the post-war period itself we can see how Powell after A Matter of Life and Death gives us three intriguing variations on the trauma picture, in which, intertwined are the central landmarks of British life after 1945: the end of war, the end of empire and the birth of a new consumer age.

Before that, however, we should note that Ealing comedy of the period inverts the trauma film completely.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

If Ealing Studios produced the keynote Dead of Night, it also produced a triple antithesis in the post-war years: anti-trauma comedy in the form of Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and Alexander Mackendrick’s scintillating double act, Whisky Galore (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955). Indeed, the best of Ealing comedy is premised very precisely on this inversion, where what might well be traumatic turns out to be the exact opposite.

Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets is biting social satire, in which the serial killer, Louis (Dennis Price), as outcast of the family and excluded by the vacuous rich, is more sympathetic than any of his eccentric aristo victims (all played by Alec Guinness). As they fall like ninepins one after the other, we can all have a good laugh and applaud Louis’ elegant cunning. A perfect picture, you could argue, for a new social democracy.

The wartime Whisky Galore, set on the remote island of Todday (toddy?), also plays on inversion: this time on the fear of occupation – an anti-The Next of Kin (Thorold Dickinson, 1942) or Went the Day Well? In Mackendrick’s film, the fear of invasion is now past but the Scottish island is ‘occupied’ by an English Home Army captain, Waggert (Basil Radford), who has marshalled customs officials to try and prevent the looting of a wrecked cargo ship carrying whisky. It is a comic version of Anglo-Scots antagonism, with its famous montage sequence of the looted alcohol being hidden by the islanders in rain-butts, water tanks, hot-water bottles and under a baby’s cot before bemused officials arrive to discover absolutely nothing. The gradual social exclusion of Waggert from the island has an edge and a cruel streak that prevents any lapse into sentimentality.

Sentimentality is equally absent from The Ladykillers, where Mackendrick completely inverts the trauma-effects of Gothic expressionism. A motley gang of train robbers posing as a musical ensemble takes lodgings near Kings Cross station to prepare the next heist. At the landlady’s door, the figure of Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) casts a dark shadow – shades of the opening to The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) – but thereafter the threat becomes internal as the eccentric old landlady (Celia Johnson), in her parody of a haunted house, has the gang tearing their hair out in annoyance and frustration at her blithe eccentricities. In Gothic melodrama, we expect villains to terrify, but here they are traumatised to the extent that, when found out, they are prepared to kill off each other rather than kill the ‘harmless’ old landlady. She who should be terrified is oblivious to the threat; those who should terrify show a collective failure of nerve and eliminate each other instead. Gothic melodrama morphs into dark comedy. And Ealing comedy runs happily on in a parallel world to David Lean and Michael Powell.

Powellian Trauma: Black Narcissus, The Small Back Room, Peeping Tom

Black Narcissus does not have the post-Suez vantage point of Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957) or Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962), but in a way it does not need to. It immediately precedes the end of the British Raj in India and has about it a deep twilight feel. When the convent Order terminates the experiment in the old palace at Mopu, it is as if the fragility of its enterprise is a register of much wider things British as empires crumble. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), as the Sister Superior of the new ‘convent’ in the remote foothills of the Himalayas, is the idealist with a doomed project among a remote people for a school, a hospital and, as side-effect, Christianity in a Hindu culture.

The film begins with the arrival and the renovation of the old palace with its faded sensual wall paintings: it ends with the nuns’ departure as the rains fall. We could also add, cynically, that the film’s Himalayas set, so brilliantly designed by Alfred Junge at Pinewood studios, would have been dismantled after the interior shoot was completed and was therefore just as transitory. Or perhaps it sounds better the other way around. The plight of the Order at the end of empire is just as transitory as the elaborate studio set. Powell and Pressburger do, of course, supplement the studio shoot with exteriors in the lush forest of Leonardslee Gardens – near Horsham in Surrey. But none of the film gets anywhere near India. Instead, what we get is cinematic simulation, a virtual world that gives a new meaning to the word “Orientalism”: discovering the exotic East without moving out of Southeast England.

Black Narcissus

The film’s trauma-tale is inseparable from the doomed project: it is predicated on the vertiginous nature of culture shock. The lofty palace-convent perched on the edge of a mountain precipice (Junge’s landscape design makes it look like the Grand Canyon relocated to the Northern Rockies) seems a visual metonym. Sister Clodagh may want to heal and enlighten “a primitive people”, but, when she looks up and then looks down from the bell tower, she is completely lost. Powell and Pressburger have transposed the ‘edge of the world’ from Foula at the tip of the Shetlands in Powell’s 1937 Scottish picture (The Edge of the World) to India’s border with the high Himalayas; from the edge of the Roman Empire to the edge of the British Empire. The former, of course, was long gone; the latter was about to expire. The end of empire is literally vertiginous, its trauma doubly embedded, or embodied, in the figures of Clodagh and sickly Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Ruth cannot hack the chasm of culture that confronts her and wants out; Clodagh, disillusioned after a romance in Ireland has ended when her boyfriend leaves for America without her, seeks solace in the Order. Flashback shows us the rural idyll of Irish sweethearts fishing and riding amidst fields and hills of emerald Technicolor, the flame-haired Clodagh slim, free-spirited and ravishing, like a figure from a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The long auburn hair now concealed under the all-embracing convent habit is never to reappear. As the fragile Order starts to crumble after the unfortunate death of a local child, the febrile Sister Ruth sheds her habit to reappear in scarlet lipstick and a lush crimson dress; for the shocked Clodagh, perhaps a melodramatic return of the repressed – the erotic red of the painted lips matched by the sensual velvet that highlights the shape of the female figure rather than burying it under a mountain of white cloth.

Thus, Ruth and Clodagh are established as mimetic rivals, doubles who equally desire two male opposites in their remote life, the naïve young Indian prince in full regalia, ‘Black Narcissus’ (Sabu), and Mr. Dean (David Farrer), the local English agent in short shorts and hair-shirt, a muscular iconography that is distinctly kitsch. The doubled object of desire, the first impossible, the other too cynical, may well be Powell and Pressburger’s attempt to reverse the conventions of the male gaze by drawing us erotically to the male and not the female body. But this trope is inseparable from Powell’s insatiable appetite for spectacularity and romantic melodrama premised without reservation upon the art of excess. The figure of Dean might also embody for the two adoring nuns the love for a distant England, the reassurance of the phlegmatic colonial male and the hegemony of public school ‘common sense’. Powell’s Tory values intrude conspicuously at this point, as Farrer’s gruff performance of male imperial ‘awkwardness’ is produced like a rabbit out of a hat. It can for sure be regaled as an anti-naturalistic device, but emotionally it rings hollow. What really works is the ferment between the female rivals, in which the film risks many of the clichés of female madness, then in a fit of visual inspiration surpasses them. There is, too, a fragile fanaticism in the acting of Kerr and Byron that is perfectly sustained. It puts them metaphorically speaking on the precipice – and also on the cliff precipice where the final showdown actually takes places. It is one of the memorable images in the Powell canon of the doomed sublime – the bell tower facing down the sheer cliff to the void – and, of course, Hitchcock adapts it to the end of Vertigo with the intruding nun at the top of the Mission tower who watches the doomed fall of female beauty in the form of a reinvented ‘Madeleine’ (Kim Novak).

In Black Narcissus, both Clodagh and Ruth are traumatised by opposite choices: one takes up orders to escape the disappointments of love, which is no solution, while the other abandons the Order, only to encounter the disappointments of love, which is no solution either. Yet, Clodagh’s survival after Ruth’s death has a cleansing effect: the trauma is partly exorcised with the sacrifice of Ruth and life, precariously, goes on with the convent exodus. But you feel, too, that the Order will never recover. It is a fairly orderly retreat, of course, as was the exit from the subcontinent. What was left behind in its wake is, of course, another matter, a post-imperial footprint that became indelible with the realities of civil war and partition. Yet, Powell and Pressburger are not given to anything as complex as the haunted meditation on empire that is embedded in Kwai and in Lawrence at the start of the 1960s. All the same, Powell and Lean reach the climax of their careers as great film artists at roughly the same time, Powell with Peeping Tom in 1960 and Lean with Lawrence two years later. The irony of vicissitude in fortune is not lost in the comparison. Lawrence was a box-office hit and hailed as a masterpiece. Peeping Tom was vilified by critics, badly distributed and ignored by audiences. Powell’s UK career was effectively over, while Lean overindulged in grandiose epics for global audiences that cost serious money and, artistically speaking, went nowhere. This was the swansong of UK romanticism in its purest cinematic form: it was reinvented thereafter in radically different ways, refracted through the prism of modernist narration by Nicolas Roeg, John Boorman, Derek Jarman, Neil Jordan and Terence Davies, all neo-romantics with diverse styles and obsessions. But in Peeping Tom, it could be argued, Powell was already making the transition from the romantic to the neo-modern and reaching a point of disenchantment from which there was no turning back.

The break with Pressburger after a string of commercial failures allowed Powell to consider a partnership with Leo Marks, who had worked in wartime military intelligence as cryptographer and code-master, and who, having known the fine line between life and death in his daily work with agents in the field, became a strong fan of A Matter of Life and Death. Marks pitched Powell both the scenario for Peeping Tom and a Freud biopic, which Powell initially preferred. Once the latter project was aborted by news of John Huston’s collaboration on a Freud life with Jean-Paul Sartre, Powell opted for the Freudian tale of voyeurism and scoptophilia, which had originated in Marks’ wartime experience but was set mainly in Soho and the film industry of the present day. If Peeping Tom indirectly sourced wartime trauma, then its Powellian prelude was the naturalistic Small Back Room, about a different kind of expert, bomb disposal man Sammy Rice (David Farrer), now alcoholic and sporting an artificial leg. The trauma is physical since Rice is still in pain and the absent limb is never explained. Is he atoning for an earlier explosion that has blown it to pieces by now dismantling on Chesil Beach a new kind of German bomb with a delay mechanism designed to maim and kill civilians? The answer is never clear. But the endless self-pity his wound generates is clearly psychic. His lover (Kathleen Byron), who lives in the flat opposite, since censorship forbade them living together, aids his recovery. Time-wise, the Balchin adaptation, book to film, is almost immediate. Powell makes it a naturalistic fable of redemption, a triumph of grim ambition over physical pain, of sobriety over delirium tremens, a gritty tale of enduring love superbly enacted by Farrer and Byron – and, like A Matter of Life and Death, a trauma exorcised. Peeping Tom, however, is a different matter. It ends with trauma’s dark, destructive triumph, delirious and ubiquitous, imprinting on the world its macabre flair for spectacle and leaving a bundle of innocent corpses in its wake.

Peeping Tom

The Freudian wager of Marks and Powell in their creation of focus-puller Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) lies in their bold evocation of infantile trauma, both neo-Freudian and filmically reflexive. In flashback, the father (played by Powell) ‘abuses’ the young son (played by Powell’s own son, Columba) by filming and recording his pseudo-scientific experiments in eliciting the child’s fear. In this fusion of science and sadism, the son is treated like an animal in a behavioural experiment, subject to round-the-clock surveillance, a form of audio-visual rape, a violation of fragile selfhood. Is audio-visual attack, then, a displacement of sexual violation, a metonym of bodily intrusion? Or does it supplement it? The question is tantalisingly open. In the event, like father like son, Mark also becomes a visual rapist, but of a different kind: a killer of young woman, he is too traumatised and impotent to love. Here the scoptophiliac perversion has a concrete outcome. The death-image is matched to the death-instrument: the terrified and distorted face of the victim on the camera lens to the bayonet concealed in the leg of the camera’s tripod. Powell here tries, riskily, to make the victim’s look of fear the source of orgasmic delight for his wannabe romantic artist, and hesitates on the brink of cliché. He may identify with his deranged artist, but his ‘artist’ has become a psychopath, and unfortunately for him – and for Martin Scorsese who buys into the conceit too easily – a psychopath is a psychopath is a psychopath.

Hitchcock, of course, evoked the traumas of childhood in surveying the damaged psyches of his subjects in Spellbound (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), and again, more indirectly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). But he always places a gap between actuality and cognition that Powell here tries to elide. The effort of closure, at explanation, through the words (and the recordings) of Lewis himself just before his death, at first seems forced, a closure of classical melodrama. At the ending of Psycho, Hitchcock, by contrast, took the plunge into modernist ambiguity by juxtaposing the psychiatrist’s simpleminded account in court of Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) schizophrenia with the prison cell superimposition of his mother’s grinning skull on Norman’s docile face. Powell and Marks, on the other hand, cannot convincingly close off the enigma of their killer through the predicate of infantile trauma. But, if we take the secondary post-trauma of the ‘adult’ world as an alternative starting-point, then the film, fascinatingly, opens up again.

Here the trauma-delay is not only the psychic recurrence of childhood fear in adult life but as supplement to something else: the reflexive transposition of wartime history onto peacetime pathology. The child’s history, if you like, has its homology in British wartime: the Soho present is a different kind of disturbance, in the culture of a peacetime age. Here, the other side of film and photography is pornography. Like Dead of Night, Peeping Tom has a double-imprint of allegory and representation. This is London-narrative on location at the start of the 1960s, just as Dead of Night is country-house narrative in Southern England in 1945. Yet, both are trauma-allegories: Dead of Night of the immediate past, Peeping Tom of the delayed past. In Powell’s film and in Marks’ screenplay, this is conveyed by the Freudian trauma-delay of Mark’s childhood repeated (and reversed) in adult life, young boy to young man. It is, one could argue, that compressed space of a generation between wartime London and 1960. Marks’ idea of Peeping Tom was born out of his wartime experiences of inventing codes for SOE agents in a government office in Baker Street, an operation surrounded by extreme secrecy. In Powell’s film, he has translated the linguistic connection between the secret agent’s code and the masked reality it conveys (code-signifier-signified) into the relationship between the camera-image and its object, with Mark the focus-puller who secretly moonlights in magazine porn-photography and the amateur voyeurism of his 16mm camera, usually concealed in his jacket.

There is, here, a key connection to A Matter of Life and Death. Just as the earlier film sought to spatialise traumatic wounding through visual images, Peeping Tom seeks in Marks’ screenplay a visual homology for his clandestine wartime experience of secret language, the code by which special agents in Europe transmitted their messages back to London HQ. This much is a very oblique transfer from text from image and is made clear from Marks’ introduction to the Faber edition of his screenplay (4) and indirectly from his 1997 memoir, Of Silk and Cyanide. Marks was obsessed by finding a code that could not be extracted from his agents, especially female agents, by torture and instigated the use of ribbon silk strips in coat linings that could be torn out, used once only then burnt. The code could not be memorised and thus revealed to the Gestapo under duress. The key transfer from text to image is highlighted by the role of Helen’s blind mother, Mrs Stephens (Maxine Audley), Mark’s uncanny lodger who, in a brilliant rendition of ‘sightless seeing’, knows Mark’s demented mind without ever seeing the bayonet on his tripod or the camera lens in front of her eyes. Subsequently, her daughter, Helen (Anna Massey), fails to register the look of fear that would seal her fate, as it has of all his other victims. Laura Mulvey deems this a crucial moment in the film, an instance of “the light that failed” in Mark’s fetish-obsession with the image of fear that drives him to kill. Helen, whose eyes are wide open, shows no trace of the fatal emotion. (5) Likewise absence of code-knowledge in Marks’ obsession with captured female agents, as immunity to torture is transposed here through his anagrammed anti-hero (Mark Lewis = Leo Marks) into the absence of the image as the sign of immunity (symbolised by the figure of the blind mother). The young Marks was trying to do his patriotic duty; the middle-aged Marks, with more than a touch of survivor’s guilt, was turning himself into one of his imaginary enemies: a torturer who in wartime would have been a Gestapo officer and, in peacetime, fifteen years later, a psychotic porn-photographer.

How else can we explain the fetishist transition from patriotism to pornography? Or, indeed, that Marks had two years earlier offered up anonymously to Lewis Gilbert’s Carve Her Name with Pride (1958) the story of brave Violet Szabo, one of Marks’s SOE agents dropped into France, the actual code-poem (a love poem) he had written for Szabo’s use in the field? Gilbert’s film is naturalist melodrama with a brilliant performance by Virginia Mackenna as Violet, the young mother from Stockwell who gives up family life to parachute into France. Peeping Tom, with its enveloping darkness and serial killings, seemed like the downside of this re-affirmation of war pride filtered through a tough self-sacrificing heroine. But it was also more. Set at the start of a new culture in 1960s Soho, twin site of London prostitution and the British film industry which Otto Heller’s garish Eastmancolor suits absolutely, Powell’s imagination made it prescient about the growth of two things in a new consumerist age, the woven expansion of the still and moving image, and as side-effect that has moved centre stage: the spiralling of the nascent sex and pornography industries. In the 21st century, they are now vast and global; the critical horror that greeted Powell’s film may well have contained a deeper fear about things to come, a repressed recognition of the horrors of anti-progress, how the toxic mix of culture and technology can set back the cause of civilisation in any shape or form. If there is a lineage in cinema’s reading of this sidelined catastrophe, then Peeping Tom’s true successor is David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997).

Peeping Tom

The other plus in Powell’s narrative is the double-trauma. Infantile trauma in Mark is followed by its tragic effect – secondary trauma on the part of Helen as the loving doting girl who survives. Helen is the only one to survive the torture of the camera with eyes wide open, and in the cruel knowledge that she cannot bring herself to believe: that her shy, diffident beloved is a scoptophiliac killer. So, it is that trauma repeats itself and is transferred from victim-perpetrator to innocent victim. The closure may seem melodramatic, but Massey’s powerful acting leaves open the question of how Helen will be affected in future. Will it damage her trust in men and her capacity to love? Fascinated by Powell’s film, it is almost as if Polanski has fashioned the cold, neurasthenic image of Carole (Catherine Deneuve) in Repulsion (1965) as a trauma-sequel to that of Helen in Peeping Tom, in a film that invites us to conceive of initial trauma because it is so markedly absent from the film, a mystery un-revealed. At the same time, the victim’s love gives Powell something of a pseudo-romantic get-out clause. Is he trying to lessen the derangement or draw its sting? Can every obsessed, wannabe artist reinvent himself as a psychopath and solemnly proclaim: “There but for the Grace of God …”?

Another tantalising thought lingers: Is there an act of bad faith implicit in the filming of Peeping Tom in which Lewis is transformed though Powell’s casting into a German obsessive played by Carl Boehm (against the wishes of Marks, whose screenplay killer had been a middle-class Englishman)? One can argue that Lawrence Harvey, the original choice and at that time a screen idol, would have been miles better, not because of any deficiency in Boehm’s acting, which achieves genuine pathos, but in the shock-value of turning round a handsome romantic icon who represented at the time (even though his family was Ukrainian) the quintessence of Englishness? And has Powell as the scientist-father in the film acted in good faith by using home movies of his own son as those of Mark the child? But the problem is not really this. It is that Carl Boehm’s Mark comes across as Hans Beckert Mark II, a facsimile of Peter Lorre’s child killer in M (Fritz Lang, 1931). The Weimar legacy looms large in Powell’s cinematic unconscious. What originates in British wartime intelligence as an allegorical of trauma and helplessness ends up onscreen as the resurrection of a Teutonic demon, the shy focus-puller as a new incarnation of the cinematic ‘un-dead’ of an earlier tradition. If German expressionism is Powell’s estranged filmic father, then given his bizarre self-casting in this reflexive film, we can truly say the son is the father of the father. And Boehm as the child-victim ‘turned’ is the metaphorical son of Lorre’s child-killer – and cursed with the same active-passivity.

We can see why Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) has sometimes been seen as the more open and fertile trauma-text of the period, in which Deborah Kerr (as Miss Giddens) deepens the power of her performance in Black Narcissus, and Clayton, with the help of screenwriter Truman Capote, translated the early fiction of Henry James’ tale into the early film modernism of British cinema. In truth, both films are at the point of transition from the romantic to the modern, a transition that produced in its wake films as rich and varied as Repulsion, Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), the Robin Hardy-Anthony Shaffer collaboration on The Wicker Man (1973), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Professione: reporter (The Passenger, 1975) and Neil Jordan’s Angel (1982). This breathtaking transition into modernist form is, of course, another story, but one that could never have been accomplished without the romantic legacy and its wartime origins.


Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (London: Faber & Faber, 1970)

Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, in Pelican Freud Library, Volume 11: On Metapsychology (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), pp. 269-338.

Philip Horne, “Life and Death in A Matter of Life and Death”, in Ian Christie and Andrew Moor (Eds), The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker (London: Bfi, 2005), pp. 117-31.

Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War 1941-1945 (London: HarperCollins, 2000)

—  — -, Introduction to Peeping Tom (London: Faber & Faber, 1998)

Laura Mulvey, “The Light that Fails: A Commentary on Peeping Tom”, in Christie and Moor (Eds), The Cinema of Michael Powell (2005)


  1. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, in Pelican Freud Library, Volume 11: On Metapsychology (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), pp. 299-305.
  2. Philip Horne, “Life and Death in A Matter of Life and Death”, in Ian Christie and Andrew Moor (Eds), The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker (London: Bfi, 2005), pp. 125-7.
  3. Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (London: Faber & Faber, 1970), pp. 210, 215.
  4. Leo Marks, Introduction to Peeping Tom (London: Faber & Faber, 1998).
  5. Laura Mulvey, “The Light that Fails: A Commentary on Peeping Tom”, in Christie and Moor (Eds), p. 153.

About The Author

John Orr is Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, the author of Contemporary Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 1998) and Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema (Wallflower Press, 2005), and co-editor with Elzbieta Ostrowska of The Cinema of Roman Polanski (Wallflower Press, 2006).

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