The Perversion of the System: Peeping Tom (1960) And Eastmancolor

This month we’re excited to publish our second in a series of guest blogs on other aspects of British cinema and colour. We’re delighted to present this piece from our colleague and friend Kirsty Sinclair Dootson, PhD Candidate at Yale University. (@sinclairdootson

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When focus puller Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) tells aspiring actress Vivian (Moira Shearer) that “I’ve put the red light on”, Vivian is both delighted and a little apprehensive. The pair have arranged a clandestine meeting after hours on the soundstage at Chipperfield studios where they both work, in order to help realize their ambitions: Vivian hopes to ascend from stand-in to star, while Mark aspires to prove his worth as a director. Mark has “put the red light on” in order to prevent anyone interrupting their unsanctioned shoot (as the light signals to other studio employees that they should not enter the stage while filming is in progress). Mark’s decision to turn on the light tells Vivian that he is not only very serious about their project, but that he is unafraid to be caught in the act, as the red light gives away their presence on the studio lot. Yet unbeknownst to Vivian, Mark uses the red-light in order to ensure privacy, not just for her screen-test, but her murder.

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Perhaps Vivian should have been more wary. To the audience of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Mark putting on the red light conjures numerous other meanings that may have warned her of his less-than-honorable intentions. The red light naturally evokes the salacious associations of prostitution, a reminder to the viewer that in his spare time Mark works in London’s red-light district making erotic stills for a Soho pornographer. His regular model Milly (Pamela Green), who will also become one of Mark’s victims, sports red lingerie, lipstick and nail polish, to further cement the association between the colour red and this prurient trade.

Yet the red light may also remind viewers of Mark’s private dark-room, another space of eroticised violence, where he both develops and then screens the footage of the women he murders.

Here Mark watches how each of his victims is impaled with his sharpened tripod, transfixed by the image of their own death reflected in a large distorting mirror attached to the camera. Mark’s sadistic scopophilia, we are to understand, is the result of a traumatic childhood, during which his scientist father observed his son at all times with his own camera, tormenting the child in order to understand better the psychology of fear. It is his father’s workspace that Mark has transformed into his dark-room, a space where the red light causes trepidation for those who enter, washing their faces in an eerie, blood-like aura.

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Finally, we might also imagine that to “put the red light on” means to see red, to be overcome with savage anger, a trope familiar from Powell’s earlier film Black Narcissus (1947) in which red not only connotes dangerous sexuality, but also literally swamps the screen when the potent mixture of lust and violence reaches fever pitch for Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).

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For Mark to “put the red light on” is clearly bad news for Vivian.

Although Mark and Vivian’s scene in Peeping Tom clearly evidences Powell’s continued interest in the expressive and symbolic value of colour, some might balk at the comparison of this film with Black Narcissus, as the latter was shot in three-strip Technicolor, admired for its lush, saturated, hues, while the former was made in Eastmancolor, regarded widely as an inferior process (an aesthetic most scathingly described by director Scott MacQueen as resembling “a week-old veal cutlet”).[1] Powell, alongside collaborator Emeric Pressburger and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, forged his reputation as one of Britain’s most talented colourists during the Technicolor era, creating some of the most iconic Technicolor films made in Britain after the war, including A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). Yet Powell famously found Technicolor’s system to be restrictive. The combination of the three-strip camera and dye-transfer printing process certainly gave filmmakers absolute control over the recording and reproduction of colour, but Technicolor, as a corporation, also maintained control over many aspects of a film’s production. With limited cameras available and a virtual-monopoly on the market, as well as complete control over laboratory printing, Technicolor could decide who could work in colour, when, and how. Technicolor’s Colour Advisory Service, infamously headed by Natalie Kalmus, often rankled Powell, and he frequently clashed with them over his artistic choices.

When Kodak’s new Eastmancolor technology became available to British filmmakers in the 1950s, offering a cheaper, more flexible and easily accessible alternative to Technicolor, this climate of colour control began to relax. Yet I do not wish to suggest that Powell, now unbounded by the restrictions of Technicolor interference, was finally able to unleash his full chromatic potential in Peeping Tom. It is certainly tempting to imagine that the modernist paintings by Kandinsky, Picasso and Léger that appear in the film are a subtle nod to Powell’s sense of chromatic liberation .[2]

But to suggest that it was not until the arrival of Eastmancolor that Powell was able to experiment fully with colour is to underplay the achievements of those earlier Technicolor films. Despite Technicolor’s insistence on high-key lighting and an emphasis on naturalism, Powell and Pressburger’s work (in the hands of Jack Cardiff) reveled in what we might call colour Chiaroscuro, a saturated palette combined with a dramatic use of shadow, often using coloured lighting for expressive effects.

If anything, Peeping Tom (shot by Otto Heller) demonstrates a continuity with Powell’s previous colour features in terms of its design.

So rather than suggesting that Eastmancolor offered new colour possibilities for Powell, instead I want to speculate that the film responded to Eastmancolor in a different way.

When Asked about the impact of Eastmancolor on filmmaking in Britain, Bernard Happé, the technical manager at British Technicolor, noted that one major change was the role of the cameraman. No longer was colour filmmaking the preserve of a highly trained elite with the specialist knowledge to operate Technicolor’s bulky three-strip camera (the likes of Jack Cardiff), but instead, in his words “anybody with a camera could buy Eastmancolor negative”.[3] Eastmancolor therefore marked a kind of democratization of colour technologies that removed restrictions on who could use colour and how, ending the kind of colour control that was so central to Technicolor’s corporate identity. Yet this increased flexibility and affordability of colour instigated by Eastmancolor, also incited increased anxiety about its potential misuse (see Sarah Street’s entry on “Colour and the Critics”). No longer the reserve of major studios producing big-budget musicals and comedies, colour was now also available to less salubrious producers working in exploitation genres. Now “anybody with a camera” could make a film in colour.

Such concerns about the diffusion of colour technologies were exacerbated in the late 1950s because this democratisation of colour coincided with the increasing de-regulation of films in terms of censorship, partially in an attempt to stimulate the film industry at a time of dwindling audience numbers lured away from the cinema by television. The big screen had to offer what the small screen could not, either in the form of visual spectacle like widescreen technologies, or in terms of explicit content unsuitable for domestic consumption. Colour was therefore not only more ubiquitous in this period but was also used as part of the exploitative appeal of films dealing with sex and violence. 1959 is an important year for thinking about these two converging narratives of deregulation in terms of colour technology and film content. It was the year that Kodak released a newly improved and faster Eastmancolor stock (5250), making colour cinematography even easier in low-light conditions (ideal for genres like horror).[4] It was the year the Obscene Publications Act was amended in Britain, enabling more explicit content in film, literature and the visual arts (as long as they were for artistic or educational purposes). 1959 was also the second year in office for John Trevelyan at the British Board of Film Censors, who attempted to liberalise the organisation to stimulate film as an art-form. Finally, it was the year Powell began making Peeping Tom.

Yet I want to suggest that the anxiety about the increasing deregulation of film colour isn’t simply the historical context of Powell’s film, but its very subject. Of course, Mark’s “home movies” are made in black-and-white not colour, and Powell even superimposes the Eastmancolor credit over one of Mark’s monochrome films to create an ironic juxtaposition.

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Powell claimed Mark’s choice to shoot in monochrome realistically reflected amateur practice at this time (even though colour stock was available to amateur filmmakers since the mid 1930s – see Paul Frith’s three-part entry: “Innovation and Experimentation: Eastmancolor and Amateur Filmmaking). But what I’m suggesting is not that Mark’s illicit filmmaking literally depicts the use of Eastmancolor technology, but that Peeping Tom responds to some of the anxieties that Eastmancolor aroused. As the first affordable, accessible colour process, Eastmancolor engendered fear about color technology escaping the control of the mainstream industry and falling into the wrong hands. At a moment when critics and censors were anxious that colour could be abused by less-respectable filmmakers for sensational, erotic and gruesome purposes, Powell’s film neatly maps these anxieties onto a story about the dangerous potential of those who misuse film technology for depraved purposes. If Eastmancolor created anxiety that “anybody with a camera” could now make colour films, then Peeping Tom explores, and exploits, the deviant potential of this new, unregulated accessibility.

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[1] Scott MacQueen, “Film Technology: Special Report.” The Perfect Vision 3, no. 10 (Spring 1991): 24.

[2] In Helen’s apartment we see reproductions of Kandinsky’s Picture with a Black Arch (1912), Picasso’s The Studio, (1927-28), and Léger’s Yellow Flowers in a Blue Vase (1950).

[3] Bernard Happé interview, 13 June 1989, BECTU Oral History Project, reprinted in Simon Brown, Sarah Street, and Liz Watkins eds. British Colour Cinema: Practices and Theories. (Palgrave Macmillan on behalf of British Film Institute, 2013), 134.

[4] See the entry in Barbara Flueckiger’s Timeline of Historical Film Colors: http://zauberklang.ch/filmcolors/timeline-entry/1403/#/

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