Take me to your cinema
in reference to Nick Browne’s ‘The-Spectator-in-the-Text’
Helen Stephens: What are you doing?Mark Lewis: Photographing you photographing me.
was released in the United Kingdom in March 1960, the star of itsdirector Michael Powell was high in spite of a relatively quiet period in his career. Hewas a highly respected filmmaker following his collaboration on several films withEmeric Pressburger, productions still widely considered among the finest ever in Britishcinema. By the time the film’s run had ended, Powell’s career was in tatters. Critics,censors
and the general public alike were outraged by the film’s content
andpresentation, and Powell was disgraced. Indeed, it was only when the Americandirector Martin Scorsese, whose own work was heavily influenced by Powell’s, revivedthe film for a (sold out) public screening at the New York Film Festival in 1979 thatPowell (and
) received any sort of reprieve from such opprobrium.Why was the initial response to the film so universally and energetically reactionaryand hostile? Certainly, the film featured semi-nudity and violence somewhat risqué forits time. But this outrage seemed to stem from another impulse.
ruined itsdirector’s career not because it showed such depravity but because it asked us, theaudience, to identify with this depravity. It was precisely this shifting point-of-view – ashift between victim and perpetrator – that so horrified the unsuspecting public, and itis where the film can be viewed from the perspective of Nick Browne’s article
TheSpectator-in-the-Text: The Rhetoric of “Stagecoach”.
The abovementioned shifting point-of-view here is between Mark Lewis, who, in bothhis official and part-time jobs as focus puller and photographer, watches for a living(along with killing with his camera), and us, who watch him watching and killing.While Mark is the film’s protagonist we must surely struggle to identify with either hisillness or the actions that represent its repercussions. Yet Powell, while offering us the‘pure’ character of Helen as a foil, a means of moral identification (just as he ‘offers’her to Mark as a means of moral and sexual confusion), never allows us fully to identifywith her version of (pre-1960) wholesomeness.
Dialogue from a scene in
during which the protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Böhm)invites his tenant Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) to view his film processing equipment. AsHelen looks at him through the viewfinder of a camera, Mark approaches her with anothercamera. She responds to his stealthy, almost threatening action by asking what he’s doing,which he explains in this way. This is many ways summarises the thrust of this text and that of Powell’s thematic: the oscillating gaze of the watcher and the watched.
The film’s first BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) rating was ‘X’, the highest possible,and some scenes were cut. The first uncut cinema version was passed only in 1994.
Shy, awkward Mark Lewis (Carl Böhm) lives in his late parents’ London home, acting asanonymous landlord to several boarders. He works as focus puller on studio features and part-time as a photographer of young women for ‘views’, soft-core pornographic images sold innewsagents. Mark is also a voyeur and serial killer, murdering young women and filming theirfinal moments of death by installing a knife on the end of his tripod. When he befriends andbecomes affectionate towards the sweet, trusting Helen, one of his tenants, the origin and natureof his mental illness – the result of his father’s scientific experiments on him as a child – comesbubbling to the surface, causing him to relent to his obsessions to avoid hurting Helen.