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Reclamation Through Restoration: Thelma Schoonmaker Talks Michael Powell, Martin Scorsese and Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom,” Michael Powell’s ill-fated film maudit, may have led to the director’s premature career downturn, but today, the movie seems more celebrated than scorned. The new vivid restoration of the film brings its lurid color palette back to life and sharpens the intensity of Carl Boehm’s chilling performance. Now, the movie’s cautionary take on obsessive filmmaking feels prescient in the age of ever-streaming social media feeds. Someone is always exploiting someone else for a laugh and a like somewhere on the never-ending scroll. Only today, it’s perhaps easier to appreciate Powell’s film for its bleak complexity, and it’s likely never been easier to see a pristine copy like the one now on sale from the Criterion Collection or stream it from the label’s channel.

The restoration of “Peeping Tom” feels significant in that it’s introducing (or in some cases, reintroducing) this notorious film to a generation of moviegoers who may be more familiar with Powell’s collaborations with his longtime creative partner Emeric Pressburger like “The Red Shoes,” “A Matter of Life and Death,” and “Black Narcissus,” reclaiming this dark spot on the director’s filmography as an insightful thriller that never had a fair shot at reaching audiences of its time. 

While the popular titles in Powell and Pressburger’s catalog are well-established and cherished classics taught in film schools and screened regularly, “Peeping Tom” did not often enjoy the same spotlight – until now. Its restoration is something Thelma Schoonmaker, the 3-time Oscar-winning editor and Michael Powell’s widow, is very excited to talk about.

The time feels just right for this conversation on “Peeping Tom.” Schoonmaker and her longtime creative partner Martin Scorsese have a new documentary called “Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger” that explores the duo’s films and careers. The Museum of Modern Art in New York will host an expansive look at Powell and Pressburger’s films throughout June and July from the British Film Institute, showcasing beloved favorites like “I Know Where I’m Going” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” alongside rarities still awaiting their moment of rediscovery.  

This past weekend, Schoonmaker stopped by the Jacob Burns Film Center’s screening of “Peeping Tom” during its Restored & Rediscovered series to share her experience of overseeing the film’s restoration, its theme of destructive filmmaking, and working with Martin Scorsese on their new film, “Made in England.”

When did you see “Peeping Tom” for the first time?

I think it was around the time of “Raging Bull.” Scorsese had been teaching me about the films of Powell and Pressburger from the first time I ever met him back at New York University. Then, there was a period when we didn't work together because I wasn't in the union, so I couldn't work with him. When we got back together on “Raging Bull, " he really began sending me home at night with videos of the Powell and Pressburger films, which I fell in love with. Later, he introduced me to Michael Powell. None of us ever thought anything would happen between the two of us, but it did. Eventually, we married, and I had the ten happiest years of my life.

Michael Powell has a cameo in “Peeping Tom.” He plays Mark's father very briefly in that moment where he comes in front of the camera. I'm curious if you had conversations with him about the theme of this film and how filmmaking in and of itself can be destructive.

We didn't talk too much about his films, interestingly. But Scorsese, of course, just talks endlessly about the subject of this film, which is that filmmaking becomes so addictive or can become so addictive that it can sometimes destroy you. You see an artist going through that, not a filmmaker. But like Moira Shearer in “The Red Shoes,” her life is being affected that way. As a filmmaker myself, I have to tell you, when we're working on a film with him, he's so amazing, and the work is so wonderful, and you end up working very, very long hours. That means your family doesn't see you or your friends don't see you. Sometimes, your health can suffer, but it's because you are so gripped by what you're doing, and you want to make it right and get it up on the screen. It can be very addictive.

Clearly, Michael Powell was a huge influence on Scorsese. Having seen both men's work quite a bit, do you ever see any visual references to Powell's work in Martin Scorsese's movies?

Oh yes, he sometimes is inspired by a particular shot or sequence, but he never mimics it. A lot of people mimic Alfred Hitchcock. That's not the way Marty was being influenced by Powell's films. He would be terribly influenced by something, and something would show up in his movies that has nothing to do with how Michael used a shot. For example, in “After Hours,” when the man is riding downtown in a terrifying taxicab ride, and the $20 bill, the only money he has for the night, flies out the window. The inspiration for the way Scorsese shot that $20 bill slowly fading to the street was inspired by the wedding dress hanging in the train in “I Know Where I’m Going.” when Joan is on her way up to Scotland, she thinks of marrying a rich man, which doesn't turn out that way. So, you can see that a wedding dress just hanging and swinging inspired that shot of the $20 bill.

There are several other instances of that, but mainly, I think he was just so inspired by the daring and innovative way that Michael and Emeric made movies. Of course, Emeric had nothing to do with this movie, but he [Scorsese] was so inspired by the fact that they were never interested in heroes or villains. They were more interested in the people in between and [in] the gray area. So, he instantly responded to that, even when he was very young. 

Having grown up in a mafia neighborhood, he certainly saw evil men and experienced them as human beings. I mean, one of the mafia chieftains on his street would take the kids living in the tenements. It was hot during the summer in New York, and he would take them all out to a lake so they could swim in New Jersey. He saw that side as well, as he didn't really know how bad the other side was. Still, he was aware of the fact that you can sometimes see a person who might not be the best kind of person you want someone to be, but you can come to understand him and feel some sympathy for him, which is what you see with Jake LaMotta, for example, in “Raging Bull.” This was something that he felt that Michael Powell also shared an interest in people who were not good or evil, but something in between.

You said you’ve been involved with eight Powell and Pressburger restorations so far, including Powell's “Peeping Tom.” What does it look like to have a hand in these restorations?

Well, I think I gradually became involved in it because, as a film editor, of course, when I finish a film, the color timing of the film is very important. We spend a long time with the color timer to ensure he gets it right. So, I knew a bit about color timing from that. As Marty started to begin to do the Powell and Pressburger restorations, “The Red Shoes” was the first one. Then, I was always there with him. Gradually, it became many more. He didn't have enough time to do all these eight, but he always advised; he always looked at what I was doing and gave me notes. 

But being a film person, I think it was easier for me to begin to know how to work with a color timer and with the elements that we had, particularly the beautiful three strips that were in the Technicolor camera, which gave us an enormous range of what we could do at the timing to get it back to the way the film originally looked. That was always the goal. Sometimes, Scorsese would have a print of that film that we would use as a guide, and it was very important for us to restore the film to the way the director originally wanted it.

Do you remember when Martin Scorsese told you that he was going to start the Film Foundation?

No, I don't remember exactly. I think it was probably after the second restoration, which was “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.” Now, they've restored so many films from around the world, mainly films that nobody could raise the funds to restore. That's what was so important about how Marty can raise money for these projects. I think it said in the trailer over 980 films have been restored, which is astounding, and they're not all-American films or English films or French or Italian. There are lots of those, but there are also many from Mali, Kazakhstan, or Indonesia. 

Scorsese often knows the full work of a director from Kazakhstan, for example. If you asked him which one did he like the best, he would tell you and he would tell you about the director's work. He has been so responsible not only through the restorations but through restoring the reputations of many great directors. Of course, Powell and Pressburger were so significant, but Elia Kazan and many other directors who people have forgotten about. He has worked really hard sometimes to get them honorary Oscars, as he did with Elia Kazan, and to bring their work back to the world. At the same time, he's also wonderfully generous towards young filmmakers. He loves advising young filmmakers and wants to ensure that good artists are well taken care of in this crazy, crazy world.

You recently finished editing “Made in England,” a new documentary about Powell and Pressburger's films, and you just watched “Peeping Tom” with us today. What is it about these films and getting them back to audiences that feels so important?

We've just had a big celebration of Powell and Pressburger in the United Kingdom, and I was there for it. It was the end of last year, and the thing I noticed when I was on stage doing Q&As is that half the audience was young people. I was so thrilled to see that because it seems to me that in years past, sometimes it would be film historians, and that would be it. Now, something is happening that's changed, and young people are interested in these movies and rushing into them. I just heard from people in Toronto who are in the middle of their Powell and Pressburger retrospective, and they say that the audiences are packed, and people are so excited at the end of them, and they're inspired. And one of the reasons, I think, is because I talk a lot about how my husband went through this terrible period after “Peeping Tom.”

He did make a few more films, but his career was crashing because the British film industry was crashing. it was a very bad time, but he never ever gave up in 20 to 30 years of oblivion. He always was writing a new movie, either a synopsis or a whole script. He wrote a hundred or had in his mind a hundred projects that he wanted to make and could never get funded as much as he tried. The British Film Institute will now do a little documentary on some of those unmade projects. But I do hope that you will all see soon this documentary we've made with Scorsese as the host. There are no other talking heads, just Scorsese and the Powell and Pressburger clips. You'll see how deeply he was influenced and how much he loved these two men and the films they made. It's quite emotional and wonderful, so I hope you'll see it very soon.

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to

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