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The Complicated Life of Leo Marks

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Sometimes you discover writers in the most roundabout ways.  I must have seen Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom two or three times before I knew anything about its screenwriter, the man responsible for its unusual story about a shy and sympathetic cameraman who is also a serial killer, his modus operandi being to film his victims while he stabs them.  I’d never put together that the name listed as screenwriter in the film’s credits, Leo Marks, bore a similarity to the main character’s name, Mark Lewis.  It wasn’t until I bought the Criterion edition of the film on DVD and watched the documentary extra on it called “A Very British Psycho” that I learned the rich story of the person who dreamed up Peeping Tom and how the film’s narrative derived quite logically from the life Marks had lived.  

Born in 1920, Marks grew up in London, and he spent a substantial portion of his childhood surrounded by old books.  His father co-owned Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookshop on Charing Cross Road.  This was the shop made famous decades later when Helen Hanff’s book 84 Charing Cross (1970) came out.  From her apartment in New York, Hanff for years had corresponded with and bought books from the store’s chief buyer, a man named Frank Doel.  By that time, Leo Marks had lived a few lives.  He’d been a World War II cryptographer involved in espionage for the Allies, and he had moved on to his career as a playwright and screenwriter.  “He’s weird, I tell you,” the person who introduced him to director Michael Powell, in the nineteen fifties, said.  “You ought to see him.  He lives double or triple lives, he’s difficult to get ahold of, and he’s full of mystery and conundrums.”  And it had all started, Marks’ oddness, his peculiar obsessions, in that bookstore.

On a Saturday morning when Marks was eight, his father took him to the bookshop to start getting him acquainted with the family business.  His father taught him such essential things as the profit margin of rare books.  The store was doing so well that it would be closed on Saturdays, and the education of the young Leo Marks proceeded once a week every Saturday.  As a reward, Saturday afternoons after the sessions, his mother would take him up the street to a nearby movie theater, and from this routine, the association between books and film developed in Marx.  But soon enough, something else was added to the formative mix.

Edgar Allan Poe set him off.  When Marks was eight-and-a-half, his father showed him a signed first edition of Poe’s “The Gold Bug” he had just acquired, explaining what it had cost to buy and at what price he would sell it.  Marks opened the story out of curiosity, and he found himself reading a story about a code that needed to be broken to find a buried treasure.  Marks had never known what codes were or how they functioned, but at that very moment, devouring the story, Marks became enamored of cryptography.  He had no need that day for a trip to the movies.  Eager to crack a code himself, he remembered his father telling him that every book in the store over five pounds had its cost written on it in code on the book’s back cover.  This was to allow the staff leeway in how much discount to give to individual customers.  His father had not explained the code’s workings to him, however, and so by himself, over the course of an afternoon, using as a basis that he knew the cost of “The Gold Bug” volume and could see the code price listed on the back, Marks cracked his father’s pricing code.  He would do this as well later at the rare bookshop his grandfather owned and the one his cousins owned, all in London.  The little boy had hit upon a passion.  But not only for codes.  As he would later write in Between Silk and Cyanide, the book about his life, “From that moment onwards, I had two ambitions: to know as much about codes as Edgar Allan Poe, and one day to become a writer, probably of horror-stories, possibly of films”.

He was 21 years old, in 1942, when he got conscripted for World War Two.  Marks applied and was accepted to a school for cryptographers.  The newbies were slated to take an eight-week course, after which they would be graded and sent to Bletchley Park, the country house and estate that was the British headquarters for code breaking.  Marks completed within a day a training exercise that was expected to take the aspiring code masters a week, but instead of being dispatched to Bletchley, as the rest of his class was, the powers that be earmarked him for “some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits”.  It was clear, despite his talents, that those in charge regarded him as a challenging man to teach and manage.

The potty outfit was called SOE (Special Operations Executive).  Here, too, he had a bumpy start.  Informed that SOE’s primary function was dropping agents into Europe and that he would be tasked with keeping an eye on the security of the agents’ codes, the lieutenant briefing him handed him a code to break.  This was to test his abilities.  That it took Marks hours to make headway with it disappointed the lieutenant, who told Marks that prospective SOE cryptographers usually cracked it in twenty minutes.  As it turned out, Marks had not been given the needed cipher key.  The lieutenant had meant for him to do a simple speed decoding test, not to break the entire code, which SOE considered secure.  But Marks, after several hours, had broken it, and he asked his superior, “You mean, sir – that SOE is actually using this code?”

“We were,” his superior answered.  “We have others now.”

Marks rose fast within the SOE ranks.  Agents then were using existing poems for their codes, or familiar quotations, language they could remember easily.  Marks’ first job was to provide ciphers to the agents in the field, so that, by radio, they could send their information to London, and the writers often tapped for poem-codes included Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, and Poe.  Sometimes agents used the Bible as their source.  The problem, as Marks realized right away, was that some poems and quotes in use were so well-known that German agents knew them as well, even in English, and could guess the ciphers.  Somehow, this susceptibility had never dawned on the SOE brass.  Not one to quash his thoughts, Marks spoke up about the need to improve the quality and security of the coding, and his solution, which was something novel, was to have the agents memorize original poems, language created from scratch, and to use those poems as the basis for their codes.

But who would come up with these poems?  Who would compose these verses which would have to be coherent and rhythmical enough for agents doing work under great pressure to memorize?  It was not as if SOE had reincarnations of Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelly on hand.  Marks had never been a poetry writer himself, not even as a hobby, but he took the lead in this project, and from that point till the end of the war, he wrote hundreds of poems, contributions, as he put it, to the ditty-box.  To one agent he gave these verses:

They cannot know

What makes you as you are

Nor can they hear

Those voices from afar

Which whisper to you

You are not alone.


They cannot reach

That inner core of you

That long before of you

The child inside

Deep deep inside

Which gives the man his pride

What you are

They can never be

And what they are

Will soon be history.

After the war, one poem he wrote for an agent would become famous because of its use in a film.  Carve her Name with Pride, from 1958, was about Violette Szabo, one of the many women SOE used as agents on the continent, behind enemy lines.  To her he gave a poem that had occurred to him on Christmas Eve 1943, lines inspired by the recent death of his girlfriend in an airplane crash.  At the SOE briefing room in London, before Szabo departed for her mission, Marks recited the poem for her, not mentioning its provenance and saying, when Violette asked, that he didn’t know who had written it.

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours

The love that I have

Of the life that I have

Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have

A rest I shall have

Yet death will be but a pause

For the peace of my years

In the long green grass

Will be yours and yours and yours

On her second mission into Nazi-occupied France, the German army captured Szabo.  She was tortured, sent to a concentration camp, and executed.  Carve Her Name with Pride, starring Virginia McKenna and Paul Scofield, dramatized her experiences and made Marks’ poem famous.  He’d given the film’s producer permission to use it on the condition that its author’s name not be revealed.  As he writes, “Thousands of letters poured in asking who’d written it and the Rank Organization professed not to know…”  Not until sometime after Peeping Tom came out did the press somehow get wind that he had written the poem, and the knowledge caused them much consternation.  The press had loathed Peeping Tom, with critics lambasting it as vile and disgusting and worthy of being flushed down the toilet, and they had a hard time reconciling its scriptwriter with the man who had written such a moving ode for a heroic figure from the war.

Throughout the film, Mark Lewis, cameraman-murderer, is trying to capture something ineffable.  He is obsessed with photographing a specific thing only his victims can provide.  What exactly that something is we don’t discover until near the film’s conclusion, but we do know from early in the story that what Mark is after relates to that most basic of human emotions – fear.  This is the emotion his psychologist father studied when Mark was a child, using Mark as his guinea pig in fear-inducing experiments he devised.  

For Leo Marks as well, fear was a preoccupation. Having discovered its potency in fiction through Poe, he had then lived with it, immersed in it, during his years with SOE.  Every time, he’d have a briefing with an agent about to be dispatched to occupied Europe, he’d know that the agent might be killed on the mission.  At that briefing, he’d try to probe the agent and get inside the agent’s head so as to understand the person as fully as possible.  He’d do this in part because he felt he owed it to the agent about to risk his or her life, but also for a practical reason.  Earlier, before Marks started at SOE, agents at work sending back messages that had mistakes in their coding would be asked to repeat the message so it would no longer be indecipherable.  Mistakes happened, naturally, due to the stress agents were under while conveying their messages to London.  But for an agent to repeat a message took time and served to increase the chance of the agent being caught while transmitting.  A number of agents had in fact been captured this way.  Marks declared that this was an unnecessary risk and that there would be no such thing, henceforth, as an indecipherable message.  An agent in the field would transmit a message once and then, wherever they were, be on the move.  One transmission, perfectly done or not, and the staff at SOE headquarters would have to decipher it.  Marks got his way on this proposal, and he put together a team of 450 women whose sole job was to crack the so-called indecipherables.  One such message took 750,000 attempts to decode.  But decode the garbled transmissions his team did, and a primary help in this labor was knowing how the agent’s mind worked.  Understanding the person’s mental quirks, their interests and neuroses, their general thinking process, often gave a clue to what lay behind the agent’s coding errors.  Cryptography mixed with applied psychology one might call this, where the stakes were life and death, and Marks barely slept for four years.  It makes total sense that he would say, though the film has nothing to do with codes, that the idea for Peeping Tom was born in the briefing rooms, the fear-saturated environment, of SOE.

But voyeurism, pleasure in looking?  This is the activity that defines Mark Lewis, and the question is how did Leo Marks alight on this particular subject for his script.  Again, he says it connects to his wartime experience.  At SOE, dealing with secrets and codes and fear, managing people of every imaginable type, he had indeed developed a keen interest in human psychology.  To both the men in his charge and the hundreds of women, as they toiled non-stop in their pressure-cooker offices, he had been something of a psychotherapist.  He would come to draw a connection.  If psychotherapy is the study of the secrets people keep from themselves, then codes is the study of secrets nations keep from one another.  And as he explained, he “became convinced that all cryptographers are basically voyeurs, and I wanted to write the study of one particular voyeur”.

Peeping Tom, to this day, is among best movies ever made about voyeurism.  Its influence has been wide-ranging, cited of course by Martin Scorsese for its depiction of film-making as violating and aggressive, a precursor to slasher films.  You see nods to it in many a Brian DePalma film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho, and a host of others.  And just what was Leo Marks’ voyeur trying to capture with his camera while filming and filming, pointing his lens at women he kills?  What did he hope to see while moving in for close-ups that would be the last thing his unsuspecting subjects ever experienced?  He was, like Leo Marks and his cryptographer colleagues at SOE, trying to break a code.  But the codes the cryptographers wrestled with were ultimately, after strenuous efforts, breakable.  Not so for Mark Lewis, the sad and obsessed cameraman, who found that what he was trying to grasp is ungraspable, impossible.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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