STARK TERROR MEETS ART IN A DEADLY GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE.
Sometimes there is good reason to question the sanity of film critics. The last major movie I reviewed on this site was The Crying Game (1992) and I noted how it was lambasted for portraying an IRA terrorist as something other than a complete monster. British critics were even worse thirty years earlier when Peeping Tom premiered. The thriller disgusted them so much that one of them suggested it should be thrown into a sewer. Another called it more depressing than a leper colony. The film was also banned in Finland until the 1980s.
However, as in the case of The Crying Game, people who actually cared about the movie itself changed its fate.
The film begins with a man approaching a prostitute who takes him up to her place where he kills her; since he’s filming everything with a small hand-held camera, we see it all from his perspective. The killer is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) and this wasn’t his first murder; he’s filmed all of them and likes to re-experience the acts by watching the films in his apartment. In the daytime, Mark is part of a crew that’s shooting a movie and he also earns money taking soft-porn photos of female models. One night when he’s coming home, he’s approached by Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), one of his neighbors who’s celebrating her 21st birthday. She becomes Mark’s friend, but is a little shocked when he shows her home movies of his father using him as a guinea pig for psychological experiments when he was a child…
Awkwardly close to the killer
The reason why the film repelled those critics at the premiere was because of how it fused sex and violence and attempted to analyze the serial killer, thus putting the audience awkwardly close to him. There are some similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, released that same year, which also introduced a killer with issues relating to one of his parents; Mark and Norman Bates are both voyeurs, and we in the audience are forced to share perspective with the murderer. Perhaps things became even more shocking to British critics because this movie was in color, making the terror look all the more realistic.
It’s sad how the backlash destroyed Michael Powell’s career; after stunning films like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, people were not prepared for something as challenging as this. But Peeping Tom was not what the critics accused it of; it wasn’t cheap. Provocative for its time in the way it depicted sexuality and dug into the psyche of a sick individual, certainly, but Powell and writer Leo Marks took their subject seriously. The film takes an intelligent approach to the killer’s condition, explains how it developed and how Mark is unable to liberate himself from his father’s influence; there’s a fine line between the work he does in the daytime and how he takes everything much too far at night. The relationship he builds with Helen is different because he’s unable to turn her into a simple sexual object the way he can with prostitutes and models; it’s almost as if he craves her understanding even though he could never tell her his secret.
Boehm (the Austrian actor’s real name is Karlheinz Böhm) is good as the timid, chilling killer; Brian Easdale’s music score, which relies a lot on piano, is another ingredient that gives this cult classic its discomforting vibe.
In the end, Peeping Tom went from reviled to respected, described by Martin Scorsese as one of the films that have influenced him the most. Watching it now, and realizing how cleverly Powell put us in the killer’s place and satirized the film director’s role, makes one respect him even more.
1960-Britain. 101 min. Color. Produced and directed by Michael Powell. Screenplay: Leo Marks. Cinematography: Otto Heller. Music: Brian Easdale. Cast: Carl Boehm (Mark Lewis), Moira Shearer (Vivian), Anna Massey (Helen Stephens), Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Martin Miller.
Trivia: Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey were allegedly considered for the part of Mark; Joan Plowright and Julie Andrews as Vivian. Powell appears in the home-movie footage as Mark’s father.
Last word: “Leo Marks initially tried to sell me a double-agent story because he’d been in the coding rooms during the war, but I just didn’t want to make that sort of film at that time. I felt I’d sized him up so I asked him about the possibility of doing something on Freud. He came back a week later with this idea for a story about a young man who kills with his camera. ‘You’re on,’ I said. ‘That’s me. Let’s make it.” (Powell, Time Out)