This is the notorious 1960 British sickie that ruined the career of the great Michael Powell. However, it happens to be one of the all-time great psycho thrillers, and also a sly commentary on voyeurism and filmmaking.
Michael Powell (1905-1990) directed some of the most widely hailed British films of the previous century, including classics like THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943), A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946) and THE RED SHOES (1948). Yet Powell had an attraction to dark and perverse subject matter, as evinced by BLACK NARCISSUS (1947), one of the first-ever “nunspolitation” movies. PEEPING TOM, scripted by ex-WII code maker Leo Marks, was the darkest and most squalid of all Powell’s films.
Critical reaction to PEEPING TOM was downright venomous, obliterating its theatrical release. Years later many of those critics who panned the film retroactively proclaimed it a “masterpiece,” but the damage had been done. Powell left his native England to make movies in Australia, and PEEPING TOM was all-but buried until 1980, when Martin Scorsese spearheaded a rediscovery. It took until the mid-nineties for PEEPING TOM to be released on home video, and it still hasn’t attained the full respect it deserves.
Another intriguing aspect of the PEEPING TOM saga is its connection with Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, another groundbreaking shocker released in 1960. Hitchcock apparently decided not to screen PSYCHO for critics based on the savaging PEEPING TOM received a couple months earlier, and the two films have several similarities. Yet PEEPING TOM is in my view the superior work, and the more subversive.
Viewed entirely through the lens of a home movie camera, an unseen man picks up a hooker, follows her back to her flat and watches as she screams in horror at something we can’t see. From there we see a man viewing the footage we just saw—the man is Mark, a solitary camera assistant/black market cheesecake photographer who’s creating a documentary of sorts. In fact, Mark is furthering the experiments of his father, a deranged biologist obsessed with the effects of fear on human development. But Mark, an incorrigible voyeur, is after far more than mere experimentation: he’s a deranged killer, and the prostitute we saw was his first victim.
Mark lives in an apartment building where the sweet twenty one-year-old Helen also resides. She’s friendly to Mark, not realizing his true nature. Helen gets a strong hint of that nature when Mark shows her home movie footage of his father scaring him as a child as part of one of the old man’s sadistic experiments.
Mark’s documentary continues in the meantime. Its latest subject is Vivian, a wannabe actress Mark ropes into performing in a bogus musical drama. He kills Viv as he did the prostitute, and this time we see a little more of his modus operandi: a bayonet-tipped tripod leg is driven into the unfortunate victim’s neck while a distorted mirror mounted on the camera allows that victim to see her own horrified expression as she dies.
Viv’s corpse is discovered in a prop box on the set of the movie Mark is currently working on. Mark is careful to film the police investigation, which inevitably comes to focus on him. This leaves little time to finish his demented documentary, whose final subject/victim may or may not turn to be the sweet and innocent Helen.
PEEPING TOM was unprecedented for its time, yet is a standard 1950s-era British thriller in many respects: the pacing is measured, the staging stately and restrained, and the gore all-but nonexistent. The film’s brilliance is in the way it slyly subverts genre conventions, and in this manner it’s still quite radical.
The narrative is told from the point of view of a psychopath with occasional shifts to those of his potential victims and police investigators—a sharp reversal of traditional serial killer movie storytelling. The film’s pitiless viewpoint extends to Michael Powell himself, who plays Mark’s sadistic father in flashbacks, and also the viewer, who’s made complicit in the insanity from the opening scene, seen through the killer’s movie camera whose murderous gaze becomes ours.
In the lead role the German accented Carl Boehm is effective, although he may be a bit too weird, making it seem implausible that the other characters don’t immediately grow suspicious of his motives. As his nemesis/love interest, Anna Massey, by contrast, is impossibly sweet and virginal (and thus a definite stand-out in this film’s assortment of freaks and perverts)…although her climactic movie watching scene, centered on her increasingly horrified reactions to Mark’s unfinished documentary, is priceless.
PEEPING TOM may be gruesome and depraved, but it’s an impeccably rendered depiction of abnormal psychology, and also a terrifically imaginative mystery. As such it’s a true rarity, a film that satisfies as a suspenseful and entertaining thriller as well as an artful psychological case study.
Anglo-Amalgamated Film Distributors
Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Leo Marks
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Editing: Noreen Ackland
Cast: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Michael Godliffe, Jack Watson, Shirley Anne Field, Pamela Green