"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 24, 2011

"Peeping Tom" (1960) by Michael Powell (Film review)

Peeping Tom (1960), a film about a voyeuristic serial killer, was so savagely criticized after it came out, that it meant the end of the career of British director Michael Powell. Since then, opinion has made a complete turn around and today Peeping Tom is considered a masterpiece, one of the top 100 British films.

As Peeping Tom is rather tame compared to what we are exposed to nowadays, it is difficult to understand what caused such vitriolic comments in 1960. This was also the year that Hitchcock's Psycho came out, a film with much more shocking scenes. Perhaps it was just the fact that Peeping Tom was made by Powell, the director of The Red Shoesa sort of family film, while people were expecting shocking reels from Hitchcock who had already addressed voyeurism in The Rear Window.

Mark Lewis (an amazing portrayal by the German actor Carl Boehm) is a lonely and introverted young man. He works as assistant cameraman in a film studio and as a side job provides naughty pictures to the local newsagent, who doubles as under the counter porno provider. His hobby is film making, he constantly carries a hand camera around with him. Soon we learn the sinister use he makes of this camera: he accompanies a hooker to her room and kills her, while filming the fear registered on her face. Lewis' weapon is a sharpened metal stake made from a tripod leg and he has a mirror attached to the camera so that the victim can see her own contorted features. His ongoing project is a "documentary on fear."

We later learn why: as a child Mark was abused by his father, a psychologist who studied fear and used his own son as a guinea pig. Mark has been scarred for life, although it would be too easy to explain all his actions from this background. Mark is befriended by Helen (Anna Massey), a sweet-natured young woman living downstairs in the same lodging house, who feels pity for this loner. Mark commits two more murders, a stand-in actress (a great sequence played by Moira Shearer) and a photo model, but he tries hard not to hurt Helen. It is Helen's blind mother, by the way, who sees through his real nature. In the end, when the police storm the lodging house, Mark commits suicide with the tripod leg that served him as murder weapon.

There are three aspects that may have angered 1960's audiences. In the first place that the film shows pornography for what it is: sordid, but common - there is a rather mean scene of an elderly gentlemen stealthily buying Mark's photo's at the news agent and carrying them home in an envelope marked "educational materials."

The second is that the film turns us all into voyeurs. Not only because we watch the murders through the view finder of Mark's camera, putting us in the position of the killer. The larger implication is that watching films in itself is a sort of voyeuristic act. Doesn't the white screen allow us to see other people in their most intimate moments, often in close-ups suggesting we are skin-to-skin with them? And doesn't it let us calmly watch things one shouldn't watch - murder for example?

And the third one is that Mark is such a nice guy (in contrast to the nervous Norman Bates from Psycho, who clearly had some loose screws). He is rather shy, but also quiet and polite. This despicable criminal in fact looks like the ideal son-in-law. Today we know from the news that many of the cruelest murderers are exactly such seemingly nice quiet young men, but in 1960 people preferred to keep their illusions.

Is Peeping Tom still an interesting film? Yes and no. For those used to stronger fare, there is not really much suspense - we know from the start who the killer is, the only questions are who will become his victims and how he will be caught. The psychologizing is much too heavy and would be mercifully skipped in a contemporary film. On the positive side, the film is well acted and has some nice sequences, without being devoid of humor. And it is good to see the late fifties in such beautiful colors.
Peeping Tom has been brought out by Criterion