The history of director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is almost as disquieting as the film itself, and represents one of the most unfortunate falls from grace in cinema history. Partnered with screenwriter and producer Emeric Pressburger, Powell was one of the most respected directors of the 40s and 50s, internationally recognised for such films as The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.
Then, in 1960, Powell embarked on a solo project, a psychological thriller called Peeping Tom. Written by former WWII cryptographer Leo Marks, the film’s depiction of a creepy man-child serial killer was demolished by critics, effectively ending Powell’s career as a filmmaker.
Only granted an X rating by the BBFC after several cuts were made, the film was shown in a few adult cinemas before quietly fading into obscurity. It was only a decade or so later that Peeping Tom began to be reassessed, with Martin Scorsese’s enthusiasm for the film doing much to raise its profile.
Even viewed in 2010, Peeping Tom remains a quietly disturbing film. Time has done much to erode the impact of its violence and brief nudity, and its cast of well-spoken actors, who enunciate their lines terribly, terribly well, seem rather quaint to modern ears, but it’s not difficult to imagine what it was about the film that disgusted early 60s critics as it did.
Mark Lewis (sympathetically played by German actor Carl Boehm) is a handsome, haunted loner obsessed with capturing the moment of death on film. Once subjected to horrible psychological experiments by his maniac father (played by Powell himself, in a Hitchcockian cameo), Mark now lives as a virtual recluse, seldom venturing far from the cavernous Victorian house in which he grew up.
Skilfully dividing his waking hours between working as a cameraman in the daytime and a photographer of sleaze in the evenings, Mark also finds the time to continue his father’s work, albeit in an even more sadistic manner. Creeping around with a cine camera whose tripod doubles as a deadly stiletto, he preys on young women, capturing his victims’ final moments of terror for use in what he later describes as a documentary.
Despite his innate awkwardness, Mark embarks on a cautious relationship with Helen (Anna Massey, who would later appear in Hitchcock’s Frenzy), an innocent young girl who lives downstairs. It’s perhaps this humanising aspect of Peeping Tom that upset critics the most.
Far from a mere monster, Mark is a nuanced, human character, and despite his depraved crimes, remains sympathetic throughout. The casting of Carl Boehm is an inspired choice. His portrayal as a softly spoken outsider is affecting and believable, and his struggle to control his murderous urges is reminiscent of Peter Lorre’s similarly starry performance in Fritz Lang’s M, and could also be seen as a template for Tom Noonan’s startling turn as Francis Dolarhyde in Michael Mann’s underrated Manhunter.
In fact, there’s a line in Manhunter that perfectly sums up the audience’s conflicted relationship with Peeping Tom‘s protagonist. Struggling to get into the mindset of that film’s serial killer, macho detective Will Graham (William Petersen) says, “As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult? As an adult, he’s irredeemable.”
Peeping Tom could therefore be seen as one of cinema’s more twisted romances as well as a psychological thriller. Despite critics’ hysterical disapproval of its scenes of depravity, Powell’s film spends far more time exploring Mark’s doomed relationship with Helen, and their moments together are full of awkward chemistry.
Powell’s direction is similarly filled with flashes of brilliance, capturing the sleazy underworld of 60s London in beautifully framed shots of searing colour. A scene where Mark spies on police from the top of a lighting gantry is a moment where Peeping Tom tips over into pure thriller territory. In glorious slow motion, we see a pocketful of pens spill from his jacket and spin almost gracefully into the lens.
As Martin Scorsese once pointed out, Peeping Tom is a film about the voyeurism of both filmmakers and audiences. As Mark sits in his darkened studio quietly watching his horrible acts, we’re made aware that we, too, are sitting in the dark watching murders for our own amusement.
In the film’s closing scenes, Mark reveals that, as well as the deadly stiletto on the end of his camera, he’s also fixed a mirror, which forces his victims to see their own terminal moments even as he films them. Like a mirror reflecting a reflection into infinity, Peeping Tom acts as a comment on the obsession of filmmaking, and the voyeuristic underbelly of being an audience member.
It’s this aspect of Peeping Tom that, for me, makes it of enduring interest. Powell’s depiction of a 60s London’s illicit and hypocritical lust for pornography may be almost unrecognisable in the Internet age, but his depiction of a man obsessed and ultimately destroyed by cinema (a depiction that sadly reflects the fate of Powell’s own career) remains as sharp as it ever was.
Peeping Tom is out now now on DVD and Blu-ray.
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