Peeping Tom

cast: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Moira Shearer, and Keith Baxter

director: Michael Powell

97 minutes (n/r) 1960
Criterion NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by Sean Parker

Peeping Tom

It could be argued that the real villain of this piece actually appears on screen for less than 20 seconds. He is the scientist father of Mark (the ‘peeping tom’ of the title) and he is played by the director Michael Powell himself.

The appearance takes place in the form of an old black and white family film Mark has kept. You get the feeling that he has kept everything. The footage is from part of his renowned father’s great experiment to entirely cover the life of a growing child, especially its reactions to fear. Thus there are shots of the young Mark being systematically terrified. Powell’s real life son, Columbia, plays the child.

In one scene, the boy is being filmed, standing at the side of the corpse of his mother; a permanent record of his reactions to grief, one supposes. Powell’s wife, and Columbia’s real mother, Frankie Reidy, plays the dead mother (what must she have thought of the whole experiment?).

In this relatively short sequence of the film, Mark’s entire character is explained. He is even seen receiving his very first camera, a gift from his father, naturally.

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The monstrous crimes he is impelled to commit all have their roots deep in his past. Cause and effect are vividly shown. It is hard not to feel sympathetic towards him.

On its release, the critics hated Peeping Tom…

“It’s a long time since a film disgusted me as much” – The Observer
“Essentially vicious” – Sunday Times
“Thoroughly nasty” – Daily Mail
“The sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing” – The Spectator
“Frankly beastly” – Financial Times

It is, of course, none of those things. It was merely ahead of its time. Its stark look at a killer, and the reasons why he became the monster he is, was far more than many could take in 1960, the year of this film’s release. The seedy settings and the feeling of illicit voyeurism that pervades the film probably didn’t help much either. It is worth remembering that Peeping Tom was unleashed on an unwary public before Hitchcock caused such a fuss with Psycho (and, from a personal viewpoint, I find Peeping Tom to be the stronger film).

Today, Peeping Tom is quite rightly recognised as a classic, partly through the efforts of Martin Scorsese in the 1970s. Dilys Powell (no relation) who was responsible for The Sunday Times’ review quoted above was, in 1994, able to state that, “today, I find that I am convinced it is a masterpiece.” Of course, these days it is possible to view such a film without feeling that you should be shocked into a socially required bluster of self-righteous indignation. Different times, different targets…

Quite why Michael Powell (the man who, working with Emeric Pressburger, was responsible for films such as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Tales Of Hoffman) felt he had to put so much of himself into this film could simply be because he was again directing alone. His 20-year partnership with Pressburger had recently been dissolved. Whatever the reasons, this was the work of a director still firing on all cylinders, and the fact that he takes a pivotal role in it (and even his first camera – an Eyemo that he won in a competition – makes an appearance in Mark’s dark room) only adds, intentionally or not, to the layers of unease that abound throughout the film.

At one point, a character states, “All that film watching can’t be healthy.” In this case, of course, she is right, but perhaps here, and throughout the film Powell is subtly questioning the whole cinematic experience. Why is the audience watching this film? Why is any audience watching any film? What voyeuristic urges are they themselves prey to? Of course, no clear answer is, or could be, given.

The plot is pretty straightforward, and Leo Marks (who, years later, performed the voice of Satan in an un-credited appearance in The Last Temptation Of Christ) was responsible for a mighty fine screenplay here. The dialogue is incredible, and often very funny. Mark’s tendency to talk at horrible cross-purposes to people (“They can only hang you once,” says an unwary actress jokingly, “Exactly,” he replies, as he sets up his camera equipment) is particularly effective.

Mark (an incredible performance by Carl Boehm) is a shy young man, who lives alone in the old family home, the scene of his terrible childhood. He rents rooms out to tenants, and he eventually falls for the young lady, Helen, who lives in the rooms below him with her blind alcoholic mother. By day, Mark works at a film studio (the film being made is apparently called ‘The Walls Are Closing In’!) but his other job is taking semi-pornographic pictures above a newsagents. He is obsessed with watching, but only from the safety he finds behind his almost ever-present camera. A scene where he is parted from it for the length of a police interview is especially well handled.

He has also inherited his father’s fascination with fear, and has constructed an ingenious addition to his camera to make the photographing of extreme terror possible. Unfortunately, those unlucky enough to be photographed do not survive the experience. As his relationship with Helen grows stronger (and her mother grows more suspicious), events start to move quickly towards their conclusion, and to the brutal closing scenes of the film. The last words before the credits roll are of voices from the past, father and child. Played on an unravelling tape directly after the scene that has just taken place, they are both chilling and incredibly moving.

An amazing film! If you haven’t already seen it, you should do.