"Peeping Tom" is a film whose place in cinematic history cannot help but outweigh the critical value of the film itself. When it was released in Great Britain in 1960 it was universally condemned by the critics and pulled from released the first week, effectively ending the career of director Michael Powell ("I Know Where I'm Going," "Black Narcissus," "The Red Shoes"). "Peeping Tom" is about a young man who not only murders women, but who films them as he kills them. What upset the critics was that Powell used the perspective of the camera to turn the viewing audience into voyeurs as well, and that he made the murderer into a sympathetic figure.
Reducing "Peeping Tom" to the level of a slasher film misses the point, because this is much more of a psychological portrait of a troubled young man. Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) works as an assistant cameraman at a film studio and has trouble appreciating the difference between the real world and what he sees through the lens of a camera. Mark has another job, taking "views" of half naked women for the owner of the local news agent shope (Bartlett Mullins) to sell discretely to his customers. But Mark's voyeurism is ultimately not about sex, but rather about fear: provoking it and recording it. As Mark slowly opens up to Helen (Anna Massey), the girl who lives downstairs in his building who shows an interest in his work, we learn that his father was a psychologist who filmed his son in a series of disquieting experiments into the nature of fear. The boy is following in daddy's footsteps. Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks had wanted to do a film about the work of Sigmund Freud, but John Huston was working on "Freud" in Hollywood, so Marks suggest a story about a voyeuristic murderer as an alternative psychological thriller. Ultimately, the psychological dimensions of "Peeping Tom" outweigh the thriller elements and are what make this a noteworthy film.
"Peeping Tom" came out before "Psycho," and the comparisons are inevitable, although they seem as much the work of different times as of different directors. Part of it is that Powell is working in technicolor, with rich colors which work against the horror elements in the film. But we also have to take into account that Powell is not dealing with suspense as a key part of the equation and that there is nothing in "Peeping Tom" anywhere near the level of the shower scene in "Psycho." The key scene is the opening sequences, where we see Mark approach a prostitute on the street, his camera becomes the point of view for the audience, and we see the terror on this face of his first victim before she dies. Then, during the opening credits, we see Mark watching the film he has just shot. The film's opening sets up the rules for the game in this film and no doubt outraged the London film credits before the director's name appeared (shown over Mark's projector no less). Add to this the fact that Powell and his son played Mark's father and Mark as a child, and that probably outraged them more than the half naked women lounging around in display positions. Powell's leading man was the son of a noted Austrian conductor and Boehm's slight German accent probably afforded the critics the small confort that this twisted individual was not a proper English lad.
Since this is a Criterion Collection DVD the presentation of the film is done right, with a commentary track by film theorist Laura Mulvey who combines criticism of the film with the history of the film, cast, and crew. Serious film students will enjoy her insights and her comprehensive critique of the film as a true commentary on "Peeping Tom," and not the gay banter of actors and crew trying to come up with things to say that are so disappointing on so many commentary tracks. There is a theatrical trailer, whose tenor seems quite at odds with the film itself, a gallery of production stills, and a Channel 4 U.K. documentary "A Very British Psycho," which relates the controversy of the film and interviews screenwriter Leo Marks and the critics who bashed the film on its release in 1962. You cannot help but feel that while it was Michael Powell's directing career that was ended up this film, it was Marks who should have suffered more as the writer is at least as disturbing a personality as his fictional creation in the film.
on December 15, 2002
I first saw this film back in the 80's on British television, and was completely unaware of its history and background. I found it a very striking film, which explores - using the device of a serial killer photographer - the voyeur that is, to some extent, in all of us.
The film is difficult to categorize; thriller, drama, psychological horror, romance... to some extent it's all of the above, but I guess I'd say it's closest to a psychological horror/thriller film. But be warned, you'll find no unstoppable cyborg killers, no chainsaw wielding crazies, no killer aliens bleeding acid, or teenagers being sliced 'n' diced ad nauseum; if that's what you want, there're endless films, both good and bad, that will do the job. No, "Peeping Tom" deals with the desperate, abject "horror," that is born of a tortured human soul.
The film certainly doesn't hang around, and gets right down to business from the opening scene, which has the main character, a film technician named Mark Lewis, played by Karlheinz (Carl) Bohm, stalking and killing his first victim, one of London's many "streetwalkers." This opening scene sets the tone for most of the rest of the film, a feeling of seedy desperation.
Mark keeps it together in his everyday life, but he is horribly psychologically damaged by the "research" his father, a famed doctor of psychology, carried out on him as a child, and desperately driven to act out his own twisted revenge on those around him. Mark's father was researching the effects of fear on the human psyche, and used his own son as a clinical guinea pig throughout his childhood; now the child is grown, and driven by his own internal demons to complete his fathers work.
But Mark wants to take his fathers work one step forward, not only is he obsessed with 'fear', but he is consumed with the idea of "seeing" it, of "capturing" the face of fear with his camera, as if somehow that will bring him the ultimate understanding. And so it is that he sets out to murder Women, and films their last moments as he does so, creating his own "snuff movies," that he watches over and over again in his darkened apartment, desperately looking for something that only he can see.
And while he's not working in a film studio, Mark earns a little extra on the side by shooting porno pics in a room over a newsagents! This actually leads to what is probably the only deliberately comical scene in the whole film, when Mark reports for 'work' one evening, only to find an elderly gentleman in the shop perusing the special "views" that are for sale, "under the counter." There is a second scene in the film that raises a wry grin; Mark is in the street filming the police investigating his murder of the prostitute. A man walks up to him, and assuming he's a reporter, asks him what paper he works for, "Oh, The Observer," Mark replies with a knowing smile.
But Mark's life is not all horror and desperation; into it comes love and happiness in the shape of a girl, Helen Stevens, played by Anna Massey, who lives downstairs in his building. Helen is an ingenue, an innocent, in every sense of the word. She lives with her blind mother, and is as far removed from Mark's worlds, both his professional one at the studio and the porn operation "after hours," and his internal nightmare existence, as it is possible to be.
He opens up to her, and in a moment of trust, of empathy, shares with her a glimpse of his tortured childhood, by showing her some the film his father took of HIM, while he carried out his research! How can Mark reconcile these two worlds? Will he choose to live in the light with Helen, or will he be cast into horrifying darkness and damnation by his internal demons, driven to take ever greater risks in his quest to "see" what he so desperately needs to see; will Helen herself, or her mother, be sacrificed to this end?!
Karlheinz Bohm's performance as Mark is wonderful; he's a monster, he was MADE a monster by his own father, he knows it, but he's a monster all the same, only, he doesn't WANT to be a monster! And herein lies the "problem" with "Peeping Tom;" Mark is an incredibly sympathetic character! We the audience are aware of all this, and yet we want Mark to change, to be happy with Helen, to help her with the children's book she's writing, but he's a killer of Women, and worse, he's driven to kill time and time again. There's a scene where he 'toys' with one of his victims on a studio soundstage that reminded me of the way a cat will 'play' with a bird or mouse before moving in for the kill. An incredible, cold-blooded performance by Bohm.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to view the film NOW, with the sensibilities of those who watched when it came out in the early 60's. The film opened to a roaring, and unanimous, tide of disgust and revulsion on the part of the London critics, and was pulled from the cinema circuit within a week of its release. One of the worst reviews went as follows; "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of "Peeping Tom" would be to shovel up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain!"
The film was "lost" for nearly 20 years, before being rediscovered by the likes of Martin Scorsese. This is still a somewhat uncomfortable film to watch, and the last 10 minutes or so, when Mark realizes the game is up, have lost none of their power to chill.
on October 12, 2002
"Well, he won't be doing the crossword tonight!"
"Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is ...?"
This is somewhat of a landmark film in that it was well made and truly disturbing. Those two things had not really made it to films together before this gem came along. But unfortunately for the director Michael Powell, it also brought about the end of his career as a director. Make a scary movie that is effective and realistic? The nerve! Lets blacklist him and make sure he never does it again!
It did however pave the way for fellow director Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho which came out a few months later. Without Peeping Tom to have blazed the trail the same fate to some degree may have befallen Hitchcock.
The story is about a reclusive man, Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), who works as a cameraman for a movie studio during the day, and by night films things with his hand held movie camera. What his tastes for filming have turned to lately have been the looks on women's faces as they are being murdered.
A woman in the building he lives in, Vivian (Moira Shearer), takes a fancy to him and starts getting him to go out occasionaly. They hit it off but Vivians mother, a blind woman who is so good at using her other senses that she can tell who is standing outside their window, has her doubts about Vivians new love interest. In one incredible scene there is a confrontation between her and Mark that is terrifying to watch.
It almost has the feel of a who-dunnit except that we know exactly who-dunnit from the start. The detectives in the movie are putting together the clues that take them closer to Mark and and the tension that is built around them and between Mark and Vivian and her mother becomes intense as the movie progresses.
The ending, although less shocking 40 years after the movie was released, still left me somewhat drained and empty. A certain amount of sympathy is built up for Mark and there are hopes that he can be redeemed. But I won't tell any more of what happens, you will just have to rent or buy the movie.
This is part of the Criterion Collection and horror/drama fans and dvd enthusiasts alike will not be dissapointed. Besides the excellent subject matter there is a full commentary by film theorist Laura Mulvey and a doumentary entitled "A Very British Psycho". There is also a still gallery including behind the scenes shots and a theatrical trailer.
on July 17, 2002
More radical than even Psycho, "Peeping Tom" will knock your socks off. The entire movie sort of stalks along, gently pulling you to watch. Nothing will disturb you more than the amount at which you will love Karl Boehm and his sweet yet deathly voice. His austrian "S"s come across in the creepiest way. Quietly, he whispers to Anna Massey's character, "Happy Birsday," after brutally killing, and of course filming, a prostitute. I just can't get enough of the thrills this film gives me. Forget Psycho (which came out a few months after this one) and buy a film that "ruined" Powell's carreer.
Perhaps even MORE engaging, if at all possible, is the documentary featured on the Criterion DVD, "A Very British Psycho." You will never regret getting to know the writer of the film, Leo Marks. Marks was a codes expert during WWII and is the most fascinating man I've ever heard talk. He even made me like poetry (not an easy task, trust me.)
Buy this DVD immediately and spread the word. People deserve good things and Powell's movie deserves as much recognition as possible.
on February 13, 2001
In a day and age where the importance of film in our society grows in leaps and bounds everyday, Michael Powell's devastating and completely unforgettable "Peeping Tom" levels the most convincing argument that we don't just watch films... we live them. The killer in "Peeping Tom" is a kind, shy, almost child-like man who, as the son of a scientist father forever obsessed with the fear of children, was tormented as a child. Many times his father would shine lights in the sleeping boy's eyes or drop lizards onto his bed in order to frighten the child, all the while recording his reactions on film. When the boy grows up, he carries on his father's work... maybe a little too well. He decides that the greatest fear experienced comes at the point of death. He conceals a knife in the tripod of his ever-present camera and films his victims as they slowly realize their fate. He also (in a move Hitchcock would envy) forces them to watch their own frightened faces with a small mirror attached to the front of the camera. He desires fear and he goes to extreme lengths to achieve it in his victims. The movie not only asks us to sympathize with the killer (played with a certain charm and yet an air of repellance by Carl Boehm) but also participate in his crimes. We see what he sees while filming them, while watching his footage at home, we are (very eerily) immersed into his film. We are right beside him, watching his victims and relishing in their terror. The camera the killer carries is more of an extension of himself then merely a way of recording what he sees. When his lovely neighbor kisses him, his face remains immobile, as if he doesn't quite know what's going on. But when she walks into the next room, he places his lips onto the lense of the camera and a look of pure passion crosses his face. When she is asking for his opinion on where she should place the pin he has given to her for a birthday present, his hands follow hers as if recording their movement. It is a film about film and about the experience of a moviegoer. Like Hitchcock's "Rear Window" it is a truly exhilarating and unnerving experience about sitting in a theater and not only watching what is going on, but living it. And loving it. No matter what is going on in front of your eyes. A classic.