Peeping Tom (1960)
Produced and directed by Michael Powell
Written by Leo Marks
Cinematography by Otto Heller
Edited by Noreen Ackland
Music by Brian Easdale
Studio Canal Vintage Classics/Optimum Home Entertainment 50th Anniversary Blu-ray (1:41)
(For more on the Blind Spot Series, please visit The Matinee.)
For many years, perhaps even as a child, I had heard of Peeping Tom discussed in hushed whispers among a handful of adults, although I’m not sure if any of them had actually seen the film, certainly not in central Mississippi where I grew up. It was never a film I had rigorously sought out, but the title (apart from the cultural phrase itself) drifted through the air from time to time, landing on my adolescent ears. Otherwise I knew little about the film, who starred in it, when it was released, and especially (to my disappointment) at what level of salaciousness it operated.
Fast forward a few decades. I just missed the film at Noir City 14 (San Francisco) in 2016, having to fly home a couple of days before it screened. I finally broke down and bought the Studio Canal Vintage Classics Blu-ray from the UK and watched it a few days ago. I plan to jump into spoiler territory soon, but before I do, the basics are these: a young man named Mark (Carl Boehm) works as a focus puller (or 1st assistant camera) at one of London’s movie studios. He also stalks the city as a serial killer who films his victims as he murders them, usually by stabbing them with a knife concealed in one of the legs of his camera tripod.
(MILD SPOILERS) Returning home one night, Mark notices that Helen (Anna Massey) – a young woman living in the same building as Mark – is having a birthday party. To the chagrin of her celebrants, Anna invites Mark to join them. Clearly he is uncomfortable with both the invitation and the attention. We understand immediately that Mark has no social life.
Helen persists, walking upstairs to Mark’s flat to bring him a piece of cake, but mainly to find out more about him. Fascinated with all of the photographic equipment in the flat, she asks Mark to show her one of his films. He shows her a short film of himself as a young boy, a disturbing film shot by his father, a psychologist specializing in the study of fear. Clearly he was using Mark as a twisted psychological experiment. Helen is disgusted, but intrigued. Instead of pushing her further from Mark, the film draws her closer to him.
Like his father, who studied the psychology of fear, Mark is exploring his own relationship with fear, trying to deal with both fear and father issues. We are somewhat surprised (at least I was) to discover that Mark inherited the building and acts as a silent landlord; no one besides Helen knows that the building belongs to him. Yet he is an oddity in his own building.
Mark longs to share who he is – baggage and all – with someone else and Helen seems to be trustworthy. One of the great pleasures of the film is in watching Boehm as he slowly allows Mark to emerge from a shy, reclusive loner into a young man who is oddly charming. His ways are tentative, but he certainly has a way with Helen, his co-workers, and a stand-in actress named Vivian (Moira Shearer). Yet when Mark meets Helen’s mother (Maxine Audley), a blind alcoholic, he discovers that she may be the most dangerous person in his life because she seems to understand him better than anyone else. They have one scene together that’s absolutely spellbinding, one of the most honest, effective scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film.
Mark refuses to look at Helen while she is frightened. To do so would invite him to participate in the overwhelming urge to film/murder her. He has become so obsessed with fear that he must capture it on camera. The knife – which emerges from the bottom of one of the camera’s tripod legs – provides the practicality Mark needs to commit the murders (After all, what type of killing is more intimate than a knifing?) and enough distance with which to film it. He’s complicit, yet distant.
The film contains so many small touches, so many details that, explored on their own would ruin the film, yet taken together as a tapestry of Mark’s world, help the audience understand that his is a deeply ingrained broken world. Objects, sets and details are on display for us, things that are left unexplained, yet essential to our journey through the film: Mark’s room of photographic equipment that resembles a mad scientist’s lab, the news/magazine shop that doubles as a studio for seedy photo sessions, Mark’s ever-present overcoat concealing not only his camera, but also his own fears and obsessions. I could go on. Watch the film and you’ll find something in every scene that gives weight and depth to the untold elements of the film’s backstory, creating an atmosphere of pure dread and amazingly effective tension.
So many horror films – before and especially after Peeping Tom – have tried to heighten the tension and horror of what we’re seeing with musical scores that either try too hard, telegraph too much, or are so ridiculously clichéd that we’re taken out of the picture. Peeping Tom creates an enormous amount of anxiety with just one instrument: a piano. The score, written by Brian Easdale and performed by Gordon Watson, is one of the most effective horror/suspense/thriller scores I’ve ever heard. For more on the film’s music, I refer you to an excellent post by Adam Scovell at Celluloid Wicker Man.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert states, “The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people’s lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it.” That element of voyeurism was not popular to audiences upon the film’s release in 1960. Ebert points out that Peeping Tom was released just months before Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, yet Powell’s film literally ended his career (at least in England) while Psycho provided Hitchcock with what many consider the crowning achievement of his later career. The difference between the two films is that in Psycho we are observers. In Peeping Tom, Powell seems to be saying that the audience not only observes, but is complicit. This aspect of the film is undoubtedly part of what horrified and disgusted critics and audiences. It is perhaps the first film that forces us to look deep within ourselves to places we might prefer not to go, discovering things we might rather leave undiscovered.
On a personal level, this film made me question my own movie-watching life. I love movies and have never tired of them after seeing thousands of them. I’m always looking forward to the next one. While it’s true that I’m not murdering people, I have to ask myself: do I spend too much time watching movies? Is this an obsession? Is it healthy? Just what would it take for someone’s love of movies to turn into a fantasy life that slowly and dangerously begins to encroach on reality? Is there something deeper going on here? How would I know? The answers are probably different for each of us. Yet while watching Peeping Tom, you can’ t help but ask the questions.
As the creative team known as The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created some of the boldest, most successful films of the 1940s and 50s such as The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and others. These three films alone are recognized as classics if not masterpieces, films that are still lauded, studied and looked upon with adoration, if not outright worship. Powell and Pressburger parted ways amicably in 1957 (and later collaborated again), so Peeping Tom was Powell’s solo project. As such, he received all the blame. The critics showed no mercy in their outrage of the film and soon Powell was a pariah in the UK (although he continued to make films in other countries.) Interestingly, Powell was mostly silent as to the critical and public scorn. In his 700-page autobiography, A Life in Movies (1987), Peeping Tom is only briefly mentioned, and the controversy surrounding the film passed by completely. Today the film is widely recognized as a masterwork.
And some critical opinions have changed since the film’s initial release. The Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell (no relation, as far as I know, to Michael Powell) reversed her original view of the “essentially vicious” Peeping Tom years later, saying: “I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise.” (David Gritten, Aug. 27, 2010, The Telegraph)
I viewed the Studio Canal Vintage Classics/Optimum Home Entertainment 50th Anniversary Blu-ray, which is a UK Region B release. If you have a region-free Blu-ray player, I highly recommend this release. You can read more about it here.
Photos: Blu-ray.com, Movie Mezzanine, TFC