Wednesday 8 March 2023

Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom is perhaps most famous as the movie that wrecked Michael Powell’s career as a director. Powell was very much a part of the British film industry establishment, thoroughly respectable and the darling of the critics. When he made Peeping Tom British critics tore the movie to shreds and made Powell a pariah. Their reaction to this movie was one of seething rage. How could a man like Powell make what they considered to be such a nasty, sleazy, thoroughly reprehensible movie?

Peeping Tom was of course released in the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho. There are similarities between the two films. Both pushed the edge of the envelope as far as screen terror was concerned. Both dealt with serial killers and in both cases the killers were motivated by traumatic childhoods. Both were very much concerned with voyeurism. Both movies would be highly influential. Both would provide inspiration for the Italian giallo cycle of the late 60s ands 70s and for later American slasher movies.

Psycho was a massive hit and cemented Hitchcock’s position as the world’s top film director. Peeping Tom destroyed Michael Powell’s career.

The movie opens with a street scene which looks quite artificial. Given the nature of this movie as it unfolds, with its emphasis on art and artifice, and the fact that much of the action takes place in a film studio and a photographic studio, I suspect that Powell wanted to give us a clear signal at the outset that we’re watching a movie.

The opening scene leads to a murder. Our immediate assumption is that this is going to be a serial killer movie about a psycho sex killer. In fact that assumption is incorrect.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a photographer. He takes nudie pictures which are distributed through a newsagent in Soho. That’s his part-time job. His full-time job is as a focus puller in a film studio. He filmed his first murder. He films all his murders. Then he watches the films.

Mark owns a house which belonged to his father. He rents out rooms. He befriends one of his tenants, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey). Mark is painfully shy but there are indications of a blossoming romance. He shows Helen one of his films. Not a murder film, but a film from his childhood. This is Helen’s first inkling that Mark’s childhood was bizarre and that his interest in film might not be entirely healthy. He assures Helen that he will never film her.

There will be more murders. The film of the first murder wasn’t quite satisfactory. It has to be perfect.

In a movie such as this with a murderer driven to murder by childhood trauma, made in 1960, you expect some Freudianism but you don’t get that in this movie. Mark’s problem is a learnt behaviour pattern, learnt from his father. His father used him as an experimental subject, his father being a scientist with an interest in the workings of the fear response. You get some symbolism, but not Freudian symbolism. In any other movie the murder weapon used by Mark would be an obvious phallic symbol but in this movie I don’t think that’s the case. It’s more a symbolic dissecting tool, but a tool to dissect the workings of the mind rather than the body. Mark’s camera also works as a symbolic dissecting tool.

Mark’s obsession isn’t really sexual. It’s more of a twisted scientific obsession, just like his father’s. For Mark it’s also a kind of artistic obsession. Mark is more voyeur than sadist, but it’s not really sexual voyeurism (just as the voyeurism of a film director or a viewer of a movie isn’t necessarily sexual).

Mark doesn’t appear to have any particular dislike of women. He also doesn’t choose his female victims because he considers them to be wicked or sexually sinful. He seems to choose his victims on the basis of convenience and accessibility, and because he thinks he’ll get a more satisfactory fear response from a woman.

It’s obviously very tempting to interpret this movie in Freudian terms but I think that might be a total misunderstanding of Powell’s intentions. Moira Shearer played the dancer in Powell’s The Red Shoes. Casting her in Peeping Tom as an actress, and giving her a dance scene, seems to me to be a very deliberate move on Powell’s part to draw our attention to the thematic similarity between The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom - the idea of art as something that can consume and destroy. In 1969 Powell would make a movie about an obsessive painter, Age of Consent. Can we consider The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom and Age of Consent as a kind of trilogy dealing with art as a consuming destroying force?

I suspect that critics hated Peeping Tom because they were so distracted by the scenes of terror and by the Soho girlie photography scenes that they entirely missed the point of the movie. They jumped to the conclusion that Peeping Tom was nasty, violent and sleazy and therefore beneath contempt.

One of the many reasons for the outrage and critical vituperation that greeted this movie is that Powell doesn’t take the sternly disapproving moralising attitude towards the subject matter that might have mollified British critics. For example Milly, the Soho model who poses for Mark, might be a little cynical but really she’s a pretty nice girl. The old duffer buying the dirty pictures at the newsagent’s is a nice harmless old chap. Nude models, prostitutes and their customers are not demonised but treated with good-humoured indulgence. It’s almost as if Powell is indicating that he thinks this sort of thing is perfectly harmless, which is not the attitude that strait-laced British critics expected. They would have been hoping for thundering denunciations of sexual sin and stern warnings of its consequences.

Peeping Tom
deals with some potentially sleazy subject matter in a jokey totally non-sleazy way. Powell would take an even more lighthearted approach to sexual matters in Age of Consent.

Carl Boehm was an interesting casting choice. He’s clearly playing an Englishman but doing so with his usual slight German accent. No explanation is ever given for his accent. It does have the effect of making him seem more of an outsider but what really matters is that Boehm’s performance is absolutely superb - he’s both chilling and terribly vulnerable.

My copy of Peeping Tom is the Region 2 DVD from Optimum which comes with plenty of extras. They’ve released it on Blu-Ray as well.

Peeping Tom deals with movies (both movie-making and movie viewing) as voyeurism and obsession in a complex and fascinating way. It’s one of Powell’s most interesting movies and in my view one of his most artistically successful. Very highly recommended.


Robert Vickers said...

I don't think that Powell was ever the darling of the critics in the UK who tended to prize 'realism' above all else and who frequently accused him of 'tastelessness'. Two of his previous films, Gone to Earth (1950) with Jennifer Jones and Oh Rosalinda!! (1955) had garnered reviews not much better than those for Peeping Tom. It was only in the 1970's that he began to be re-evaluated.

What incurred the critics' wrath with Peeping Tom was their obsession that it was the culmination of a 'sadistic' trend in British films that had started with Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein. Another movie, Horrors of the Black Museum had prompted even more outrage, leaving them blind to the merits of Peeping Tom as an outstanding piece of film-making.

dfordoom said...

That's interesting. I hadn't realised that the critics had been hostile to his earlier films. But it makes sense. The cult of realism really took hold in the 50s.