Friday, 9 August 2013

Review: Peeping Tom

A man activates a secret camera inside his overcoat. Through its lens, we experience the man advancing towards a woman. She leads him through an alley side-door, up some stairs and into a bedroom. She starts to undress, and suddenly we hear a click. The camera slowly closes in on the woman as she stares at us, terrified. She screams.

 Welcome to the perverse world of Peeping Tom (1960, trailer)

Welcome. You won't be staying long.

By day, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a film studio focus-puller. By night he corners women, impales them on a blade attached to his tripod, and films their deaths.

My Take

Peeping Tom employs a few interesting angles with its story and makeup.

Where in many serial killer movies the motives and trauma of the madman are extrapolated late into the runtime (invariably to piece together clues towards saving the final girl from his clutches), we find out fairly quickly where Mark's psychosis originates.

Mark shies away from the other tenants in his house, until Helen (Anna Massey) goes out of her way to meet him and invite him in to her birthday party. Mark declines, but Helen comes up to his door to give him a slice of cake. Touched by her kindness, Mark invites her in. 'When I came in, were you looking at some films?', she asks him.


'Of yours?'


'I'd like to see them. I know I'm being rude, but I really would like to see them. It would be a birthday present from you to me!'

Mark digs out an old reel and projects it for her. It depicts Mark as a child, upset by a lizard thrown onto his bedcovers while he was sleeping. Mark explains that his father took the video. Helen is immediately disturbed:

'So he was a scientist. What kind of scientist, Mark?'


'What was he trying to do to you?!'

'He was interested in the reactions of the nervous system to fear. Especially fear in children, and how they react to it. I think he learned a lot from me. I'd wake up sometimes screaming. He'd be there taking notes and pictures...'

If you think this is too sadistic to be true, you obviously have never heard of the 1920 Little Albert experiment; wherein behaviorist John B. Watson used loud, distressing sounds to condition an infant to experience emotional terror in response to benign stimuli such as pet rabbits and mice.

Most serial killer movies (including the seminal and revered Silence of the Lambs) follow the gumshoe on the maniac's trail. A detective does figure into the story of Peeping Tom eventually, but only in a subplot.

Since we already know who the killer is and why he's so messed up, the traditional murder-mystery story elements are absent. Peeping Tom isn't a straightforward cat-and-mouse that plays Mark Lewis as an evil cipher that must be 'solved' and jailed by some authority.

Instead, director Michael Powell and writer Leo Marks make the movie a character study. We do see Mark murder, but we also see him go to work, and we see him develop a relationship with Helen. Most importantly of all, we have an idea of what Mark has gone through to twist his soul and give rise to such violent compulsions.

Leo Marks infuses a lot of sly humor into the script of Peeping Tom: Mark revisits a cordoned-off crime scene with his camera, and when a rubbernecker asks him what paper he works for, he replies 'The Observer'.

Later, Mark sees a fusty, middle-aged man stumble through an under-the-counter porn purchase, - 'I'm told by a friend that you have some views for sale?' - then walk out carrying a brown envelope entitled EDUCATIONAL BOOKS.

Scenes depicting Mark's studio workplace rib the film industry: a hack director (Michael Goodliffe) constantly rows with a diva-ish starlet (Shirley Anne Field) to make what is evidently an extremely lame movie:

'The thing about this scene is I must have some comedy in it. Now, you do understand, darling, instead of taking the first trunk, you must ask to see a red one. When he brings that, I want you to look around, and ask him for a white one...And you, Michael, bring the trunks one by one, getting more and more fed up...Understand?'

'I don't feel it.'

'Don't feel it, just do it!'

All the plot elements of Peeping Tom fit together into a very fluid piece. A scene featuring the filmmakers at the studio transitions into a Mark-centric sequence when he meets up with a stand-in at the end of his work day. We see the detectives working together, and we see them question Mark after the stand-in is found dead. Peeping Tom always has a different and interesting scene to move on to.

Peeping Tom is a great-looking film. The footage of Mark's childhood is unsettling in its blurry, black-and-white handheld style; and the opening POV scene is appropriately sleazy, with the prostitute bringing Mark down a narrow, creepy archway.

I particularly liked the set of Mark's cavernous darkroom: the equipment necessary to develop film - harsh red lights, blackened windows, vials of chemicals, cold metallic racks, and arcane machinery - is assembled in an exaggeratedly menacing way. It all alludes to the gothic romance spirit inherent in Peeping Tom's story, and gives it an aesthetic reminiscent of old Universal horror movies such as the original Frankenstein.

 'The neck's broken. The brain is useless. We must find another brain.'


Peeping Tom was one of two significant 1960 slasher/thriller films. The other was Psycho. The reason why nobody's heard of Peeping Tom is because it was torn apart by critics on its release:

 'Sick minds will be highly stimulated.' (The Daily Telegraph)

'It's a long time since a film has disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom.' (The Observer)

'However intriguing psychologically, the film is frankly beastly.' (The Financial Times)

The film was withdrawn from cinemas after just one week. Despite Michael Powell's long and illustrious directorial career (49th Parallel, The Red Shoes) Peeping Tom alone brought so much infamy to his name that he became a persona non grata in the UK film industry, and could only continue his filmmaking career by seeking out smaller projects in other countries.

So why did the critics hate it?

Well, they were certainly shocked by the violence, voyeuristic theme and sexual undertones. However, the final nail in Peeping Tom's coffin was the reprehensible fact that the killer is presented as a relatable human being - which I find to be an ironic thing to complain about, since the critic's lament nowadays is all about how movie antagonists have too little depth.

In the Seventies Peeping Tom became a point of interest for cinephiles, and Martin Scorsese (whose 1976 opus Taxi Driver borrowed heavily from Peeping Tom) championed its 1979 re-release, which brought it critical recognition at long last.

Thirty years later, the very same papers that dissed Peeping Tom so relentlessly on its original release now refer to it as a masterpiece.

I believe that Peeping Tom was simply ahead of its time: even though Hitchcock was starting to push the horror envelope with Rear Window in 1954, movies were pretty tame for a long time. The movie violence revolution only really started happening in the late Sixties with controversial flicks like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Night of the Living Dead (1968). The whole reason why it was a revolution was because people bought tickets in droves instead of listening to the pansies who wrote the reviews.

Like Peeping TomPsycho was panned on its release, but that didn't stop the public from lining up around the block and earning Paramount $12 million on an $800k budget. Perhaps if the cinemas hadn't retracted Peeping Tom, the young people would have embraced it, and Powell may have had his most profitable film ever.

Maybe the British censors are just too tight-fisted: even into the Seventies, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell's The Devils were straight-up banned for decades.

In any event, Peeping Tom has been obscure for so long that it may never earn a place in the canon of classic horror cinema, and perhaps its greatest legacy will be the considerable inspiration it gave Taxi Driver.

I personally appreciate Peeping Tom's obscurity since I like to seek out diamond-in-the-rough films, but somehow I don't think Michael Powell and his ruined career would take much consolation in that.

I've got it! The critics hated the movie because...they thought it was bad taste that Powell himself played Mark Lewis's father in Mark's old reels?

Sorry, Michael.

Further Reading

For more about horror, see my post about Sinister.

For more about 1960s cinema, you can see my post about Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Screengrabs: Peeping Tom was produced by Michael Powell. The UK DVD was distributed by Optimum Releasing Ltd.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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