The penultimate film in my classics marathon is Michael Powell’s dark horror, Peeping Tom.
Mark (Karlheinz Bohm) is a social recluse and a voyeur. Devoted to film, Mark works on film sets and spends his spare time working as a pornography photographer. Privately, Mark is making a documentary about fear. Obsessed with recording images of fright, Mark murders women, filming them as he does so to capture the ultimate expression of terror.
Reviled by critics in 1960 for it’s violence and sexual content, Peeping Tom effectively brought Powell’s illustrious career to an end in the UK. In an interview with Time Out’s film critic, Trevor Johnston, in 1986 Powell said about his career post Peeping Tom, ‘It’s been a slow and gradual process. I had a lot of enemies in the higher echelons of the British film industry and they used the initial reaction to “Peeping Tom” against me. A lot of people thought I was a pain in the neck, always wanting to do something new, sometimes proving them wrong – occasionally proving them right! But for a long time “Peeping Tom” made it impossible for me to get any film produced in England.’ Asked if the reaction to Peeping Tom hurt, Powell replied, ‘No, it didn’t hurt. I just felt that they were wrong and I was right. I just didn’t understand the violent reaction against it. People can’t be that innocent, can they?’. It took a number of years for critics to accept Powell was indeed right, but the film was eventually recognised as a masterpiece of the horror genre. Martin Scorsese famously invested $5,000 in the film in 1978, to help it to reach a wider audience.
“A chilling film with an ending that shocks and disturbs”
Today, Peeping Tom remains a chilling film with an ending that shocks and disturbs. That Mark is a relatively young and attractive individual, makes him an even greater object of fear. But Peeping Tom is a complex film that works not only in terms of its horror value but also as a detailed character study. Mark’s behaviour is explored in terms of his relationship with his father who subjected him to voyeuristic experimentation as a child, filming his every development. ‘What a strange thing for your father to photograph,’ says Helen (Anna Massey) as a home film shows the young Mark watching a couple kissing on a park bench. Helen becomes increasingly disturbed as the film goes on to show the darker sides of Mark’s early life.
Perhaps one of the reasons Peeping Tom was so shocking in 1960 is the way in which the audience is made to feel some sympathy with such a cruel individual. Mark is presented as damaged by, but ultimately devoted to, his deceased father. The bond between them is still strong with Mark admitting he could never sell his father’s house and carrying on his father’s work. Mark is socially awkward, something that makes him terrifying – ‘I don’t like a man who walks quietly,’ says Helen’s mother – yet worthy of compassion. His attraction to Helen is warm rather than frightening and it is only during a date with her that we see him without his camera. ‘Whatever I photograph I always lose,’ he says desperately, in a scene that emphasises his loneliness.
Neither is Mark is the only voyeur in Peeping Tom. The characters that surround him show a keen interest in the murders, following the investigation in the newspapers and media. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, crowds surround the home of Mark’s first victim as the police carry out her body. Perhaps most strikingly, Powell actively puts his audience in the position of the voyeur. The film opens on Mark’s first attack but we watch this as if looking through the camera concealed inside his coat. The audience watches his approach from this low angle, shifting to a high angle as the murder takes place. It’s an uncomfortable scene but one that very quickly pulls the audience into Mark’s voyeuristic world.
The idea that we can learn about humanity and the science of the human body from watching a moving image captures some of the darker aspects of film. Peeping Tom draws attention to the negative aspects of the film industry, suggesting something unhealthy about the desire to film – ‘all this filming, it’s not healthy,’ says one of Peeping Tom’s most astute characters. Mark himself goes to any lengths for his art. These ideas are made more personal by the inclusion of Michael Powell and his real life son in Peeping Tom’s home movies, as Mark’s father and younger self.
But Peeping Tom was not the first film to make comments about film and voyeurism. Hitchcock – who Powell had worked alongside earlier in his career – made similar references in his own films from Rear Window to Psycho. As the BFI explains, ‘It [Peeping Tom] appeared in the same year that saw the release of Hitchcock’s Psycho (US), and the two films share certain similarities – the theme of voyeurism, an unusually frank (for the time) treatment of sexuality, and a narrative focus on a tortured but attractive killer. Psycho has never fallen out of favour, but it is Powell’s film that is the more psychologically complex’.
Powell’s controversial film is made compelling by the superb performances of Karlheinz Bohm, who draws out the intricacies of Mark’s character brilliantly, and Anna Massey as the trusting and curious Helen. The arrangement of the mise-en-scene is staggering from the dismembered mannequins in an early shop window to the red light illuminating Helen’s face in Mark’s dark room and Mark’s eyes seen through the spinning reels of his movies. The climax to Peeping Tom is surprising and horrifying with background sounds used to chilling effect.
Peeping Tom is an impressive film that works on many different levels. See it for it’s striking analysis of a serial killer, fascinating comments on film and voyeurism, superb performances, stunning visuals and gripping plot.