"I understand you have some views for sale."
--respectable-looking old man.
The film opens on a garish (and somewhat studio), seedy street. The familiar view of the movie screen gives way to the grainy greys of a home-movie camera. An unglamourized prostitute quotes a price and we follow her up well-worn stairs.
Something terrifies her just before the owner of the home-movie camera kills her. The next day the point-of-view character revisits the scene, joining the crowd on the other side of the police barricade. Someone, seeing his camera, assumes he's a journalist, and asks who employs him.
"The Observer," he says. The man who delivers this wry remark is Mark Lewis (Carl Böhm). Ordinary-looking, soft-spoken, and shy, he has survived disturbing abuse and become a disturbed killer of young women. He uses the camera to record his crimes, the way his father recorded Carl's own childhood suffering. And before he ends his victim's lives, he does something else, something we do not really understand until the end of the film.
Michael Powell's Peeping Tom has become something of a cinematic legend. Released in 1960, it beat Psycho to the screen by several months, delivering a superficially similar, twisted tale. Whereas horrified filmgoers embraced Alfred Hitchcock's proto-slasher flick, critics and audiences reviled Powell's dark vision, and he more-or-less stopped making films. Years passed before viewers rediscovered and reassessed the film. The once-condemned film has since been declared a classic.
Contemporary audiences may wonder what the fuss was about. The subject matter may be unsettling, but voyeurism, serial murders, and child abuse feature prominently on evening cop shows, and contemporary television handles them far more graphically than this film does. Despite the provocative title and controversial subject matter, Peeping Tom remains in many respects a film of its time. Michael Powell films his sex without nudity and his violence without gore. We see only a single drop of blood, once, and a single bare breast, briefly. The magazine shop over which Mark shoots models-- with his camera-- also features some pin-up covers of the sort then common. Hanging in the background, they add an uneasy sense to a scene where a young girl purchases candy while a jovial old man examines unseen pornographic images.
The film makes no secret of its killer's identity, and it devotes more time to building character than suspense. It nevertheless maintains our interest as we gradually learn why he kills and wonder whether he will be caught. The stakes rise as a kindly young woman, Helen (Anna Massey), befriends Mark, hoping to bring him out of his shell.
Throughout, the film raises questions about morality and perception. Mostly, however, it raises questions about film itself, a popular medium dedicated to voyeurism. Do moving images warp our perceptions? Create unhealthy obsessions? Desensitize us to acts committed against others? Are we on the way to becoming like Mark Lewis? These questions, in an era of omnipresent recording devices and interactive video games have become increasingly important—and yet we seem less concerned about asking them.
Significantly, Carl's father, a noted psychiatrist who commits his abuse in the name of research, is played by the director himself. Powell also cast his own son as young Carl. An awareness of these facts underscores the film's central questions, while heightening its creepiness.
The cast give decent performances overall, despite some melodramatic excesses and period staginess. Böhm looks disturbingly ordinary, though he acts, perhaps, a little to conspicuously odd. His German accent, never completely disguised, may throw a few viewers. Massey proves engaging as the would-be savior of a young man she assumes just needs a little understanding. Maxine Audley, as the heroine's mother, also fares well. She suspects from the start that all is not well with Carl. Significantly, the film's most prescient character is physically blind.
Much has been made of the disparate fates that awaited this film and Psycho, No one can say for certain why these similar movies received such dissimilar responses. Certainly, Peeping Tom does more to indict the viewers for our voyeurism, to make us identify and sympathize with a disturbed serial killer. Peeping Tom may have helped Psycho, a point made in Chris Rodley's documentary about the film, A Very British Psycho. Partially because of Peeping Tom's negative reception, Hitchcock refused to screen his film in advance. Film critics, who had whipped up an hysterical response to ...Tom, swaying opinions before anyone in the general public had a chance to decide, only saw Psycho with the premiere audience. Hitchcock also contributed his considerable showmanship to the advertising campaign. Few directors, before or since, have had his public profile, and Psycho, perhaps more than any of his other films, benefited from the fact. Peeping Tom ran briefly in England, and a heavily-edited version toured low-rent theaters elsewhere, marketed as a lurid horror movie.
Audiences who went to see the film under those circumstances must have been as disappointed as many contemporary ones will be—if they watch Peeping Tom knowing only its title and the fact that it stirred controversy. The film may even disappoint those expecting a horror movie; this is more a disturbed character study, a crime story told from the perspective of the criminal. It remains, however, a worthwhile film, which plays with questions that continue to stalk our culture.
Written by Leo Marks
Directed by Michael Powell
Karlheinz "Carl" Böhm as Mark Lewis
Anna Massey as Helen Stephens
Maxine Audley as Mrs. Stephens
Moira Shearer as Vivian
Brenda Bruce as Dora
Esmond Knight as Arthur Baden
Michael Goodliffe as Don Jarvis
Martin Miller as Dr. Rosen
Jack Watson as Chief Insp. Gregg
Shirley Anne Field as Pauline Shields
Pamela Green as Milly
Miles Malleson as elderly customer
Bartlett Mullins as shop owner
Columba Powell as young Mark Lewis
Michael Powell as Dr. A.N. Lewis