FILM REVIEW: Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom (UK, 1960)
Directed by Michael Powell

Starring Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

When looking back on his long career in an interview with The Onion, Robert Altman said that "you tend to love your least successful children the most", saying that he felt more affection for Popeye than for anything critics and audiences embraced, such as Short Cuts or Nashville. One wonders whether Michael Powell would have taken the same view of Peeping Tom, the film which all but destroyed him as a filmmaker.But unlike Popeye, which produces reactions ranging from 'utter rubbish' to 'guilty pleasure', there can be no doubt that Peeping Tom is a blistering masterpiece. You will struggle to find a more audacious, bold, striking and shocking piece of British cinema, at least until the rulebook was re-written by A Clockwork Orange. Coming at the beginning of a decade which would be defined by rebellion against any and every convention, Peeping Tom blazed the trail, stepping into the darkness with a red-hot torch at the cost of setting its own coat-tails on fire.Considering that Peeping Tom and Psycho were released within months of each other, you would expect audiences to have flocked to both releases, and for both to become regarded by critics as among the best works of 1960. Aside from their similarities in terms of story and characters, there was very little to separate the prestige of Alfred Hitchcock from that of Michael Powell. While the former was more recognisable in public and was in his commercial prime, the latter had captured audience imaginations during the war years through his work with Emeric Pressburger.Sadly for Powell, who was a close friend of Hitchcock's, joint adulation was not to be. While Psycho enjoyed huge box-office success and garnered four Oscar nominations, Peeping Tom was greeted with outright hatred in the British press and quickly disappeared from screens. For the next twenty years the film was seen as an untouchable bête noire, a half-whispered rumour of a once-great man gone mad. It was not until 1979, when Martin Scorsese was asked to remake it, that Peeping Tom began its long rise from the critical sewers to take its place among the all-time greats.It would be tempting to blame Peeping Tom's demise on the perceived small-mindedness of 1960s audiences, something seemingly reinforced by the ridiculous reviews which branded it as "evil", "vulgar" and "repellent". But watching the film even 50 years later, you can understand why even the most open-minded people in any age would be shocked by it. On this occasion it is not so much a case of finger-pointing at audiences, as applauding the dangerous (and self-deprecating) vision of a director.

Peeping Tom was made at a time when cinema was still very much focussed around the life and trials of the rich and famous: a time when films were star vehicles with often shamefully predictable plots, consisting of little more than talking, smoking, dancing and kissing (though not always in that order). When Hollywood attempted to tackle difficult subjects, or to interpose itself among the less fortunate, it did so in a way which was often deeply patronising (in the case of My Fair Lady) or which smoothed over any rough edges in a way which made the finished product seem dishonest.The problem wasn't simply that the subject of Peeping Tom was a million miles from the ballet of The Red Shoes or the pilots of A Matter of Life and Death. It was more the way in which prostitutes, sleazy models and above all a serial killer were presented in a way which was not only realistic, but empathetic. The film eschews melodramatic convention, contrasting the showy, frothy acting of the film star (played by Shirley Anne Field) with the considered, naturalistic and more believable performance of Carl Boehm. Proof of this is to be found in the murder of Moira Shearer's character; Powell allows her to perform a flamboyant dance routine, as happens in The Red Shoes, before her dancing days are cut short with a tripod leg and a piercing scream.As Scorsese observed, Peeping Tom is like the darker, shiftier cousin of 8 1/2. Both are self-reflexive films about filmmaking and the role of the director, and both feature said director coming in front of the camera (Powell appears in the black-and-white sections as Mark's manipulative father). For Federico Fellini, cinema was inherently a force for good, a place of magic in which the director was a creative genius with noble intentions. But for Powell, in an act of brutal self-deprecation, cinema was a dangerous weapon in the hands of an insane voyeur, who would exploit, manipulate and even kill, just to get the perfect shot.In complete contrast to the fairy tale quality of his earlier work, there is very little in Peeping Tom in the way of childlike magic. Film is presented as a medium characterised by darkness and strange noises; Mark's dark room is like a haunted house or Frankenstein's lab, only instead of slamming doors and creaking floorboards, we have the flicking of metal switches and the drip-drip-drip of silver nitrate. Camera and projector hum and whirr like some sinister insect, waiting for the right moment to pounce and claim its victim.Having likened filmmaking to murder, Powell then turns the camera on us to show that we are as much a part of this as the director. The film is a breath-taking examination of voyeurism, arguing that the very act of watching a film is voyeuristic. When we pay good money to sit in the dark for two hours, we are devoting our time to watching others who are oblivious to our presence and have no means of defence. We see their lives play out in such detail that we become unwittingly obsessed by them; our psychological relationship is of the same morbid fascination which prompts Mark to make his documentary.As with Blue Velvet more than twenty years later, this revelation of our role in Peeping Tom produces a reaction combining repulsion and mesmerism; we are shocked, or offended, we cannot look away. But rather than shock us cheaply by showing the murders in graphic detail, Powell leaves the real terror of what is occurring entirely in our minds. Towards the end of the film, Anna Massey discovers the footage of Mark's victims; she watches, being frightened and repulsed - but she keeps watching. The camera tracks her reactions in a long panning shot, which tell us all we need to know about what is happening.But even taken outside of all its commentary, Peeping Tom is still terrifying as a pure, full-on horror movie. Carl Boehm's performance is extraordinary, helping to create an immensely compelling character who feels more three-dimensional than Norman Bates. The psychological trauma which Mark suffers could be lazy shorthand, but instead he comes across as a lonely, fractured young man who struggles with himself, something reinforced by the distant, broken quality of his slight Austrian accent.The film explores the relationship between love and fear, with Mark wavering between the two as he is caught between the need to complete his documentary and the affections bestowed on him by Helen. We feel so close to Mark that when his doom approaches, we are willing to ignore or forgive his gruesome actions if it would save or redeem him. This is the final savage trick of Peeping Tom which reinforces our position as voyeurs; not only are we drawn to gaze, we impose emotion on people's actions so that even the truly terrifying can seem tragic.Peeping Tom is a barnstorming masterpiece which ranks alongside The Red Shoes as Powell's finest achievement. Its psychological complexity and cerebral treatment of its themes are perfectly complimented by Powell's direction, and the whole project is enhanced by Otto Heller's luridly beautiful visuals. It is still as fresh, shocking and truly terrifying as it was over 50 years ago, and in its level of emotional engagement - say it quietly - it's a better film than Psycho. In short, it is compelling, chilling and nothing less than essential viewing.

Verdict: A dark, creepy, chilling masterpiece


Kalli said...

Great post! This is a fantastic movie.

Daniel Mumby said...

Thanks Kalli :)

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