As I mentioned before, director Michael Powell's fascinating film had the misfortune of being released in 1960, the same year Alfred Hitchock released Psycho. Peeping Tom was certainly overshadowed by Hitchcock's work. In fact, Peeping Tom stirred up quite a controversy in it's native Britain. After requiring many cuts from the BBFC in order to secure release, the film was met with critical disdain, the backlash of which basically killed Powell's directing career. It's unbelievably disheartening that such an obviously talented director was railroaded for a film that was fantastic and in no way deserving of the drubbing it received. In fact, the film has gone on to find it's place as one of the great British films. It's an absolute shame that the cinematic world was robbed of future Powell films because he decided to make a dark, edgy film that was, in many ways, ahead of its time. It's just sad to see that kind of ambition rewarded with unwarranted criticism.
Obviously, this discussion will touch on the major plot points of the film. If you haven't seen it, what will follow will be a series of spoilers. I would highly suggest you see the film before digging into to my thoughts and (hopefully) the discussion to follow in the comments sections. Consider yourselves spoiler warned.
Clearly I think this film is a classic. The opening scene is pitch-perfect as we see our leading man filming a woman, who he then propositions, the scene changing tone as we realize she is in fact a working girl and then the jump to the bedroom, as he films her undressing, and finally the expression on her face as he reveals his knife and she realizes that she's going to die. So much of the film is wrapped up in that first sequence. We're introduced to our main character and made aware of his voyeurism, his detachment, seeing the world through his camera, his awkward relationship with women and finally his desire to see and prey upon fear. Even though we don't necessarily realize it all at the time, looking back on that scene after seeing the film, it's hard to deny it's significance and the sure-handed way it sets up the rest of the film and reveals a great deal about our main character and his desires.
What's perhaps most interesting about the film is the revelation that Mark Lewis isn't actually interested in killing anyone. Killing is a by product, a means to end for him. What's important is fear. It's been ingrained in him from an early age by his father's experiments, and now, as a grown man, he finds himself doing some experimenting of his own. He's fascinated and most likely aroused by the sight of true fear. He's simply found that the best way to draw out that emotion is film a person as they realize they're going to die. At least, that's probably how he started out. And it was probably good, those first few kills and the film reels they produced. But like any addiction, it took more and more to satisfy. Soon them realizing death was imminent just wasn't quite enough. It need something else, that special ingredient. By the timeline in which the film takes place, Lewis is already past all this, so I'm extrapolating based on my thoughts. Perhaps he had a victim or two that didn't cry, didn't scream out in fear, but simply resigned themselves to their fate. No matter how it came about, by the time we're introduced to Lewis, he's using a mirror so that not only does his victim become acutely aware that death has come for them, but they're forced to watch themselves die. A truly horrific proposition, and one that Lewis exploits to get the pure fear he craves immortalized on film.
That this preoccupation with fear has a darkly sexual component is no accident. The film is in no way shy about sex, especially when you remember that it was made in 1960. But the sexuality presented is not the typical loving man and wife doing missionary in the dark. No, as with the rest of the film, there's a sense of underbelly as well as the sense that while it's hidden, it's pretty normal. Lewis works in film as a cameraman, and obviously enjoys shooting his own deviant brand of films, but he also moonlights as photographer, selling titillating images to corner store owner who in turn sells them, discreetly of course and marked as "educational books," to discerning gentlemen. That they feel the need to hide their desire showcases the guilt associated with sexuality. Sex and nudity is seen is dirty and obscene instead of freeing and beautiful. It's a perception that's still perpetuated today and underscored by the hypocrisy of the desires of the very men and women condemning. A classic case of do what I say, not what I do, but it goes to prove that no matter how much guilt may be heaped on us, in the end, we all need sex, even if the only way to get it is at home alone with a stack of pictures and a box of Kleenex.
While Carl Boehm's performance as Mark Lewis definitely anchors the film, his is not the only performance of note. Moira Shearer, who had previously appeared in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, puts in a solid bit of work as Vivian, one of Lewis' victims, and one that it seems he's been working up to for quite some time. Also very good is Maxine Audley, who's turn as the blind Mrs. Stephens is simply splendid. She plays both the blindness as well as the dark suspicion with ease and the eventual scene where she confronts Lewis is very tense, partly because she's so good in the role.
Despite Boehm looking uncannily like a young Udo Kier, Peeping Tom succeeds on most every level. It's a dark, disturbing tale, that's wrapped up in a love for filmmaking. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface on what's going on in this film. It's the type of film that gets shown in film school classes, analyzed and picked apart until there's almost nothing left. But I'll leave that to smarter men. So what did you guys think? Did you like it as much as I do? Or do you think I'm crazy? Let us know in the comments.