Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Peeping Tom (1960) dir. Michael Powell
Starring: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey
“Peeping Tom” is a British cinema classic from the 60’s - a psychological horror film ironically made by one of Britain’s more mainstream filmmakers - Michael Powell. It’s a naughty but brilliant film about many things - sex, voyeurism, murder, psycho-analytical torture, pornography and the movies itself. Though not as well-known as Hitchcock’s “Psycho” from the same year, the film had a significant an impression on filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter and Brian De Palma, and maybe even Hitchcock himself.
The film opens in the streets of London at night with a man picking up a prostitute. In the hotel we watch the woman undress from the point of view of an 8mm camera. Then a look of intense fear comes upon her face. As the camera moves closer she screams. She is dead. The murderer is Mark Lewis, a shy introverted film technician. By day, he pulls focus for feature films at a London film studio, in his spare time he likes to shoot the world with his 8mm camera. Lewis is addicted to his camera and has a lifelong obsession with capturing the emotion of fear on women’s faces.
One day Mark meets one of his neighbours Helen Stephens, who is fascinated by his obsessive shyness. A cautious courtship takes place between them in Mark’s apartment and eventually the two fall in love. But Mark’s deep psychological obsessions aren’t healed and he still feels the need to kill with his camera. Mark reveals to Helen a dysfunctional childhood which saw his child psychologist father manipulate and study his son with a series of filmed emotional experiments. Mark’s love for Helen fights against his brainwashed compulsion to complete his lifelong documentary of death.
“Peeping Tom” is a fascinating film. The opening moments are eerily similar to John Carpenter’s famous point-of-view opening murder in “Halloween”. Admitedly, in the first few scenes, I had trouble getting past the datedness of the film. It’s very 60’s both in look, tone and acting style. But Carl Boehm’s performance draws you in so cleverly. He’s stands up to the best-ever psychopaths – Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates or Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckett. The commonality of these characters is the sympathy and understanding the actors bring to their characters. But Carl Boehme deepens Mark perhaps just a bit more. For example, Norman Bates is a murderer with a dual personality but sufficient and credible explanation is never given to us (other than the rushed denouement). Mark’s history with his father’s deepens him further than Bates ever was.
The film contains some terrific individual scenes. The death of the stand-in, Vivian, is a masterpiece of counterpoint and hypnotic pacing, as she dances for Mark around the vacated set with happy-go-lucky glee not knowing she’s being lit to die. The reveal of his weapon of choice would make Hitchcock jealous – a phallic leg of his camera tripod, with a knife on the end. Mrs. Stephens’ suspenseful confrontation with Mark in his screening room is also great because, despite her blindness, she’s able to protect her daughter by striking at Mark’s vulnerability.
Martin Scorsese’s love of the film is well known, but its influence in Brian De Palma should also be noted. Going back to his 1970 underground film, “Hi Mom!”, the voyeuristic themes are ones De Palma would return to time and again. “Blow Out” owes a lot to the psychology complexities of “Peeping Tom” and the exploration of these elements through the world of filmmaking. And the film’s Freudian themes were lifted and inserted directly into De Palma’s “Raising Cain”.
“Peeping Tom” was way ahead of it’s time. In fact, audiences couldn’t understand or relate to the film in 1960. Michael Powell, one of the Britain’s greatest filmmakers, was essentially ruined because of the negative reaction to the film. It’s now universally recognized as a great film by a great filmmaker. And he couldn’t have made a more impassioned work of art to be the exclamation point of his career. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Peeping Tom - Criterion Collection
It’s a dated trailer, and doesn’t do the film justice: