Peeping Tom (1960) Michael Powell

Voyeurism and the movies go hand in hand. After all what is looking at movies other than peeping into the lives of other people. The subject has been explored in many films, “The Conversation,” “Sliver,” “Blow-Up,”  and more so with directors like Brian DePalma in  “Hi Mom!, “Blow Out,” “Body Double” and with Alfred Hitchcock in “Rear Window” and  “Psycho.” More recently films like “Disturbia”, “Alone with Her” and “Vacancy’ have explored the topi c. However, no film connects voyeurism and film more than Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom.”

Powell is best known as one-half of “The Archers”, the other half being Emeric Pressburger. Powell and Pressburger , produced, directed and wrote or any combination thereof some of the classiest British films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “49th Parallel”, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “Black Narcissus”, “The Tales of Hoffman” and “The Red Shoes.” Therefore, when this ‘nasty’ psychological thriller called “Peeping Tom” was released it came as a shock to both the critics and the public that this film was directed by Michael Powell. Reaction from the media and the public was so hostile, (the London Tribune said “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of ‘Peeping Tom’ would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the sewer, even then the stench would remain”), the film was pulled from movie theaters in Britain quickly. When the film was released in the U.S. in May of 1962, it was a sliced and diced aborted version that did little business and died a quick death. Powell’s career was all but ruined. He managed to make a few more films, in Australia, which included “Age of Consent” with James Mason and a young Helen Mirren, but for all intent Powell’s career was ruined and pretty much over.

In the late 1970’s “Peeping Tom” was rediscovered, mainly due to Powell-Pressburger fan, Martin Scorsese (1). In 1979, the film was included as part of the New York Film Festival and afterward given a commercial release, again thanks to Scorsese (It played at the Quad Cinema in New York). Critics now praised what they once condemned, at least most did. Vincent Canby writing in the New York Times was not one of the converted, “Peeping Tom’s rediscovery, I fear, tells us more about fads in criticism than it does about art. Only someone obsessed with being the first to hail a new auteur, which is always a nice way of calling attention to yourself, could spend the time needed, to find genius in the erratic work of Michael Powell…..”  That said, most critics re-evaluation was favorable.

What makes “Peeping Tom” so unsettling is how it renders the viewer complicit in everything that happens on screen. Powell tears down the cinematic wall, the safety net, between filmmaker and audience putting us sharply into the protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), shoes. From his point of view, looking through the lens’ of his 16MM movie camera, we see a young prostitute gazing at a storefront window. The camera approaches her, she turns toward the camera and informs Mark, and us, that “it’ll be two quid.” The camera follows as she walks to her apartment where once inside she begins to undress. Suddenly a light shines on her and the camera begins to move in closer directly toward her. She becomes frighten, terrified, screaming as she realizes what is about to happen.  We quickly cut to a close-up of a movie projector running the developed film of what we just witnessed as the movie credits begin to roll. For the rest of the film, we the audience, are never let off the hook. We are never allowed to sit on the sidelines as innocent viewers of a movie. Unlike in “Psycho,” the Alfred Hitchcock film which “Peeping Tom” is always compared too, we can stand aside, separate ourselves from what is happening on screen. No matter how intimate or violent the scenes that Hitchcock makes us share, we know, we’re only watching a movie. Powell gives no such assurance, we are all partners in crime, if for no other reason than as moviegoers, we like to watch…just like Mark.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a focus puller for a British film studio. A quiet shy young man (is there any other in this kind of movie), who has an unusually close attachment to his camera which he carries everywhere he goes. His private life consist of luring young women to clandestine locations where he films them, and then revealing a hidden knife in one of the legs of the tripod, he kills them as the camera continues to roll capturing their final fears, screams and ultimately their death on film, captured for him to watch over and over as part of a ‘documentary’ he is making.

One woman, who is different, is Helen (Anna Massey). She lives in the same rooming house and befriends Mark showing an interest in his work, unaware that it involves killing young women. He lets her see his apartment and shows Helen some movies his father took years ago of him as small child. His father, a well known psychologist, but in need of mental help himself, used the boy for his own experiments in fear and terror. One clip shows Mark’s father, played by Powell, waking the boy up in the middle of the night by tossing a live lizard on to the boy’s bed, the boy screaming in fear. In another film clip we see Mark next to the deceased body of his mother, and in still another with his dad’s new wife who he married only six weeks after the boy’s mother’s death . It is at the wedding of the second wife his father gives Mark a gift, a movie camera, which becomes his lifelong obsession. The father also had every room in the house wired to record conversations and screams of the frightened boy. For a short period, Helen manages to give Mark a taste of a normal life, they go out on a date. She even gets him to leave the camera at home. But it doesn’t last. Mark’s obsession are too powerful.

There is one scene where Powell plays an insider joke on the audience. It involves actress Moira Shearer, the star of his magnificent film, “The Red Shoes.” Mark persuades Vivian (Shearer), a bit player where Mark works , to stay late at the studio one evening and dance convincing her she could use the film as an audition reel. Vivian dances gleefully for Mark as his camera gazes’ on her, when suddenly he plunges the knife like sharp tripod leg directly into her throat. Vivian is found the next morning inside a trunk. As the police investigate, we see Mark, out of view from everyone on screen, filming the entire event.

The films ending is still horrific even after more than fifty years. When Helen watches the filmed scenes of Mark killing the bit player, he loses control and finds himself fighting a strong inner urge to kill her. The police however, have been closing in and have reached Mark’s rooming house. Realizing this is his demise, Mark turns the camera on himself and commits suicide on film, using the killer tripod, just like he did on his victims. This last recording becomes Mark’s most personal work and completes the making of his unsettling masterpiece.

Screenwriter Leo Marks and Powell created a dark portrait of a sadistic obsessive mass murderer haunted by a torturous childhood whose only outlet is filming the fear of his victims as they succumb to death on celluloid. The real heavy, of course, is Mark’s father, whose abusive psychological experiments he forced on his son are the source for his strange and obsessive behavior. Interestingly, and perhaps even perversely, the ‘family movies’, Mark shows to Helen, Powell used himself to portray the father and his own son as young Mark.

Over the years comparisons have been made to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.”  Both were released within months of each other. Both deal with voyeurism, and both characters had strong fixated emotionally attached relationships with their parents. Mark with his father and Norman Bates with his mother. Despite the similarities, there were differences; in “Peeping Tom”, the focus of the story is always on Mark. The victims are non-entities we never learn much about. In “Psycho”, we get to know, identify and sympathize with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Also, “Psycho” was a huge popular and financial hit while “Peeping Tom” died a quick death at the box-office both in England and here. Perhaps this had to do with the reputation of the filmmakers. Audiences expected the macabre from Hitchcock but from Powell, this kind of film was totally unexpected, though, I do not believe the general movie going public, at least in America, were as familiar with Powell’s name as with Hitchcock. Certainly, though the critics were.

As mentioned, Martin Scorsese was influenced by and influential in rediscovering “Peeping Tom.” In the book, “Scorsese on Scorsese” edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, he talks about the first time he heard of “Peeping Tom” back in the early 1960’s when it played at a small theater in an dangerous area of Manhattan (most likely 42nd Street). In 1970, Scorsese saw the film for the first time complete and in color. Scorsese states “I have always felt that “Peeping Tom” and “8 1/2”  say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. “8 1/2” captures the glamour and enjoyment of filmmaking, while “Peeping Tom” shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates. These are two films that deal with the philosophy and the danger of film-making.”

German actor Karl Boehm was selected after Laurence Harvey turned the part down. According to the TCM website, Harvey had just gained great success with his performance in “Room at the Top” and he quickly decided to begin accepting roles in major Hollywood productions like “The Alamo” and “Butterfield 8.”  Boehm gives a creepy, chilling performance as the shy repressed, film obsessed, Mark Lewis managing to express a certain vulnerability that I believe would have been lost if Harvey had taken the role. However, as Vincent Canby mentioned in his 1979 review, traces of a German accent are certainly noticeable in Boehm’s performance. A young Anna Massey, in only her second film, is very good as Helen the neighbor who befriends Mark and is both repelled and attracted to his strange world. British pinup Queen Pamela Green portrays a model Mark photographs in sexy lingerie. Powell filmed a semi nude scene of Green topless posing on a bed. This has been noted as being the first nude scene in a British film however, the scene was quickly deleted after some early protest. In 1979, a restored complete version of “Peeping Tom” was presented at the New York Film Festival and soon after re-released.

“Peeping Tom” is a disturbingly dark, obsessively intense film with no let up. It’s a shattering experience sucking us into a world of perverse intimacy, even more so today with every phone and camera having the ability to “film” what we see. We. like Mark, film everything we see for our own personal pleasure, unknowing private moments of lives we see on the street or elsewhere, we have been both filmmaker and audience.

Footnotes:

(1) It was through Martin Scorsese, his long time film editor, Thelma Schoomaker met Michael Powell. They married in 1984 and remained so until Powell’s death in 1990.

This review is part of the CLASSIC FILM AND TV CAFE’s “A TRIBUTE TO THE ARCHERS: A POWELL/PRESSBURGER BLOGATHON. The blogathon runs from March 25th through March 28th. Below is the complete schedule…

Sunday, March 25th

Michael Powell and Me –  Classic Film & TV Cafe

The Red Shoes – Classic Becky’s Brain Food

One of Our Aircraft Is Missing – Classic Film Boy

A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) – 1001 Movies

Monday, March 26th

I Know Where I’m Going – The Movie Projector
The 49th Parallel – Caftan Woman
Gone to Earth – The Foxling

Tuesday, March 27th

The Red Shoes – Silver Screen Modiste

A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) – Garbo Laughs

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – Portraits by Jenni

A Canterbury Tale – Viv and Larry

Wednesday, March 28th

The Small Back Room – Distant Voices and Flickering Shadows

Black Narcissus – Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
I Know Where I’m Going – Bettes Classic Movie Blog

25 comments on “Peeping Tom (1960) Michael Powell

  1. I’m trepidatious about seeking out “Peeping Tom” because of its reputation. Over the 20th century we have become so used to the pervasive influence of film on our lives that it is uncomfortable to think of that dangerous and aggressive side of the tool.

    Thank you for the detailed and thought-provoking review.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Patricia,

      Martin Scorsese has pointed out how this film reflects the dark obsessive side of filmmaking and watching. Powell sucks the viewer in almost as a co-partner in what he is doing. There is no doubt about it that it is a disturbing film.

      Like

  2. KimWilson says:

    John, I don’t really like this film much–but I don’t hate it, either. This was a huge departure for P&P and I think that’s what made it so shocking to critics and viewers. I think being made complicit in the killer’s actions just crept people out too much. Interesting post.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      I understand where you are coming from Kim. It can be an unsettling film but I think that is part of the function of art, to be unsettling. Thanks as always for stopping by.

      Like

  3. Diandra says:

    Great writeup on an excellent film.

    Like

  4. Rick29 says:

    John, you succinctly summed up the brilliant and disturbing qualities of this cult film with this marvelous quote: “What makes ‘Peeping Tom’ so unsettling is how it renders the viewer complicit in everything that happens on screen. Powell tears down the cinematic wall, the safety net, between filmmaker and audience putting us sharply into the protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), shoes.” Even Hitchcock, in REAR WINDOW, softens his voyeurism theme with the casting (even at his darkest, James Stewart is still James Stewart). And, of course, Hitch’s protagonist is trying to catch a murderer, not be one. It’s unfortunate that the film ruined Powell’s career, but, as Kim said, Powell’s previous pictures provided no transition–his fans were unprepared. It’s not as if he avoided darkness (the shoes aren’t the only thing red in the THE RED SHOES). But the impact must have been incredibly jarring (in fact, it still is). Excellent article on a cult pic.

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    • John Greco says:

      Rick,

      Good point about James Stewart in REAR WINDOW. No matter how unsettling his actions are, as they are in Anthony Mann westerns too, he is lovable Mr. Nice Guy Jimmy Stewart, There is no such actor in PEEPING TOM. Appreciate your kind words!

      Like

  5. ClassicBecky says:

    Timing is everything, isn’t it John? What was considered horrendous in one era is another era’s cup of tea. I was really disturbed by Peeping Tom, yet was a voyeur myself in watching it, as you aptly describe. It’s a very good movie, but not for the squeamish. Very powerful. Your background information and insights are truly fascinating. Wonderful piece!

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    • John Greco says:

      True about timing being important, Becky. We’re all voyeurs when watching a moviem any movie, it’s the nature of the beast. Here, with this film Powell is just tossing the fact into our faces. Truly was ahead of his time with this film. Thanks!!!

      Like

  6. R. D. Finch says:

    John, when you write that “no film connects voyeurism and film more than Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ ” I think you succinctly sum up this movie. Comparisons with “Psycho,” released the same year, similarly designed to shock, and directed by Powell’s contemporary and friend Alfred Hitchcock, are inevitable. But as enjoyable and spectacularly perverse as “Psycho” is, “Peeping Tom” is the deeper film, and in your discussion of its themes your post contains all the reasons to support this view.

    It’s a terrible irony that whereas “Psycho” made Hitchcock more popular than ever, “Peeping Tom” essentially ended Powell’s career. I think you’re right in suggesting that the difference in reception of the two films was the existing reputations of the directors–Hitchcock was considered a director of audience-pleasing entertainments, while Powell was considered a director of films of artistic distinction. The comparison between the two films was made complete when “Peeping Tom” was subjected to the Brian de Palma treatment in a horrendously awful movie called “Raising Cain”!

    I really liked the part where you related Martin Scorsese’s views about “Peeping Tom,” especially his comparisons of it to “8 1/2.” I’ve read that as well as Laurence Harvey, Dirk Bogarde was also considered for the part of Mark. Of course, the ultimate mind-bending bit of casting was Powell himself playing the corrupting father. (Those scenes were filmed in Powell’s London house, and his son Columba played the young Mark.) This IS a nasty movie, but in a most delicious way.

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    • John Greco says:

      R.D.,

      I agree with you opening paragraph, “Psycho” is a classically made, brilliant thriller but it lacks any depth. The closing analysis, by Simon Oakland, just seems tacked on to “explain” to a naive audience the reasons for Norman’s actions. “Peeping Tom” goes deeper by making it all very personal for the filmmaker and the audience.
      I really liked that statement from Scorsese myself, and Powell using himself as the father was totally a piece of perverse dark humor. I wonder how much of the general public at the time even realized it was Powell in the role. I was unaware Dirk Bogarde was also considered role of Mark, and the other information on the filming taking place in Powell’s home and that his son was young Mark. As I am writing this I beginning to think I read it somewhere before that his son was young Mark. Needless to say, if I did read it, it slipped my mind so I thank you for all that information.

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  7. The Lady Eve says:

    I finally saw “Peeping Tom” just a few years ago. It’s reputation had, by then, preceded it for quite some time – so I was relatively prepared for it. Still, I was creeped out. I’d be curious to know what inspired Powell to take on “Peeping Tom” – such a departure from the sort of films he was known for.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Eve,

      the film does creep us out and as our friend R.D. stated in his comments, it is a nasty film but in a delicious way. I too would like to know what inspired Powell to make this type of film.

      Like

  8. Fantastic review of a film I have not seen. I’d really like to, so hopefully that will happen soon. I’ll remember your excellent review when I do.

    Like

  9. whistlingypsy says:

    John ~ I’m sorry I missed your post yesterday, but it is certainly worth the wait. I admit that I have avoided “Peeping Tom” for many of the reasons I have avoided “The Collector”. Your observations regarding the unflinching portrayal of a troubled character, and the audience’s acquiescence in the brutality (complicit by voyeurism) are as insightful as they are profound. These are two of the reasons why I have stayed away from the films; I only recently found myself watching “Blow-Up” and this is my limit for unnerving scenarios (especially, as you pointed out, this has become all too real a daily possibility). However, I want to thank you for your excellent contribution to the blogathon, and for a clearer perspective on Michael Powell’s film.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Gypsy,

      I can understand your apprehension about not watching PEEPING TOM, the film is unsettling and there is no let up, no redemption whatsoever. This film is very much about uncontrolled obsession, in that respect it is similar to THE COLLECTOR which you mention. I do appreciate you stopping by and your kind words.

      Like

  10. A quiet shy young man (is there any other in this kind of movie)

    One of these days someone will make a film about an loud, obnoxious guy who’s a serial killer, and people will wonder why they didn’t suspect him from the get-go.

    And you are definitely right about the thumbing down of Harvey – what makes Boehm’s performance work is that despite his…um, problem…he comes across as fairly sympathetic. Casting Harvey in the part, the audience would have hated him from the first frame.

    Peeping Tom was the film that introduced me to the works of Powell & Pressburger, so despite its twistedness it kind of holds a special place for me. Great review, John!

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      “One of these days someone will make a film about an loud, obnoxious guy who’s a serial killer, and people will wonder why they didn’t suspect him from the get-go.”

      LOL! In this respect the film is I suppose oh so typical. Appreciate you stopping by and picking it as one of your Classic Chops over at the “Large Assocation of Movie Blogs” (LAMBS).

      Like

  11. DorianTB says:

    John, PEEPING TOM isn’t for the faint of heart, and it’s certainly far more grim than even Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, but once people see it, they never forget it! I’ve always thought that its power comes from the truly disturbing psyche of Karl Boehm. It’s both chilling and heartbreaking to see the brilliant Anna Massey trying to understand Mark, and trying to give him a taste of normalcy (or at least non-psychosis!). I must admit I’m still cracking up at our friend and fellow blogger Ivan’s remark: “One of these days someone will make a film about an loud, obnoxious guy who’s a serial killer, and people will wonder why they didn’t suspect him from the get-go.” 🙂 In any case, John, your review is superb, as always!

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Dorian,

      Anna Massey is terffic in this as the only character who gets through to Mark, at least for a bit of time. The film can be unsettling for those “faint of heart” but its “pure cinema” as Hitchcock says. Always appreciate your wonderful comments.

      Like

  12. Sam Juliano says:

    John—This is a towering, commanding piece that examines this controversial screen classic, adding on the fascinating details of it’s inception, reception and and comparisons with PSYCHO. Boehm’s performances is certainly on par with Tony Perkins in the category of disturbing turns. The film has received superb treatment over the years by Powell & Pressberger devotee Martin Scorsese, and something could certainly be said for the film ending the career of Powell. I was fortunate enough to see this in a pristine 35 mm print at the Film Forum as part of their ‘Brit Noir’ Festival, and I saw first hand how the film made audience members sqirm as it tapped into the prevalent psychological cuurents.. This film -as you well know- has divided critics (and audiences) since it’s original release, with the naysayers claiming a markedly sadistic focus, and the supporters toasting a work of cinematic genius. The same evaluators took a similar position on Hitchcock’s ROPE, which could rightfully be seen in the same terms. The film has obviously for good and for bad inspired the serial killer movies that have come later, and it displays a remarkable technical virtuosity. I wasn’t entirely pleased with Bohm’s performance, but the awkward mannerisms may in retrospect have intensified the realism of the turn.

    A master class review.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much Sam, I remember you seeing this at the FILM FORUM. Would love to see this on the big screen but that most likely will not happen. Films that stretch the boundaries seem to always divide critics and audiences, even after many years. While PSYCHO has gained a reputation, and deservedly so, as a masterpiece today, PEEPING TOM I still think divides the viewers. It remains an unsettling work.

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  13. Paulo Dipe says:

    I watched this movie on our lutittle Hotpoint TV set when I was only a teenager, in the seventies. Astounding, I guess, but also curious and very amazing…I liked it very much!!!

    Like

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