on 30 March 2007
At last a decent DVD release for this disturbing classic from nearly fifty years ago. Vilified and treated like a video nasty on its initial release this trip inside the mind of a pyschopath is still so fresh and refreshing. Recommended for all students of serious horror, the tale of a disturbed young mind with a blade on his camera tripod filming his victims expressions as he kills them is utterly gripping. Acting all round is top notch in a production way ahead of it's time. Recommended.
on 11 January 2001
Also released in 1960, Peeping Tom disgusted the censors and outraged the British Press to such a degree that Director Michael Powell found he had to move to Australia if he wished to continue his filmmaking career! The theme of scopophilia (pleasure from watching) is at the centre of this daringly ground-breaking movie as an affected cameraman (Mark) films the fear of the girls he murders to watch again and again! As he becomes emotionally entangled with his live-in tennant, his love for her becomes confused with his sociopathic desire to film her when she becomes frightened. A dark and interesting film, Peeping Tom addresses the very nature of cinema and the viewers' apparent complicity in the subject matter.
This is a great, unpleasant, disturbing film made by Michael Powell three years after he and his partner in the Archers, Emeric Pressburger, went their own ways. British critics loathed it, said so loudly, and the movie died within weeks of its release. Some say it destroyed Powell's career.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a young man who works as a camera puller at a movie studio, who also at night photogaphs girlie pictures for magazines. His father, a psychologist, studied the effects of fear by putting his son in terrible situations and then photographing the child's reactions. Lewis lives in the second floor of a house and often watches those movies while he sits alone in the dark.
Lewis also does something else. In the tripod of his camera there is a concealed knife. As he photographs a girl the knife pushes into her, while the camera films her face as she realizes she is going to die and then while she is dying. He plays back these movies, too. As you watch Peeping Tom you become a voyeur participant in what he is doing. He meets the young woman who lives below him and it is apparent that she is at first curious about him, but then attracted to him. He finds within himself an attraction that might be love, might be salvation, but which is conflicted. The movie plays out with tension, remorse and even sympathy. The ending is somewhat unexpected, but with hindsight also inevitable.
And maybe that is what made this movie so controversial. Lewis is a sympathetic figure. You know what his father put him through because you've watched those old movies. Boehm playes Lewis as a shy, nice, rather sad young man. Anna Massey, who plays Helen Stephens, the girl on the first floor, is a first-rate actress and in this role she is excellent. She eventually realizes something is wrong with Lewis, but still wants to give him love and help.
This movie was released just weeks after Psycho. Hitchcock's career was enhanced, Powell's was hurt. I think the difference was that while Norman Bates was weird to begin with and the frights were real, you could laugh at yourself afterward. Not so with Peeping Tom. The voyeur aspect of the deaths still make a viewer uncomfortable, and you can easily feel sad about the damaged Mark Lewis.
For fans of Michael Powell, he plays Mark Lewis' father in the old movie clips that show the fear experiments. Powell's young son played the young Mark Lewis.
This excellent edition of Peeping Tom from Studio Canal really has very good colour and image quality, giving you the full immediacy of Michael Powell's startling film. By any reasonable reckoning it should be an appalling film to sit through if you're not a fan of the serial killer genre, but Powell manages to subvert this expectation by presenting a story so human that a huge gulf opens between the nastiness of the killings and the sympathy you feel for the sad, psychopathic character who is perpetrating them. This is only possible in cinema, but it does incline us to try to understand more than make easy judgements in real life, so to that extent the film has a strong humanist core. Mark is in many ways a very gentle character who has been destroyed by his childhood, in which he was subjected to appalling experiments in fear by his father. The casting of Carl Boehm is an amazing coup, as you can only think how gentleness is this man's essential nature, however it may have been distorted. When he meets Anna Massey who lives downstairs with her blind mother, the stage is set for a tender drama of the heart that sets you reeling, such is the contrast with the flipside of Mark's actions. The film is shot in quite a lurid way, showing you what the character sees through his lens right up to the last second before he murders them. It is both intensely voyeuristic and a vivid Technicolor creation in which the viewer oddly feels buoyed up, generally, by the humanity of the director's gaze, and of the characters and mise-en-scene. It's hard to see how Powell pulls this off, but it is completely different from any other film of this type. It came out around the same time as Psycho, but a comparison reveals this film to be so much warmer, even if the surprise element of the killer's gentleness is a parallel. Peeping Tom, however, extends this over the whole frame to give a feeling of tenderness as the dominant note, sealed off from its horrific implications even as it considers the nature of sadism and the physical manifestation of extreme fear. The love of cinema and filmed images suffuses the whole thing, backed up by a superb score by Brian Easdale, who wrote the music for The Red Shoes also. Anna Massey, Moira Shearer and all the other actors, without exception, reflect the magical transformation that Boehm brings to the raw material of the lead. There is even a comic episode involving Shirley Anne Field as a fragile young actress unable to get through a few simple lines on a film set without breaking down, and another involving a girlie photographic shoot. This too fits in seamlessly; but ultimately it is a tragic love story, and one you can never quite get to the bottom of, its appeal is so disarming.
on 22 May 2008
Rarely has a film been loved and hated as much as Peeping Tom. The censor's reaction has of course gone down in history, and rumours persist of longer, more complete cuts being out there somewhere.
Peeping Tom still has the power to divide audiences, with viewers typically split between finding it fascinating or boring. Given the manner in which cinema has upped the ante on depictions of sadism and brutality since Powell made this film, it's not surprising that many are disappointed with the lack of graphic violence or gore on display, or the films disdain for a conventional "thriller" type atmosphere.
However, on a cerebral level, Peeping Tom retains its capacity to disturb. Rarely has a film depicted the process of a killer being created so chillingly, nor the manner in which such individuals are capable of conflicted, dualistic personalities. Consider how many serial killers have been described to be charming and kind by others who knew them (Dennis Nilsen or Ted Bundy for example). The scenes showing this transition from shy man-child to confident killer are masterful, with Carl Boehm overcoming other more obvious limitations in his casting (the accent mainly) to portray this aspect unerringly.
Yes, Peeping Tom is a flawed film in some respects, but I believe it to be a masterpiece nonetheless. Its detractors point to the staged and somewhat theatrical feel of it and the melodramatic ending, but the extent to which it immerses you in the murky and deeply melancholy inner world of such a damaged man, as well as a grimy and realistic view of British society in the late 50's, more than compensate. It is an intriguing and complex film, raising questions about our own desire to watch what we are seeing on the screen, and begs discussion about its numerous themes and subtexts. It is quite rightly in my opinion described as a work of art, with all of the demands that art places upon the appreciator to lose themselves a little in the pursuit of some semi-hidden and undefinable truth.
Panned (and suppressed) on its release in 1960, resulting in the maligning of British cinema’s most unique talent, Michael Powell’s masterpiece is the sort of film which, if made 20 years later (or even today), would (I’m sure) be recognised by the critics as one of the medium’s all-time greats. And, although on face value it must have come as a shock to previous fans of Black Narcissus, A Matter Of Life And Death and The Red Shoes to witness this tale of Karlheinz Böhm’s troubled obsessive and voyeur, Mark Lewis, digging beneath the surface (as Martin Scorsese does in his introduction to the film on the 50th anniversary DVD) it is possible to discern similarities with, in particular, The Red Shoes’ tale of artistic obsession – albeit Powell takes this to the 'nth degree’ in Peeping Tom – as well as providing compelling (and, controversially, sympathetic) insights into the nature of sadism, fear, child 'abuse’, repression, heredity and even the influence of cinema (a 'killing camera’). Of course, the other major plus point of Powell’s film is the lush Eastmancolor cinematography of Otto Heller (he of The Ladykillers, Alfie and The Ipcress File fame), which is simply stunning on the digitally restored version.
Frankly, it’s a film which scores equally highly on both thematic and sensorial fronts, which (for me, certainly) dispels any superficial impressions of the film being 'dated’ (one or two hammy acting turns – mainly by 'doomed models’ – plus some dodgy 60s 'disco music’!). Leo Marks’ screenplay is acutely perceptive, pointing up society’s hypocrisy as the masses bemoan a prostitute’s grisly murder ('I can’t help thinking of that poor girl’) whilst 'girly pics’ adorn a newsagent’s window and 'dirty old men’ acquire under the counter brown packages. Powell’s film is, of course, also steeped in the man’s lifelong trade, as his film pitches Mark as focus puller in a film studio (filled, in a nice touch, with cantankerous directors and film buffs, 'You don’t get that in Sight & Sound’), as well as doing part-time ‘glamour photography’ on the side – and the director makes the film even more personal, casting himself as Mark’s cruel father (and his son Columba as the young Mark).
Acting-wise, Böhm is solidly impressive as the shy, softly spoken, 'perverted obsessive’, whilst (in another connection with The Red Shoes) Moira Shearer is reliable as the flighty studio 'stand-in’, Vivian, and Anna Massey also impressive as kindly 'society girl’, Helen Stephens, whose affections offer Mark a potential escape route from his nefarious world. In another cinematic masterstroke, Powell also cast the excellent Maxine Audley as Helen’s blind mother, providing Mark with a nerve-wracking 'dilemma of the senses’. Which brings us to heart of Powell’s film – its (still, to this day) terrifyingly realistic depiction of the nature of fear. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Hitchcock here – as it is to be certain as to whether Leytonstone’s finest directly influenced Powell – but I am constantly reminded of the 'master of suspense’ throughout Peeping Tom (scenes such as the pencils falling from Mark’s pocket, the obsessive espying in the dark a courting couple, the blind Mrs Stephens’ 'reveal’ in Mark’s studio and Helen’s fascination with Mark’s projector (and the latter’s subsequent focus on the former’s watching, 'It’s just a film, isn’t it?’)).
Undoubtedly, a latter day masterpiece of the medium (plus the 50th anniversary DVD contains a plethora of interesting extras).
on 4 May 2012
Peeping Tom (1960)
This is one of those films that is well preceded by its backstory. Director Michael Powell, one half of one of Britain's most famous filmmakers, Powell and Pressburger, committed career suicide with this film. The British public were so offended by this offering that the studios pretty much closed their doors to him, and one of our greatest filmmakers ever was prematurely finished, at the height of his powers. Only later, championed by the likes of Scorcese, did the world reevaluate Peeping Tom, and come to agree that it is a masterpiece. As a loss to filmmaking, it seems a similar story to that of Buster Keaton, after making the General, when it was a massive flop, and Keaton was not allowed the freedom to make his own films any more. He became a sideman, tied to a long-running inescapable contract, and ended up a frustrated alcoholic. Later, the film was recognised to be a masterpiece, some say the greatest silent film ever made, and one wistfully wonders what he might have produced had he not had his creative hands tied in such disastrous fashion.
This film, as you'd expect upon hearing of the reaction it forced from the public of the time, is brutal and shocking. Compared to Psycho (although Hitchcock suffered no similar public disgust), it is the story of a man who is only a "focus puller" in the movies, but who longs to be a film-maker. In his part time, he kills women with his camera, filming their last moments. By seeing what he sees while he does it, we are drawn into the murderer's mind perhaps more than in other killer films, and one wonders if this is one reason it feels so much more uncomfortable than other killer movies. Another reason for the outcry is that we don't see this man as just a cold-blooded killer. We learn some of his backstory, his painful childhood under a damaging and abusive father, who would wake his son in the middle of the night to film his terrified reaction to having a lizard dropped in his bed. Interestingly, these film flashbacks star the director Powell and his real-life son.
We gain sympathy for the killer, and understand some of his motives. He isn't sadistic. You get the feeling he doesn't like what he does, that he is messed up and confused and needs help. He is shy, nervous, and you can sense a longing to be rid of the nightmare and to be saved. His biggest chance of salvation comes from a neighbour, played by Anna Massey, although her blind mother, fantastically played by Maxine Audley, has strong reservations about the whole thing (as you may expect). But the more she delves into his past and his troubles, the more risk she runs of becoming his next victim, even though he's desperate for that not to happen. As we can see he wants her to be OK too, we see he is not fully in control, and is almost (but not quite) as powerless as we are. Thus we feel we are in the grip of something else, which is a very clever sensation, and almost pulls us away from hating HIM. We hate what he is fighting. We hate his father for having donet his to him. It's an interesting and very powerful sensation.
The cast are excellent, the story compelling, but the standout is the direction. Every shot is interesting and unusual, the colours strong and vivid, and the overall effect is one of continued creepiness. The whole film is soaked in unease, and I genuinely worried for all the people in the film. It almost felt as if there was no "baddy", certainly not in the normal serial killer sense, and I think that may be the thing that so terrified the people who ended up killing the film a few days into its initial release. I'm glad I got to see it, but I'm not sure I'd want to watch it again. It felt an ordeal, but a powerful and memorable one. Still, after all these years, the film has retained it's power to cause deep unease, in some ways even more than the more celebrated Psycho. It's a powerful film, and one can't help but wonder what Powell might have gone on to create. Above all the acted deaths in the film that people were upset by, it's the real death of Powell's film career, that their reaction caused, that we should mourn the most.
Peeping To is directed by Michael Powell and written by Leo Marks. It stars Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley and Brenda Bruce. Music is by Brian Easdale and cinematography by Otto Heller.
A famous (infamous) film for a number of reasons, not least that the fall out from its release effectively finished the career of the great Michael Powell. Interestingly now, still some 50 plus years later, there are still people discovering the film for the first time and not being sure what they have just watched; much like many critics back in 1960 as it happens! While horror seekers quite often come away disappointed that they haven’t seen a Jack the Ripper bloodshed movie. Apparently they see the words serial killer and expect gore and terror on tap.
As fans of the film will attest, Peeping Tom isn’t that sort of serial killer film, it’s a fascinating piece of work. A cunningly crafted observation of a darkened mind, of voyeurism, loneliness and child abuse. From the opening strains of Easdale’s skin itching piano the mood is set, then the brilliantly lurid colour scheme comes into play as troubled Mark Lewis (Boehm) hones in on a victim, a lady of the night about to be filmed in the throes of death. It’s the start of Powell and Marks’ ploy to make us complicit in Lewis’ actions, and then the makers challenge us to sympathise with him as his back story is revealed and also as he struggles with his affections for Helen Stephens (Massey) in the present day.
There is also a sly aside to the movie industry running through the picture, something which no doubt irked critics and film distributors back in 1960. There could maybe be an argument that the trauma and psychological thematics at work that underpin the plot are a little dated now? But what is still relevant is the film making – voyeurism angle as we today are constantly fed reality TV for entertainment purpose. The production is across the board grade “A”, the performances highly effective, with the unfairly maligned Boehm perfect as Lewis, the actor even providing shadings of Peter Lorre at times. Heller’s bold colour photography is disgustingly atmospheric, Easdale’s music a stalking menace and the sound department really come up trumps. Perfect.
Then of course there is Powell himself, deeply hurt by the savaging he received when Tom was released, it’s nice to note that before he passed away in 1990 he would see the film become a highly regarded piece of film making. It and he deserves praise, his direction is conceptually daring, his framing of Lewis methodical, and of course his camera is our eyes and ears, uncomfortably so. A remarkable and genius film. 10/10
on 1 December 2000
Truly ahead of its time, Michael Powell excelled himself and the minds of his audience with this extraodinary piece of work.
I remember first seeing this as a naive 12 year old late one night on BBC2 and it was the first film that truly moved me in a unexplainable way.
As you expect from Powell the use of colour is stunning, coupled with a difficult storyline. The film was panned on release and only due to the likes of Martin Scorsese has it become the classic that it always was.
Simply stunning, and easily ranks among Powell's best work. Buy it !
on 4 February 2011
It is bursting with ideas, being visually powerful but with feet firmly rooted to the ground. The British critics, hamstrung in their treatment of Powell due to their hang-up: the need for so-called realism, couldn't abide the real thing illustrating the complexities of the human psyche compared to the clear-cut lines they had the emotional range to deal with. They wished to `flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer'.
To see this film or other brilliant films by Powell and Pressburger on the cinema, search on this combination of words: 'events' 'pressburger' 'genius'. Peeping Tom, The Red Shoes, I Know Where I'm Going! Gone To Earth, A Matter of Life and Death, Thief of Bagdad and Red Ensign are all playing in the UK and France (and Iceland) between Feb and June 2011 and all the dates are to be found using these search terms.