Watching the defectives
A YOUNG MAN (Carl Boehm, née Karlheinz Böhm) follows a prostitute home and murders her. All the while, he is secretly filming the dastardly deed with a camera hidden under his coat. Later on, he watches the film – seen entirely through the viewfinder – in the privacy of his rooms. This is not, we learn, an isolated incident.
It’s only when the aspiring snuff film-maker offs Moira Shearer in the same way that the police start to wonder about the quiet, clean fellow who leaves his camera running at all times. He talks, too, of his father, a noted psychiatrist who used his son as a research guinea pig and (important this) filmed the results.
This 1960 release is not the best film that Michael Powell put his name to; it’s scarcely noteworthy on a CV that includes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death. Nonetheless, Peeping Tom has generated more comment than any of the bona-fide masterpieces that Powell co-directed with his creative partner, Emeric Pressburger, in the 1940s and 1950s.
Peeping Tom lives on, nonetheless, cherished by Martin Scorsese and his contemporaries, scrutinised for juicy Freudian details by successive academics, and feared as a Worst Case Scenario by those seeking to create non-apologist art. Tellingly, after Peeping Tom, Powell rarely worked again.
Fifty years ago, Powell’s voyeurthriller appalled critics and punters alike. How could the co-creator of such ravishing spectacles as The Red Shoes have knocked out this tawdry, exploitative tale about perversions and prostitutes?
Watching the film now, it’s hard to understand the kerfuffle. Like the cod academic at the end of Psycho, Peeping Tom is careful to explain itself and to contextualise its diseased fancies. The protagonist kills for reasonably straightforward Oedipal reasons; the camera is a weapon; the audience is complicit.
The lens-framed killings retain a creepy power, but the central themes have been expanded to far more discombobulating effect by Michael Haneke in Funny Games and Srdjan Spasojevic in the forthcoming A Serbian Film.
Moral guardians take note: today’s shocker is tomorrow’s seminal, canonical text. We believe it’s called progress.
Scream screen time: Maxine Audley and Carl Boehm in Peeping Tom Directed by Michael Powell. Starring Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley