Watch­ing the de­fec­tives

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

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

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