THE EM­PIRE MAS­TER­PIECE

Empire (UK) - - RE.VIEW - PEEPING TOM Michael Pow­ell’s peeky blinder PEEPING TOM is OUT now on DVD, BLU-RAY AND Down­load

DAVID FINCHER ONCE said he built his ca­reer on the as­sump­tion “peo­ple are per­verts”, but the same thought wrecked Michael Pow­ell’s. Peeping Tom — his mor­bid, com­pelling de­pic­tion of a sen­si­tive se­rial killer — was re­leased on 16 May 1960. Be­fore then, Pow­ell was Bri­tain’s most re­spected film­maker. After, he barely worked again.

As the mega­phone-wield­ing half of a part­ner­ship with screen­writer Emeric Press­burger, Pow­ell had re­ceived au­di­ence and ex­pert ac­claim for a se­ries of clas­sics, from The

Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp to The Red Shoes. Peeping Tom, his sec­ond post-press­burger pic, re­ceived the sort of crit­i­cal re­cep­tion that might now be re­served for a doc­u­men­tary in which Adam San­dler bar­be­cues pup­pies.

“It’s a long time since a film dis­gusted me as much as Peeping Tom,” wrote C.A. Le­je­une in The Ob­server. Derek Hill, in the Tri­bune, was rather more florid: “The only re­ally sat­is­fac­tory way to dis­pose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the near­est sewer. Even then the stench would re­main.” The funny thing is, he isn’t en­tirely wrong. Peeping Tom re­mains a film that makes you want to have a shower — pos­si­bly with bleach.

The UK dis­trib­u­tor pulled it and Pow­ell be­came per­sona non grata. The des­cent wasn’t quite im­me­di­ate — he fol­lowed Peeping Tom with an­other com­mer­cial flop, The Queen’s

Guards, and that prob­a­bly ex­pe­dited his film­mak­ing ex­ile to Aus­tralia. The Bri­tish

in­dus­try ar­guably wasn’t ter­ri­bly sad Pow­ell had stum­bled — a cock­sure ge­nius, dur­ing his time at the top he had dis­jointed more noses than a plas­tic sur­geon. Still, that doesn’t re­ally ex­plain the vit­riol. Peeping Tom wasn’t the only sex­u­ally outré and vi­o­lent film about a lonely young mur­derer re­leased that year. Not even the only one re­leased by a true film­mak­ing leg­end: Hitch­cock made a killing with Psy­cho.

The dif­fer­ence in re­cep­tion can partly be ex­plained by ex­pec­ta­tion: Hitch­cock, the con­sum­mate show­man, made a virtue of Psy­cho’s shock fac­tor and, any­way, Bri­tish crit­ics ba­si­cally ex­pected him to be vul­gar (it took the French, who wel­comed the film with open arms, to make him re­spectable).

The stronger rea­son, though, is within the films them­selves. Psy­cho gives you time to em­pathise with Nor­man Bates be­fore re­veal­ing his killer in­stinct. Peeping Tom not only re­veals Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) to be a mur­derer from the off, it makes you com­plicit. The film opens on his trem­bling eye as it opens. Then, through the viewfinder of his own, home film cam­era, we see a seedy Lon­don street and a bored pros­ti­tute in­form­ing him, “It’ll be two quid,” be­fore trudg­ing up to her bed­room, where erotic en­nui quickly turns to con­fu­sion and then ter­ror. Psy­cho is the proto-slasher pic most peo­ple have seen, but Peeping Tom fa­thers the genre’s most dis­turb­ing el­e­ment: the killer’s eye view. Our trem­bling, sad, lonely an­ti­hero is mak­ing his own mur­der­ous movie — the score seems to re­flect the film he is cut­ting, not the over­all pic­ture — and we are along­side him in his men­tal edit room.

Boehm spends 75 per cent of the movie look­ing as if he’s about to come and isn’t en­tirely happy about it. The trou­bling thing is that de­spite see­ing his bru­tal­ity you grow to feel sorry for this iso­lated boy, who re­lates to the world through a lens and a mind frac­tured by be­ing ex­per­i­mented on by his psy­chol­o­gist fa­ther (played by Pow­ell in the films within the film — with his own son, Columba, as the young Mark). Mark has spent his whole life afraid — and the film shows a ten­der affin­ity for ner­vous men who spend their lives in dark­ened rooms.

The script it­self was con­ceived out of ob­serv­ing fear. It was writ­ten by Leo Marks, a mas­ter code-maker and breaker in World War II, who spent years brief­ing agents who knew they were likely to die. “Peeping Tom,” he said, “was born in those brief­ing rooms. I be­came con­vinced that all cryp­tog­ra­phers are ba­si­cally voyeurs.” All film­mak­ers, too. Martin Scors­ese — an ar­dent fan, he cast Marks as the voice of Satan in The Last Temp­ta­tion Of Christ — has said Peeping Tom says ev­ery­thing that can be said about film­mak­ing: “the ag­gres­sion of it, how the cam­era vi­o­lates”. Not only is Peeping Tom’s Mark mak­ing his own grubby home movie, his day job is as a fo­cus puller at a film stu­dio, and per­haps the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing and trou­bling se­quence in the whole film is his care­fully chore­ographed killing of Moira Shearer — the star of The Red

Shoes danc­ing around a sound stage, eyes alive with hope and love and cre­ation, be­fore he shuts them for­ever. The film they are mak­ing each day is called, wryly, The Walls Are Clos­ing In, and so it goes for Mark as the film con­cludes — he can­not es­cape his na­ture, he can­not es­cape his fear. He is a mur­derer, but also a sad, needy vic­tim.

Peeping Tom re­mains a star­tling, un­seemly, shocking film about the plea­sure of watch­ing and the ter­ror of be­ing truly seen. The trailer told au­di­ences, “Fear him! But pity him also.” Him and, also, your­self.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) has Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) in his sights.

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