THE EMPIRE MASTERPIECE
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.