If you read my film posts, you will know that I have mentioned this film quite a few times. Released the same year as the much-lauded and far better known ‘Psycho’, it is a powerful psychological thriller about a serial killer, directed by the talented Michael Powell. Its main claim to fame is that it more or less ended that director’s career, as both the critics and the viewing public just didn’t get it. And sometimes when they did get it, they didn’t like it.
The lurid photography and disturbing subject matter resulted in Powell being vilified. Despite continuing to work on other projects later, this film effectively finished him off as a force in the cinema industry. When you consider that his previous work with Emeric Pressburger left us with such classics as ‘Black Narcissus’, ‘The Red Shoes’, and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, then you can see just how tragic it was to lose him.
‘Peeping Tom’ later achieved cult status, and rightly so. It was a landmark British film, and in my opinion superior to ‘Psycho’ in every way imaginable. So, what was all the fuss about?
Austrian actor Carl Boehm plays photographer and aspiring film-maker, Mark Lewis. He operates in the seedy world of soft-porn photography in London’s red light district, Soho. The money he earns from the dubious ‘glamour’ shots enables him to try out his cine camera, getting occasional jobs with a mainstream film crew. But he has a dark past, one that has affected him beyond repair. From flashbacks and old cine camera footage, we discover that he was used in experiments by his father. He was deliberately terrified, and his fear caught on camera. That has left him with the desire to replicate those experiments, and to improve on them.
He conceals his small camera, and deliberately encounters a prostitute. Back in her room, he films her as he kills her, then rushes home to watch the results on a projector in his room. This behaviour becomes addictive, and he begins to stalk other women to kill and film. Meanwhile, a young woman who lives in the shared house has become attracted to him. Helen (Anna Massey) makes so secret of wanting to be his girlfriend. But he is afraid to become attached to her, knowing how his compulsion might surface. She eventually screens one of his films while he is out of the house, resulting in the eventual climax.
Considering it was made in 1960, this film stretched almost every boundary of what was seen by the public at the time. It was the first film on general release to ever show a naked female breast, albeit briefly. It exposed the underworld of pornographic photography, with prints and films available from apparently innocent corner shops and newsagents. And years ahead of video cameras, it used the viewfinder of Mark’s camera as a ‘POV’ for the viewer, taking us close-up into the action, right up to the deaths of the victims. It could also be the first film to ever feature ‘Snuff’ films, as Mark watches his own films of the murders he has carried out. I will repeat the date. 1960. We had seen nothing like it. (I saw it some seven or eight years later, as I was too young when it was released.)
Powell uses all his talents to good effect. Some location filming in London, backed up by convincing sets. A solid but not showy cast, all taking their roles very seriously. And the use of light and shade, colour too, to show changes of tension and mood. The music on the soundtrack is effective without being overly-intrusive, and the feel of the era also makes it historically interesting. London was changing, along with the rest of the world. Pop music was in its infancy, fashions becoming important, and the new generation of young people no longer wanted to be like their parents. Taken in the context of its time, this film was jumping a few years ahead, to the permissive London of the Swinging Sixties that was just around the corner.
Seen in retrospect, Powell’s film is both important, and challenging. Can we really sympathise with a serial killer, because he was abused as a child? This was one of the first films to even pose that question. Does an audience feel excitement as it focuses close to the moment of a young woman’s death? Maybe it did, and perhaps that’s why people found it to be so uncomfortable to watch.
For me, it remains as one of the greatest British films of its time, and has not been bettered since.