Retro Review: Peeping Tom (1960)

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.

18 thoughts on “Retro Review: Peeping Tom (1960)

  1. Pete, you haven’t heard a peep out of me since my initial comment about your review. However, I can now say that I’ve watched “Peeping Tom.” After my Sunday hike, I settled in for the evening, and watched this unsettling film on I was going to take a jab at writing my own review, but since yours was right on point…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I promised Pam a ‘full review’. Sent her a link by email.
      I shouldn’t love this film, because of what it is about. But I do, because of Powell, and that sense that it shook the industry, in 1960.
      Best wishes, Pete. x


  2. This is already on my must watch list thanks to your previous posts Pete. I do want to say though I have very strong feelings regarding the question of whether we should feel sympathy for a serial killer who was abused as a child. Having survived an abusive mother myself my answer is “absolutely not!” It’s the same answer I have toward survivors of child abuse who go on to become abusers themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for keeping me abreast of 1960s British cinema. I must inform you, however, that on strict moral grounds I absolutely, unequivocally refuse to watch this film!!

    (Having said that, I wouldn’t mind a bit of peeping at key moments, as soon as I figure out how to take a screen shot in Windows after putting those moments on pause.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am up to date on ‘Outlander’.
      If you find ‘Peeping Tom’ dated by today’s standards, just try to remember that this was simply incredible, for viewers in 1960. 🙂
      (And for me, in 1967)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is such a disturbing film on so many levels and I admire Powell for taking every one of his provocative risks. Surely he must have known the reaction the film would receive (though not to the ludicrous career ending extent) yet he never compromised. This is artistic courage and integrity of the highest order. I suspect a great deal of the credit Hitchcock gets with “Psycho” as a seminal influence, often in the complete absence of any mention of “Peeping Tom”, has to do with the easy attraction of commending commercial success rather than penetrating the mysteries of artistic merit. Then again, supposedly level headed critical circles have been suckered into thinking that Spielberg and Eastwood are both incomparable visionaries as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Chandler.
      I think Powell may have considered the changes in society would make everyone ‘ready’ for such an unusual and provocative film. He misjudged that by six or seven years, sadly. I consider Eastwood and Spielberg to be ‘sentimentalists’, not visionaries. Although I have enjoyed some of their films, I always know that the sentiment will be added with a ladle, rather than a teaspoon.
      Best wishes, Pete.


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