“I understand you have some views for sale.”
–respectable-looking old man.

Michael Powell’s thriller has become something of a cinematic legend. Released in 1960, it beat Psycho to the screen by several months, delivering a superficially similar, twisted tale about a quiet young man with parental issues. Whereas horrified filmgoers embraced Alfred Hitchcock’s proto-slasher flick, critics and audiences reviled Powell’s dark vision, and it effectively ended his career. Years passed before viewers rediscovered and reassessed the film. The once-condemned film has since been declared a classic.

Title: Peeping Tom

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Michael Powell
Written by Leo Marks

Karlheinz “Carl” Böhm as Mark Lewis
Anna Massey as Helen Stephens
Maxine Audley as Mrs. Stephens
Moira Shearer as Vivian
Brenda Bruce as Dora
Esmond Knight as Arthur Baden
Michael Goodliffe as Don Jarvis
Martin Miller as Dr. Rosen
Jack Watson as Chief Insp. Gregg
Shirley Anne Field as Pauline Shields
Pamela Green as Milly
Miles Malleson as elderly customer
Bartlett Mullins as shop owner
Columba Powell as young Mark Lewis
Michael Powell as Dr. A.N. Lewis

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb

The director himself plays Carl’s abusive father; the director’s son plays Carl as a child. An awareness of these facts underscores the film’s central questions, while heightening its creepiness.

Available from Amazon.

Premise:

The film opens on a seedy street. The familiar view of the movie screen gives way to the grainy greys of a home-movie camera. An unglamourized prostitute quotes a price and we follow her up well-worn stairs.

Something terrifies her just before the owner of the home-movie camera kills her.

A twisted character study follows, and crime drama, with the emphasis on the killer rather than the detective. Carl uses the camera to record his crimes, the way his own father recorded Carl’s childhood suffering. And before he ends his victim’s lives, he does something else, something we do not really understand until the end of the film.

As the hunt for the killer intensifies, a kindly woman befriends Carl, and tries to bring him out of his shell.

High Points:

Throughout, the film raises questions about the media, morality, and perception, and does so with a mixture of horror and wit that recalls more than a little Alfred Hitchcock. Mostly it raises questions about film itself, a popular medium dedicated to voyeurism. Do moving images warp our perceptions? Create unhealthy obsessions? Desensitize us to acts committed against others? Are we on the way to becoming like Mark Lewis? These questions, in an era of omnipresent recording devices and interactive video games have become increasingly important—and yet we seem less concerned about asking them.

Low Points:

Some viewers will be disappointed with the film’s often slow pacing. Others, drawn by its frightful reputation or salacious title, will find it falls short, by contemporary standards. This is a horror movie, but it differs dramatically from most films that go by that name.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6 The film’s original hysterical response indicates how novel it seemed in 1960, though many of its themes and ideas had been explored before.

Effects: 4/6 The film has few real effects. It receives this score for some clever use of film technique. This may be the first horror movie to incorporate low-budget, hand-held camera as part of its style.

Story: 4/6 The story features a clever, bizarre premise. The story itself develops unevenly, and most audiences will accurately predict the ending.

Acting: 5/6 The main cast turn in strong, if stagey, performances. Böhm never entirely hides his German accent. The caliber of the incidental players varies; veteran British actor Miles Malleson gives an amusing, uncomfortable performance as an old man looking to buy pornography.

Production: 5/6. Some people will be put off by occasional staginess of the production, not unusual for the time. Better to note Powell’s remarkable handling of shots and character interactions.

Emotional Response: 5/6 Contemporary audiences may wonder what the fuss was about. The subject matter may be unsettling, but voyeurism, serial murders, and child abuse feature prominently on evening cop shows, and contemporary television handles them far more graphically than this film does. Despite the provocative title and controversial subject matter, Peeping Tom remains in many respects a film of its time. Michael Powell films his sex without nudity and his violence without gore. We see only a single drop of blood, once, and a single bare breast, briefly.

Overall: 5/6.

In total, Peeping Tom receives 33/42.

Peeping Tom and Psycho

Much has been made of the disparate fates that awaited this film and Psycho, No one can say for certain why these similar movies received such dissimilar responses. Certainly, Peeping Tom does more to indict the viewers for our voyeurism, and to make us identify and sympathize with a disturbed serial killer. Peeping Tom may have helped Psycho, a point made in Chris Rodley’s documentary about the film, A Very British Psycho. Partially because of Peeping Tom‘s negative reception, Hitchcock refused to screen his film in advance. Film critics, who had whipped up an hysterical response to …Tom, swaying opinions before anyone in the general public had a chance to decide, only saw Psycho with the premiere audience. Hitchcock also contributed his considerable showmanship to the advertising campaign. Few directors, before or since, have had his public profile, and Psycho, perhaps more than any of his other films, benefited from the fact. Peeping Tom ran briefly in England, and a heavily-edited version toured low-rent theaters elsewhere, marketed as a lurid horror movie.

Only in the 1970s would this prescient film be reassessed. By the 1980s, people were calling it a classic.