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Sunday, 12 December 2010

Peeping Tom - 1960

Director Michael Powell and his frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger (known as The Archers, they co-directed, co-produced and even co-wrote many films) are in my opinion some of the best British directors, with such amazing films as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes to their names.
Powell was always more associated with the direction of the films, and  Pressburger with the scripts, and while that is generally how they worked they did pretty much everything as a duo.
After many years of working together and having raised their names alongside other great British directors such as David Lean and Carol Reed, they parted ways to explore different projects, Emeric Pressburger continued writing scripts for many years and Michael Powell directed Peeping Tom, one of the most infamous films of it's time. This film effectively ended his career as it was almost universally panned and labelled as pornographic, which is absurd.
Although Powell did direct about five other films, they were mainly failures due to the bad reputation caused by this film and his career was entirely finished by the early 1970's.

Over the years it has been forgotten and even ignored, but recently Peeping Tom has been restored and more and more people are recognising it for the masterpiece of film making that it truly is.
So now 50 years after it was released, misunderstood and then forgotten, I watched this magnificent film and present my review:

Before watching this film I saw Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes to familiarise myself with the directors style of film making and obviously because they are amazing films, but I would say that Peeping Tom had far more of an effect of me than the aforementioned films. Now this is probably because it deals with film making, in a very unique and sometimes disturbing way.
I aspire to become a director and I'm sure many of you reading this do as well, if you do then I would strongly recommend this film, it is unique in it's subject matter and the way it represents film making.

Peeping Tom was released the same year as Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho, and as both films deal with deranged young men with a penchant for murdering young women, they have been compared to one another often, some have even gone so far as to call Peeping Tom, The British Psycho. I find the similarities to be rather superficial, and the comparison slightly puzzling as Psycho boosted Hitchcock's career while Peeping Tom had the reverse affect for Powell.

In my opinion, Peeping Tom is an even better character study then Psycho. Peeping Tom tells the story of a young English man named Mark Lewis, the first scene is from his point of view, we see him murdering a prostitute, while filming the crime with his camera. This opening scene grabs the viewers attention and starts the film perfectly but it's not until the next scene that the character of Mark is truly developed and revealed, we see him watching his film of the murder later at home, in a room especially designed for this purpose.

So we are introduced to a murderer who is obsessed with his camera and never puts it down, he films the events that unfold throughout the film, the various murders, the police investigation, the conclusion to the case...When questioned he claims he's making a documentary. And he is, but it's a very disturbing one.
I won't go any deeper into the plot, it is very cleverly written and original, as well as providing a view into Cinema that was unseen before.

The two aspects of the film that really elevate this film into an excellent character study and a original view on cinema, are Carl Boehm performance and Powells' distinct style of film making.
Carl Boehm with the camera, one of the best and most original killers in cinema.
Carl Boehms' expert performance really makes the character memorable and separates him from the countless other killers in film.
Many have complained about his strong German accent even though he plays an Englishman, but I personally wasn't bothered by it much at all. His performance is captivating in it's creepiness, yet it is not an all out horrible performance as Mark Lewis is a complex character, I found myself pitying him several times throughout the film and that, I think, is due to Boehms' wonderful performance.
The rest of the cast was good, nothing spectacular though, they were all overshadowed by Boehms' performance, Moira Shearer was good but nowhere near as great as in The Red Shoes, Anna Massey was also good as the innocent young Helen.

The distinctive opening sequence is one you won't forget in a hurry.
Powells' was obviously a talented director and one of Britain's best.
While this film doesn't have the swooping grandeur of Black Narcissus nor the fantastical imagery of the Red Shoes, it is still very well shot, the atmosphere was just perfect and the opening sequence seen through the killers' camera is extraordinary.
Another scene that really stood out for me, was the scene in which Helen views one of Marks' films for the first time and come to realise some dreadful truths, instead of showing the screen like most directors would in a n effort to shock the audience, all we see is Helens' face and  varying expressions as she watches.

The rest of the film often varies between "normal" footage and scenes obviously shot by Mark, these scenes are often subtly disturbing and bring the films title to mind instantly.
I think that the uncomfortable feelings that are sometimes provoked by this film and the reasons it was so hated upon it's release, would be because it present cinema in an ugly almost dirty way, it makes the audience feel like voyeurs, like Peeping Tom's, and people reacted strongly to this.
But I do think that these aspects of Cinema and film making should not be ignored just because they are distasteful, I think Cinema and voyeurism are in some ways similar, as a member of an audience we are watching peoples lives and stories unfold before us while we watch passively. Of course they are portrayed by actors and are often fictional, but I think the subject deserves some thought. As does the invasive aspect of the camera, in this film for example victims are filmed in their last moments of life and even as they die, this footage is captured on film and can be kept for ever by this sinister killer, this is the dark side of Cinema, Mark is constantly filming all that takes place, people naturally assume that it's an innocent project but they do not know where this footage will end up and what purpose it will serve, you never can be sure were footage of you will end up.

But the film isn't really a massive technical achievement, I think that could partly be blamed on the harsh censuring it was subjected to on it's release. This causes the film to have a rather rough feel to it, as many scenes were shortened and some dialogues are even cut of abruptly.

Now I must briefly mention the score to this film, it is much better than most scores of it's time, and it really sets the atmosphere and the tone of the film as soon as it starts, I would have wanted to find an example of the core but I wasn't able, all I could find was the trailer for the film here. (It's a pretty badly done trailer, don't be put off the film by it!)

The Character of Mark Lewis:
What really makes this film interesting, is the complex character of Mark Lewis, and any review of the film wouldn't be complete without elaborating on this point as without it the film wouldn't be half as good.

Mark comes across as a timid and eager-to-please young man, but also as an extremely lonely one, he is very socially awkward.
Much of his disturbances and strange behaviour stems from his relationship with his father, this aspect of the film has been widely praised (by more recent viewers of course) and is most interesting from a psychological point of view. 

I really liked this shot, I'm not exactly sure why though, maybe it's because of the way the projection on Marks back resembles a skull....
So the character of Mark Lewis really stands alone as far as killers in film go, in my opinion. He is easily one of the most complex and ultimately pitiable.
Yet he is not a entirely evil being as some villains in films are, he is the product of a disturbing childhood and extreme loneliness, but it is evident throughout the film that there is the capacity to do good still in him, this is evident mainly in the scenes with Helen, and most of it is thanks to Carl Boehm's wonderfully intense performance.

Peeping Tom is not a film anyone will enjoy, but I think it is compulsory viewing for anyone aspiring to be a director or to just to express themselves through film.As Martin Scorsese (who is a great admirer of this film and played a large part in restoring it's popularity) points out:  "I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. 8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films"

I highly recommend it. It's a very interesting film that deals with fear, violence, insanity and voyeurism. Needless to say there are not many others like it!

(Many people seem to think of this film as a Horror film, I think of it more as a critique of Horror films, as Horror directors cause deaths (false ones of course) in attempts to frighten the audience, but here Mark causes deaths while at the same time frightening victims (you'll find out how when you see the film) and recording their fear. So even if Horror isn't a genre you enjoy (as is my case) then I would still recommend watching this.)

If you are unable to find it anywhere near you (like I was) then you can always resort to downloading it here.


  1. Sounds very intriguing, Jack. There actually seems to be a point to this film, albeit a disturbing one. I cannot say the same for a another disturbing film that someone reviewed recently called SALO. In that it doesn't deal with children, at least, it doesn't seem to from your description, and that I really like PSYCHO I will have to be on the lookout for this one. Great job as always.

  2. Thanks Sparky, I can always count on you to read my stuff :)

    I've read a few reviews of Salo, it looks seriously horrible and I don't plan on watching it, this film is very mild by today's standards, there's no blood, no swearing, extremely slight nudity, yet it was still shocking when it was released.

    If you liked Pyscho then I can fully recommend this one they are both great films!

  3. Great review Jack. I want to see this but it has become hard for me to find...

  4. Hey,nice post. I liked Psycho, I was not aware about this movie. I will definitely take a look.

  5. @CACB
    thanks man, you can find it easily on Amazon...

    Thanks, if you liked Psycho then I can recommend this, hope you enjoy it!

  6. Lives there a man with soul so dead as to resist a psycho clone?

  7. Nice quote, unfortunately I don't know who it's by unless it's one of your own :)

    Still, thanks for reading!

  8. Very interesting. Forgot about this film. Thanks!

  9. You're welcome, and thank you for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it!

  10. "Lives there a man with soul so dead
    Who ne'er to himself hath said
    This is my own, my native land."


  11. Ah! Stevenson, great author.

    I could never quote his work of the top of my head though, I'm impressed!

  12. This movie sounds great. I am also interested in the art of filmmaking and I will be sure to watch this at some point. Are the disturbing scenes graphically so? or is it done more like Psycho when Norman stabs the woman in the shower and we only get to hear it not see it?

  13. Thanks Eric and I'm sorry for my long delay in responding, my internet was cut :(

    Anyway, to answer your question, this film really isn't graphic, it contains little blood and scarcely noticeable nudity, it's more the general atmosphere and the character that are disturbing.
    I would fully recommend it!