Michael Powell is arguably the greatest British Director to ever live, famous for such masterful films as “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus,” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” but after he made “Peeping Tom,” his career, for all intensive purposes was over. The movie opened and closed in a week, got horrific reviews from pretty much every British journalist, and was practically forced to leave the country in order to find any work at all, and he didn’t find much. Coming out the same year as Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which solidified its director’s status, this film which may even be somewhat creepier, destroyed the man behind it. Now, the film is considered a classic, but it was controversial, at least among the film industry because of its implication that a filmmaker would want to kill its audience (And maybe moreso that the audience was a willing witness).
The movie follows a man named Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm) who carries his camera around like an extension of his body, as he claims to be filming a documentary when not taking cheesecake photographs at the local sleaze book store, or working as a focus puller at a major film studio. (A focus puller is also known as the 1st Assistant Camera or 1st AC, and his job is to be the lens guys for the camera, including adjusting the focus of the lens while the shot is going on [and usually they're doing that, without seeing the image that's inside the camera]; it's actually one of the most difficult jobs on a film set and requires very extensive and intimate knowledge of cameras, often more than a cinematographer even.) But, Mark’s camera is also his weapon of choice, having refashioned his tripod as a weapon that enables him to kill the people he photographs, and then makes them watch their expressions as they see what their fear looks like. One victim, Vivian (Moira Shearer, who starred in Powell’s “The Red Shoes”) is killed after getting up to his apartment under the impression that he was photographing her dancing.
He’s a son of a famous research psychologist who studied the effects of fear by bugging his entire house an photographing every moment of his kid’s life he can imagine, up to and including the moments where he continual scares his son so as to document his findings. It’s like that behaviorist that took a baby and put him in a room with a white mouse, and would then slam a hammer every time the mouse came near the kid, so the now the kid, as a grownup, has an irrational fear of white mice and doesn’t know why (That’s an actual study I just listed by the way). Now, Mark, when not looking through the window of his neighbor’s apartment he spends his days watching his old childhood films, as well as his own experiences on how to truly capture fear on camera. The movie opens on a street where we eventually see the point of view of his camera as he notices a plainly dressed prostitute on the street-corner, which we continuously follow behind her, until she becomes his first unsuspecting victim. Meanwhile, his young neighbor Helen (Anna Massey) seems to have taken a fascination with him, and forced her way into his life, even at one point, allowing her to take his camera and store it for a night out, which he eventually regrets. Even after kissing her after one date, his immediate reaction is to kiss his camera when she’s not looking. Austrian actor Karl Boehm, was not the initial choice for the role of Mark, but that disconcerting accent of his that could easily be confused for Peter Lorre if your eyes were closed, gives his character an added sense of fear, fright and danger. Martin Scorsese, a great admirer and historian of Powell’s has claimed that “Peeping Tom,” and Fellini’s “8 ½” are the two films that totally exhibit the inner workings of a filmmaker. Hmm, I think “8 ½” is a little closer but this movie does, capture a filmmaker’s subversive nature. Nowadays, the implications made from the hyperbole and outrage over the film seem distant to the film itself. Powell’s films were usually more epic and luxurious in appeal, and you do get that sense that he’s a great filmmaker who’s playing with a different filmmaker’s tools and themes at times. Perhaps the shock that it was Powell who made “Peeping Tom” is what shook everyone at the time. Today, it seems to foreshadow the more voyeuristic sides of our nature, the one that would say, helps us appeal to the more questionable aspects of reality television. Without those symbolic implications though, “Peeping Tom” remains this creepy profile of a tortured villainous murderer, that’s got an air, like many serial killers, for the artistic, in both life, his crimes, and inevitably his death. "Peeping Tom", is the ultimate look deep inside the most depraved thoughts and desires of the filmmaking, and possibly the film viewer as well.