REVIEW: Peeping Tom [1960]

“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”

The Criterion Collection has always been at the forefront of delivering the general masses with contemporary classics for years now. Some may question the selection process and a few mainstream hits being graced with the askew ‘C’, but I do believe they should be given the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to Michael Powell’s psychological horror film Peeping Tom, I do think they have chosen a piece of work that, while it may not be great cinema, is important to the history of cinema. While watching it today, I’ll admit to not being overly frightened or tense by what was occurring. However, the fact that it was made in 1960 really does put the camera tricks and subject matter in context. Jack Valenti didn’t take over the MPAA until 1966, ushering in a new period of leniency for ratings with American films. Hollywood had to worry about language when it released Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that same year, yet in Britain, Powell was crafting a taut film about voyeurism, depicting a woman’s murder through the first person lens of the audience, half a decade earlier.

It all begins quite chillingly with our lead character Mark Lewis finding a ‘lady of the night’ standing alone in front of a display window on the street. He turns on his camera, hidden within his coat, and follows her to her room, where she assumes she’ll be performing two quid worth of pleasure. Instead we watch as she leads him, following her ourselves just as Mark does, peering through the lens of his camera. We as an audience become the voyeur, helpless to make our own decisions and helpless to stop the malicious deed to come. Unknowing what the film’s villain is doing to elicit the absolute face of fear in front of us, catching just a glimpse of a shining light, we must watch as the screen gets closer and closer to her until fading to black. Talk about an effective way to get you invested in the story at hand, not only do we discover who the murderer is—the film’s lead role of Mark—we also become a part of the crime right from the get-go. The journey then becomes one of finding out what has made him the monster he is, as well as whether or not he will strike again or get caught.

I don’t want to nitpick or belittle the achievement of this film, but it does need to be said that it isn’t necessarily the most professional job put to celluloid. While the writing is pretty well honed into showing us exactly what it is we need to know without cluttering the proceedings with unnecessary fluff, some of the lines and events are rather broad and obvious. It could be that the writing is just fine and perhaps it’s the over-the-top acting that causes it all to be so heightened in emotion and expression, though. Karlheinz Böhm gives us his best Peter Lorre impression, switching back and forth from intelligent homicidal maniac to frightened, bug-eyed simpleton looking as though he’d be afraid of his own shadow. His reaction shots are very overdone, but the way he transitions from giddy boy with a crush to serious collector of fear on film unveils a real example of craft. There is also his young love interest and downstairs neighbor Helen Stephens played by Anna Massey. She portrays the curious innocent with a bit less subtlety than desired, but I do think the acting style on screen here is a product of its time, amateurish because I am looking back half a decade in time. Even her mother, Maxine Audley, is creepier and more mysterious in her blindness, with a sixth sense for danger, than realism would ever allow.

The story itself delves into the psychological and biological workings of the human mind. We soon discover facts about Mark’s childhood with his scientist father experimenting on him, finding the true face of fear, something more pure the younger you are. A voyeur himself, the deceased patriarch had literally filmed almost every second of his son’s life, even manufacturing events to cause nightmares and fright, studying the reaction and consoling him with a friendly pat on the back when the scare had ended. Seeing a light reflect off this boy’s head in the old home videos recalls the same glare on Mark’s victims today, lending the final reveal of its source to be that much more chilling, leading us to believe his sick, twisted documentary is an extension of those studies from the past. Each character is a pawn in Mark‘s mild-mannered and shy existence, all just a role for him to film and manipulate as they serve their purpose in his charade. Only when he feels a true emotional connection to one is he able to temper his lust for a distorted scream. The draw of that fear is too over-powering to resist, though, causing him to not be able to film Helen, not wanting to risk this love that had always been absent.

As a whole, Peeping Tom does do its job at drawing the audience in for the ride. The story itself progresses nicely and reaches its logical conclusion without any twists and turns, playing out like it should without a need to pull the wool over our eyes. This is made possible because of Powell’s choice in filming a lot of it through the camera itself. I have to imagine that Michael Haneke had seen this film, instilling the desire to make his audience implicit in what they are watching. Leo Marks’s script is about a voyeur on the hunt for fear, able to cross that line and draw blood for his art. It is the ability to force those that watch into becoming voyeurs themselves that makes the movie so ahead of its time. By continuing to watch, we prove our own longing to see what one feels at the end, to let that pain and total panic wash over us. I feel that this is just a continuation of the progression to make the viewer more than just an observer.

I spoke of Peter Lorre earlier and it is his star turn in M that precedes this. There we had the villain become the character we follow and eventually relate to. That premise evolves here to the point where we see the killer partake in murder through his eyes, trapped by the director’s vantage point, unable to look away. Kathryn Bigelow expanded upon it once again thirty-five years later with Strange Days, utilizing the same camera tricks, only this time making us become the killer through virtual reality. I guess the only logical next step is to have those VR machines become non-fiction—snuff films ready to be experienced for recreation. I just hope that when it gets to that point, I might have the self-control to decline. I wouldn’t mind homicidal maniacs taking the plunge though, as opting out of doing the crime in reality for fiction could make the world a better place … unless it just ends up feeding their bloodlust more.

Peeping Tom 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

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