Director: Michael Powell
Cast: Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley
Peeping Tom is a UK film that was ahead of its time. It is sometimes compared to Hitchcock’s extremely successful and critically acclaimed Psycho, however, unlike Psycho it was not well received at the time, despite a modern cult following. It lacks the explicit visuals of many modern horror films yet there is something very unsettling, disturbing and fascinating about this film even 50 years later. Part of that fascination has to do with a subject that is deeply disturbing, the idea of snuff films; killing someone on camera. The movie follows an introverted focus puller who works for a British film studio and the disturbing obsession he pursues in his free time. He refers to it as a documentary that he is working on, meanwhile people are turning up dead.
Part of what makes Peeping Tom so interesting is how it portrays the main character. Unlike so many horror movies from the early days of film that feature purely evil villains and monsters, this movie explores in greater depth the psychology of the main character. He is rounded out, and his motives are explored, which makes the movie all the more engrossing. In some respects it is more satisfying. Of course, that sort of psychoanalyzing of characters is much more common place in modern movies and television, but at the time, it must have been alarming to audiences when they started to feel sympathy for a man involved in such hideous crimes.
Another interesting aspect worth looking for and contemplating while watching the movie is the subtext which discusses the use of film within this film. It is an exploration not only of psychology, but of filmmaking and the motives and mindset of those behind the camera and those who consume that which is recorded by the camera; both moving and still pictures. The main character works in the “legitimate” world of film, but he also takes suggestive photographs for a man who sells pornographic and suggestive material behind closed doors, and then there is his “documentary.” He is part of what is accepted, what is underground but consumed, and part of what is taboo and criminal, yet they all have to do with film.
Karlheinz Böhm is fantastic as Mark Lewis. He manages to depict the perfect blend of awkwardness and menace. Peter Lorre springs to mind; creepy, but vulnerable, and Böhm’s performance keeps the viewers glued to his every mannerism. He is driven by his damaged childhood and his obsessions, but at the same time he is clearly fighting his awful urges, so while hopefully most reading this short article aren’t tempted to kill, I think he does sort of hold the mirror up to our own behavior, as we try to keep control of our own demons, but at the same time are tempted to act out and satisfy our more primal and sinister desires. Peeping Tom is both smart and spine tingling. It is a must-see, especially for fans of thrillers and horror.