Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

Released: 1960 by Michael Powell Theatre
Produced by: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Leo Marks
Starring: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Moira Shearer, Esmond Knight, Shirley Anne Field, Jack Watson, Nigel Davenport, Martin Miller, Miles Malleson, Pamela Green, Susan Travers, Bartlett Mullins, Michael Powell
Music: Brian Easdale and Wally Stott
Directed by: Michael Powell

Until very recently, it was not possible for the average person to compare Peeping Tom to Psycho. For more than three decades, the former film was lost in a cinematic purgatory, having been relegated to that fate by the demigod critics who found it wanting. Thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorcese, who rescued Peeping Tom from its untimely fate, we can now compare the merits of each film.

Director Alfred Hitchcock deliberately chose a black and white milieu in which to film Psycho, perhaps in a tribute to the great Universal Pictures horror films. Director Michael Powell, like Britain.s Hammer Studios, chose a vivid color palette to express Peeping Tom.s scenes of horror. There.s also a difference in cultural style between the two films. Psycho is every inch an American film, while Peeping Tom is peculiarly British. As an American, I am conscious of this as I watch each of the films. It may go a long way toward explaining the reaction of the British critics to Peeping Tom. They were coming at it from a whole different cultural direction. One has to wonder what they thought of Psycho when it came to Britain

Powell starts Peeping Tom with a bang. We witness a murder from the vantage point of the killer [Carl Boehm] as the film opens. Boehm looks clean-cut and innocent, and seems so tormented, that he develops a great deal of sympathy in the viewer. We find it hard to believe that he is a stone-cold murderer. Without using a single outright shock, director Powell nevertheless causes us to squirm in our seats at the intensity of watching a psychotic mind at work. The pace is indeed slower but all the more arduous for its leisurely exposure of depravity. The ending is far more final, since the killer dies (unlike Psycho where the killer merely winds up in an asylum). Perhaps Powell did not want any possibility of a sequel to exist. Psycho, as you may recall, spawned two inferior sequels.

The British critics made much of how utterly despicable Peeping Tom was. Because of Peeping Tom, Powell became a pariah and never really worked as a director in Britain again. Yet, put it alongside the horror films of today, its thrills seem mild. Perhaps Peeping Tom offered too unblinking a look into the aberrant, psychotic mind. Maybe the British critics found some intrinsic core of decadence in the subject matter of Peeping Tom, while the more freewheeling American critics enjoyed Psycho.s less psychoanalytical roller coaster thrills. I feel, however, that the hysteria over Peeping Tom was unwarranted.

Peeping Tom is known to many by a very brief appearance of the model/actress Pamela Green. Though her screen time is very limited, she.s a memorable presence. Michael Powell approached her for the film due to her large oeuvre of nude photography and because she would, unlike her female peers in the film, do an actual nude scene. The scene in question is extremely brief, given the year of its release but it adds an unforgettable touch of realism to the film. It.s too bad Pamela wasn.t allowed more screen time, for she certainly seemed to be as accomplished an actor as anyone else in the film.

Peeping Tom is a treat for any serious horror fan. A well thought out plot, combined with masterful direction, make the film a satisfying experience. I suppose some more time must pass before Peeping Tom can rightfully take its place beside Psycho. It is certainly as well crafted a film. It cost Michael Powell his cinematic career to create his unique vision of horror. I think Peeping Tom deserves a chance with today.s horror audience. Watch Peeping Tom and Psycho together and enjoy some good, old-fashioned thrills from both sides of The Pond.

Peeping Tom (Digitally Restored) [DVD] [1960] (DVD)

Director: Michael Powell
Starring: Karlheinz Böhm, Moira Shearer
Rating: To Be Announced

Michael Powell lays bare the cinema's dark voyeuristic underside in this disturbing 1960 psychodrama thriller. Handsome young Carl Boehm is Mark Lewis, a shy, socially clumsy young man shaped by the psychic scars of an emotionally abusive parent, in this case a psychologist father (the director in a perverse cameo) who subjected his son to nightmarish experiments in fear and recorded every interaction with a movie camera. Now Mark continues his father's work, sadistically killing young women with a phallic-like blade attached to his movie camera and filming their final, terrified moments for his definitive documentary on fear. Set in contemporary London, which Powell evokes in a lush, colourful seediness, this film presents Mark as much victim as villain and implicates the audience in his scopophilic activities as we become the spectators to his snuff film screenings. Comparisons to Hitchcock's Psycho, released the same year, are inevitable. Powell's film was reviled upon release, and it practically destroyed his career, ironic in light of the acclaim and success that greeted Psycho, but Powell's picture hit a little too close to home with its urban setting, full colour photography, documentary techniques and especially its uneasy connections between sex, violence and the cinema. We can thank Martin Scorsese for sponsoring its 1979 re-release, which presented the complete, uncut version to appreciative audiences for the first time. This powerfully perverse film was years ahead of its time and remains one of the most disturbing and psychologically complex horror films ever made. --Sean Axmaker, Amazon.com
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