Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is a nasty gem of a film. Obsessive, provocative, disturbing, deeply sad—Peeping Tom is all of these things and more. This year marks the 50 year anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but it also marks 50 years of Powell’s Peeping Tom, another film about a homicidal maniac, that was released just three months prior to Psycho. While Psycho was a success out of the gate, Peeping Tom became a career killer for Powell (he continued making films for years after, but it was difficult to get studio backing and much less box office attention was paid to the unfairly maligned director). The British press abhorred it, and the dark subject matter was met with a sharp sting of controversy across Britain. It was Powell’s first film after breaking with longtime co-director, Emeric Pressburger, and as a solo effort it had a decidedly singular vision. Written by Leo Marks, Peeping Tom is the culmination of Powell’s obsession with obsession; its destructive power can be seen thematically through many of his films, but here, it is all-consuming, an idea brought to a most devastating conclusion.
Mark Lewis (Carl Bohem) is a lonely, tightly-wound cameraman (specifically a focus-puller) working at film studio. In his off-hours he shoots pin-up photos of women which he sells for a tidy little profit to a newsagent on his block and labors over an ongoing personal project: documenting the moment of fear before someone is killed. A young Anna Massey plays his naive neighbor, Helen who has a serious crush on Lewis. Massey is wonderful in this role, playing the mousey woman to its full potential; Helen is simultaneously frightened, repulsed and excited by Lewis and his hobbies. Only Helen’s blind mother, played by Maxine Audley, suspects that there is something truly sinister about Lewis.
In many ways, Peeping Tom is much more unsettling than Psycho, its sadistic nature more overt. Powell’s character study is certainly more layered. Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates could, at times, be ah-shucks charming, but Carl Bohem’s Mark Lewis is downright creepy, a filmmaker with a troubled past and a present that is getting decidedly worse. Bates is a sociopath, it is clear, and, as Hitchcock alludes to, this probably had something to do with the relationship with his mother. Powell on the other hand is far more forthcoming with his character; experiments into fear conducted by Lewis’ father no doubt lead to the killer’s anti-social behavior. Lewis’ father is an even greater monster than he, which complicates matters. Many critics have said that Powell draws a sympathetic character with Lewis; I’m not sure how sympathetic he is, but the origin of his sickness is something that the audience is hard pressed to dismiss. And where Psycho’s voyeurism was a metaphor for the relationship between the audience and cinema, Peeping Tom’s voyeurism is all about the voyeuristic nature of the cinema itself, and of filmmaking. Powell is not beating around any metaphorical bushes with this film, and perhaps this is what shocked so many people at the time: the very implication that the sadistic filmmaker and the audience are so inexorably tied together.
Like all of Powell’s films, Peeping Tom is gorgeous to look at. His love of red is everywhere, the color drawing even more meaning with this film in particular. There are also shocking blues and greens, golds that do more than just shimmer; they intensify the very scenes they are in. Powell used the process of Technicolor better than most directors, taking advantage of its inherent un-naturalism to give his color films an other-worldliness. (The vivid color and lighting of Peeping Tom often reminds one of the early color films of Mario Bava, like Black Sabbath (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1963); it would be interesting indeed if Peeping Tom had some influence on Bava’s approach). The color palette Powell uses is sumptuous and vivid, it’s so inviting that you find yourself falling easily into this world, which is all the more unsettling.
Had Peeping Tom been made in the United States, it might not have met with such rancor. Directors like William Castle made a career out of films with this sort of subject matter (of course, Powell was not necessarily operating on the level of exploitation or b-movie horror). In sharp contrast, by the beginning of the sixties, Alfred Hitchcock had been making films for years within the American studio system, and had become, essentially, an “American” director, his much more mannered English films far behind him. Powell was very much an Englishman, but his approach to films could be decidedly, un-British; politeness, restraint, these were not ideas he practiced. He often delved into the darkness of humanity in operatic ways (especially with films like The Red Shoes (1948) and Black Narcissus (1947) ) and frequently undermined the domestic realism that was the cornerstone of British cinema.
Peeping Tom and Psycho seemed to be forever linked, as much for their close release dates, as for their similar subject matter. Both are films that have withstood the test of time to be sure, their shock value still firmly intact, but with Peeping Tom, Psycho’s demented cousin from across the pond, the horrors run deeper, often nightmarishly so.