#259 Peeping Tom

(1960, Michael Powell)

“Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear”

We’ve talked about The Archers before. A British production duo consisting of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with Powell doing the directing and Pressburger doing the production, and the two of them sharing writing duties. Their films were typically very stuffy British movies about things like ballet and nuns.

That was until Powell decided to go solo and make Peeping Tom, a movie about a serial killer. So a detective movie then? A Hitchcock-style thriller of mistaken identity? Well, not exactly. The serial killer is the protagonist, and this controversial choice caused the end of Powell’s directing career as a result of the backlash the movie received. Interesting. Let’s take a look.

Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), an amateur filmmaker in the process of making his secret masterpiece, a film about death that captures the expressions of women about to be murdered in gruesome detail. And how does he achieve these shots? Why, he goes out and kills women using a sharpened tripod, of course! Meanwhile, his neighbour Helen (Anna Massey) takes an interest in him and attempts to befriend him, unaware of his psychotic nature.

In a way, this is a similar movie to Psycho, released in the same year. Of course, I loved Psycho, so it would stand to reason I might potentially like another insight into the mind of a serial killer. Then again, you do have to remember that I hated Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, so this could go either way.

Peeping Tom is full of some really great concepts. It does an excellent job of using filmmaking itself as a theme to all the violence. It’s a slasher film that criticises slasher films, in a more subtle and less cheesy way than Scream attempted thirty years later.

The problem with the movie lies in the exploration of Mark’s psyche. While Psycho prided itself on drawing out the information we get about Norman Bates, Peeping Tom decides to just flat out tell you right at the start why Mark is the way he is. We get a long explanation about his relationship with his father and how he was used as a guinea pig in a giant experiment, and it’s somewhat disappointing that we get so much information in so little time.

There were other issues too, namely plot holes. For an socially-awkward man who always seems to turn up at crime scenes with a video camera filming the investigations, it’s bizarre how he’s never considered a suspect until late in the story. It’s also strange how his neighbour views him, especially after he stares at her through the window of his flat, and she notices. She never gets creeped out by him, despite the fact that any sane person would have done.

The movie also suffers the same stiff Britishness as our last movie, although this isn’t nearly as pronounced. In fact, Boehm fights a great battle against it. While a lot of his line deliveries are still elocution-lessoned to hell, there is a real sense of uneasiness permanently surrounding his character. He’s twitchy, awkward and tortured. He’s every bit as excellent as Anthony Perkins in Psycho at playing a character with severe disorders that lead him to kill.

Peeping Tom has a great atmosphere throughout. While the reveal of Lewis’ past feels a little too blatant and heavy-handed, there’s still plenty to cling to here for suspense, such as why Lewis does what he does. Why film his victims? Why the mirror on the camera? Why always women? And what exactly is he trying to achieve by accumulating blatant evidence against himself?

I also really liked the relationship between Mark and Helen, despite the flaws with her character. The relationship really helped humanise our protagonist and make him more than just a horrific killing machine. We see that there’s a good person in there somewhere, it’s just buried under a terrible compulsion to murder. It’s a strange, sometimes uncomfortable relationship, but it’s one that really rounds out the film.

Ultimately, Peeping Tom is an excellent murder thriller that takes the daring step of taking the murderer’s perspective, and I loved it despite its flaws. Definitely a great companion piece to Psycho.

Starring Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey & Maxine Audley
Written by Leo Marks
Produced by Nat Cohen
Music by Brian Easdale
Cinematography by Otto Heller
Edited by Noreen Ackland

Favourite Scene: The long, elaborate murder of the actress was pretty tense. You know it’s coming, but the scene is drawn out to the point of being painful. In a good way, of course.
Scene That Bugged Me: I found the blind neighbour a very strange addition to the movie, and she sometimes came off as creepier than the protagonist.

Watch it if: You like murder thrillers
Avoid it if: Like last time, you’re allergic to the British

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Posted on February 18, 2014, in 1960s, Crime, Horror, Thriller, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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