Peeping Tom airs on TCM this Saturday (October 4), as one of this month’s “Cult Films.”
I imagine this will provide many viewers with their first opportunity to view this infamous 1960 Michael Powell movie.
Interestingly, TCM is broadcasting Peeping Tom at 3 pm ET. This British picture’s contemporaneous, and condemnatory, critics might never have believed that, over half a century later, this movie would be beamed, unedited, into homes on a weekend afternoon.
At the Daily Express, Len Mosley wrote, “Neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta — has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression.”
The most famous pan was penned by Derek Hill at the Tribune, who declared:
The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer.
However, viewers hoping for (or dreading) an exercise in raw cinematic gore based on those old reviews will be surprised.
Instead, as Mark Chapman writes at the Bright Lights Film Journal, modern audiences are more likely to think of Peeping Tom “as a dark-hearted, midnight fantasia of ecstatic sadism, voyeurism, and psychosis”:
Eschewing the documentary-style realism of British cinema popular in the early 1960s in favour of garish Technicolor, Peeping Tom centres on filmmaker Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a quiet, unassuming young man who, when not crewing as a focus puller at a nearby movie studio, obsessively works to complete his own nightmarish project: a documentary film composed of the reactions of women as he murders them.
Furthermore, Mark’s weapon of choice is “the spiked leg of a tripod attached to his 16mm camera, upon which he has also mounted a mirror so that his victims are forced to watch their own contorted faces as they expire.”
Yes, that undeniably unique conceit looks on film as awkward and goofy as it sounds on paper, but it suits Powell’s purposes, and that of his screenwriter, wartime cryptographer Leo Marks:
The film is an exploration of voyeurism in general, and cinematic voyeurism in particular.
Like many neurotic introverts, Mark only feels comfortable when viewing the world (especially the world of women) through a glass lens.
Behind the safety of his camera, this awkward man-boy suddenly becomes authoritative — confident enough even to kill.
And we’re behind the camera, too, in a number of POV shots, involuntarily seeing the world through Mark’s viewfinder.
Powell forces us to confront our own culpability.
If we find Mark’s actions so disturbing, why are we still watching them, and getting a little undeniable thrill in the process?
Why do we happily hand over our money to be voluntarily frightened and shocked and, let’s face it, titillated, by images on screens large and small?
The primitive tribesmen of pop anthropology fear that photography steals their souls. We mock their superstitions, but what if manufactured images — of impossibly perfect fashion models, hardcore sexual acts, violence real and imaginary — do have some kind of corrosive impact on us all, not just horribly abused “weirdos” like Mark?
What if liberals are wrong when they scoff that this or that Hollywood flick is “just a movie”?
Quantum physics tells us that objects are transformed simply by being observed. What about us, the observers?
Peeping Tom is a movie about movies — a sort of primitive, tentative attempt to autopsy the very act of seeing — and what not long afterward came to be called “the male gaze.”
Some have speculated that Mark’s obsessive, repressed, melancholy character — and the film’s implicit condemnation of cinema itself — struck a little too close to home for the critics of the day, who seemed engaged in a contest to see which of them could condemn Powell’s movie in the purplest prose.
One of those critics, Alexander Walker, along with Powell scholar Steven Cook, question the mythology that has accrued around Peeping Tom:
That the critical massacre of the movie forced distributors to drop it, thus turning it into a tantalizingly “lost film,” one that was ahead of its time, a victim of pre-1960s “closed-mindedness.”
Peeping Tom is often referred to as the movie that destroyed Powell’s career, and life.
Cook in particular insists, however, that the true story of Peeping Tom‘s reception is far more nuanced and less, well, cinematic.
Powell cast himself in flashback scenes as Mark’s mad scientist father — and his own nine-year-old son as the young Mark, who is subjected to very real looking torment.
Audiences, not just stuffy critics, found this troubling in the extreme.
However, filmmaker Martin Scorsese — who surely knows a good story when he hears one — fell in love with Peeping Tom sight unseen, based on the lore surrounding it.
He tracked down a rare print, restored the film, and screened it — with the elderly Powell in attendance — to an enthusiastic film festival audience in 1979.
Later, Powell even married Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.
So began Peeping Tom‘s rehabilitation.
Certainly renewed appreciation of the film is well-deserved.
While far from perfect, it remains a provocative meditation on what Scorsese calls “the morbid urge to gaze.”
In our 21st century world of viral YouTube videos, “torture” and “revenge” porn, celebrity sex tapes and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, Peeping Tom is more relevant than ever.
(As I write this, Luka Magnotta is on trial up here in Canada for murdering and dismembering a Chinese exchange student, videotaping the killing and posting the tape online.)
Credit for Peeping Tom‘s success must be granted to Powell’s ingenious decision to cast handsome, blond Austrian-born actor Carl Boehm as the killer.
As he winds his way through seedy, shabby London, Boehm’s “foreign” accent, good looks and almost mesmerizing golden hair emphasize his “otherness,” but in a way that messes with our minds.
Surely this soft-spoken boyish fellow can’t be the movie’s villain, we think, even as we watch him unflinchingly skewer his first victim.
(I doubt Powell also meant to create some kind of allegorical post-Blitz subtext by casting Boehm — who looks like he stepped out of an S.S. recruiting poster — but I’ll leave that for cinephiles to debate.)
Boehm had accepted the role of Mark to try to undermine his inevitable typecasting as exquisitely costumed and mannered Bavarian aristocrats and royalty.
Had Peeping Tom succeeded, he probably could have enjoyed (if that’s the word for it– his conductor-father’s wartime sympathies were… complicated) a lucrative career playing nothing but Nazi officers and similar dashing baddies.
Alas, Boehm made few movies after Peeping Tom, but the film’s reputation played only a small role in his decision to leave the industry entirely.
In the early 1970s, after a trip to Ethiopia, Boehm was inspired to start a charity called Menschen für Menschen (People for People).
“If you think how many lives you could save,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoted [Boehm] as saying, “a single one is more important than the greatest success you could ever have on a stage.”
Menschen für Menschen has raised money for emergency aid, including famine relief; for improvements in agriculture, water supplies, education and medical care, and for efforts to abolish female genital mutilation, a tradition in some cultures.
That was from Carl Boehm’s obituatry in the New York Times. He died earlier this year, aged 86.
Related: see yesterday’s Question of the Day: Should the Celebs with Hacked Naked Pics Sue Google?