Peeping Tom (1960)

 Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom has undeservedly become a critics’ darling.

Peeping Tom follows Mark Lewis, an introverted voyeur living in his late father’s large London property. To help make ends meet, Mark lets part of the house out to several people. One of his tenants is Helen Stephens, a sweet young woman who befriends him out of pity. Throughout the film Mark struggles to conceal his voyeuristic habit from her.

However, Mark Lewis is not just a peeping tom, he’s a murderer who records his crimes for warped posterity. Despite this, the film is has dated badly – the passage of time has neutered a film that wasn’t particularly disturbing in the first place. Clearly, the film is going to date, it’s 52 years old, but so is Psycho, which covers similar ground but in a appropriately graphic manner.

In a screening of the Hitchcock classic at my local independent cinema, I was surprised by the genuine anxiety I felt during the half-hour or so before the shower scene. This is the film’s defining moment; it is a classic example of a director battering his audience with what they believe is explicit violence when in fact he has shown very little. Michael Powell makes no such illusions in this film – he shows very little, period. For example, in this scene, Mark approaches one of his victims with a blade attached to his camera, and just before the blade makes contact, the woman falls out of frame, shrilly screaming “Mark!”.

Most modern audiences will agree that this just doesn’t cut it anymore. This scene depicts the creation of a snuff film, but it doesn’t feel like it, does it? Mark shares common ground with people like Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, the sordid serial killer partnership whose recordings make for deeply, deeply disturbing viewing. Peeping Tom should feel like a descent into one man’s world of degeneracy, a twisted existence that’s punctuated by lapses into frenzied sexual violence and eroticised death. This can be done without tasteless exploitation, the most germane example I can think of is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). 

Powell should be commended for approaching these darkest of themes, but his work just doesn’t hold up today. To think this film was given an ’18’ certificate as recently as 2001 is nothing short of baffling. The BBFC have since given the film a 15 certificate, but I think a 12 rating would be appropriate.

The lack of visceral edge is exacerbated by poor acting from almost the entire cast. Performances both wooden and overacted drag you further out of the film; it becomes an even bigger problem than its dated violence. However, thanks to Carl Boehm’s generally competent performance, Mark Lewis is the only interesting and somewhat credible character, but even Boehm is guilty of being badly stilted in places.

The only thing that’s noteworthy about this film is its historical audacity. This film was addressing themes that didn’t begin to approach mainstream until the 1970s, the New Hollywood era of rapidly changing opinions on sex and violence. If it had been released 15 years later and not championed by Martin Scorsese and various critics, it may well have faded into obscurity.

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