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Peeping Tom (1960)


Peeping Tom poster
101 minutes
Cast and Crew
Production Company

In 1960, two films came out in a fluster of controversy, due to their new takes on audience terror. One, Psycho, proved to be a success, and furthered the notion that director Alfred Hitchcock was The Master. The other, Peeping Tom, torn apart by critics and snubbed by audiences, destroyed the career of helmer Michael Powell. In hindsight, though, Psycho looks more garish and nasty, while Tom turns out to be a much better film, a portrait of obsession that has lost little power in 40+ years.

Meet Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm), a troubled young man with a hobby: photography. He always has his camera by his side, filming whatever catches his eye. Actually, his pastime has a darker side; He is driven to film women's fear. Not just any run-of-the-mill shock, though...the ultimate look of horror as they realize they are being murdered. To achieve this end, he rigs a special 16mm film camera and takes the term "realistic film" to a new level. Central to Mark's problem is his childhood relationship to his scientist father (director Powell in a cameo).

The film plays with voyeurism in all its forms, from the innocent curiosity, to the blatantly sexual end of it, to the depraved obsession. Mark himself is not an evil person... but he's driven to kill by a desire to film what most men cannot. He's fascinated by fear to the point of psychosis, but he easily functions in society. He holds down two jobs (both of them in photography), and even has something of a girlfriend (Anna Massey).

The direction is superb, and it is truly a shame that Powell was ostracized by the British film industry, because there's not anything too offensive on the surface. No blood, no breasts, no sex -- nothing However, there is that icky feeling when the viewer of a 'harmless' little film also becomes a sort of voyeur, forced into the position by an unfeeling camera. It takes great skill to make an audience take on a different role, and Powell does it perfectly. I felt uncomfortable, certainly. Also, the final sequence between Boehm and Massey is tight, suspenseful, and deserves to be among the great scenes of horror movie history.

Despite comparisons to Psycho, Peeping Tom really has more in common with Fritz Lang's M. Both films paint a picture of a sympathetic psycho, a man compelled by forces he cannot control to kill. Understanding Mark is a little easier than understanding Peter Lorre's unnamed child killer, and it makes it all the harder for us to watch such a quiet, restrained, yet apparently decent man driven to murder. We are forced to pity Mark Lewis... and come to terms with the voyeur inside all of us.