Peeping Tom (1960) – A nearly obscure Michael Powell film that ruined his career

peeping-tom

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

– Mark Lewis

Mark Lewis is an extremely shy and introverted young man who derives a morbid pleasure from filming (and later watching) the reactions of women just before they are about to be murdered……by him. We learn that he works as a focus-puller in a film crew during the day. At night, he stalks lone women and murders them with the help of a long pointy blade attached to his camera tripod. He lives alone in a building that once belonged to his deceased father. Even though Mark is the owner of the building and collects the rent through a middle man, he pretends to be just another tenant. He prefers to stay detached from the rest of the tenants. All that changes when he meets a bubbly young girl Helen who lives with her blind mother in the same building. We expect to see Helen meet the same fate as the other women but quite the opposite happens. He likes her immensely and is incredibly nice to her. She even invites him to her birthday party. She eventually discovers that Mark has a disturbingly dark past.

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Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom will forever be known as the film that ruined his career. A former directing partner of Emeric Pressburger, the name of the duo (collectively known as The Archers) came to be associated with films that had a rich, lavish and colorful production design. There was a time when they delivered masterpiece after masterpiece. Some of my favorites are A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes, all magnificently crafted films that make you say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore”.  Compared to those, Peeping Tom was a strikingly different film for Powell. Why were so many British audiences angered when it came out is a mystery to me. Who knows? Maybe I would’ve reacted the same way if I were a staunch conservative Brit living in the 60s. The film stayed in theaters only for a week. What could the audience have found so upsetting about the film? Is it the theme of voyeurism? Is it the disturbing subject matter? Is it the violence? Is it the sexual undertones? Is it because they simply thought the film was misogynist? Or is it simply because Powell made Mark a sympathetic serial killer? My guess is, it’s the latter.

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I have to really thank Martin Scorsese for giving the film the cult-status that it enjoys today. He championed strongly for it’s re-release in 1979 and if it weren’t for him, I would’ve never been aware of it. You can see it’s strong influence on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (the very first film that I chose to review first on my blog). Both films have a relatable protagonist and both of them commit unspeakable acts of violence and yet we can’t help feeling sympathy for him. This, I am sure, was considered totally unacceptable by British audiences back then. What’s funny is that during the same year, Hitchcock came out with a similar film with similar themes called Psycho which also was a story about a psychopath but it went on to become a major success (despite the fact that Hitchcock too was lambasted by the critics due to it’s lurid subject matter) and Peeping Tom ended up being largely forgotten. The ending, although sad, is one of the most brilliant endings I’ve seen in the history of cinema. What I love most about this film is that once we discover the dark truth about him, our perspective of him is completely altered and we suddenly start to feel sympathetic towards him, in spite of all the crimes he has committed so far.

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