The Underrated: Peeping Tom.
Again, this is a funny choice for an Underrated review, seeing as it clearly isn’t really underrated any more. Sure, no bugger has seen it, but that’s more to do with the fact that it was made in 1959. Interestingly, up until 1980, this really was a lost classic. It took Martin Scorsese himself to save it, restoring one of the few surviving UK prints, and we should all be grateful that he did.
Michael Powell was one of the shining lights of British Cinema at the time. He’d been responsible for films as celebrated as The Red Shoes, and was seen as one of the most talented directors working in the country. He believed that he had enough credibility, integrity and esteem with the establishment to make a pet project- this was the film he made because he believed, mistakenly, that he was bomb-proof. He wasn’t. Peeping Tom was a commercial and critical disaster, with the press in the UK lambasting it as depraved, and as such it finished his career. Nevertheless, it really is a truly outstanding film, and it was most unjustly treated. The Stones maybe wrong with it being better to burn out and fade away (someone should really pass this piece of advice on to Lucas), but in terms of burning out, Peeping Tom was a supernova.
Peeping Tom is arguably the prototype Serial Killer film. It tells the story of Mark (Carl Boehm), a wannabe film director with a twisted upbringing and a fetish for inducing fear in his photographic models before killing them on camera using an adapted tripod. He forms a friendship/ romance with his downstairs tenant, Helen (Anna Massey), and murders hookers for art. Eventually he is discovered and commits messy suicide by impaling himself on the tripod. The final photograph he takes is of himself dying.
The question Peeping Tom asks and answers is “why is he doing this”. Powell establishes a psychological motive for Mark’s murderous instincts. He was raised by a degenerate bastard who fancied himself as a biologist. His father filmed Mark constantly throughout childhood, and induced the most stressful situations he could imagine in order to capture the perfect moment of childhood fear. Mark, as a direct result, has become obsessed with fear, and is himself determined to document the perfect moment. He’s a nutter, but almost uniquely for this type of monster, he knows he’s a nutter. He is perfectly aware of how dangerous he is, and deliberately limits his social interaction, as he believes that he can’t control himself when exposed to naked female terror.
This film is extremely well written. There are throwaway comic lines (the exchange about the best selling type of magazine for example), and the emotional core of the film is brilliantly written. Events unfold gently after opening with a real bang (one of the most gripping opening sequences that I’ve ever seen, and one that Carpenter deliberately copied for Halloween), and the story of Mark’s psychosis is expanded on at its own speed. By the time Mark ends it all, he’s completely insane and desperately struggling to keep the beast in his nature on its leash. The exchange with Helen where he’s frantically screaming at her to “stay in the shadows” for her own safety is absolutely compelling, and many modern films could do with looking at Peeping Tom to see how to portray psychosis properly.
The writing is top-notch, but the acting easily trumps it. Boehm is performing in his second language, and it’s a wonderful central performance. His Mark is all twitches and awkwardness, an outsider chronicling events with the single-minded mania of the true obsessive. Furthermore, his strange accent just adds to the feeling of “wrongness” about Mark, and I find it very hard to believe that anyone else could play that role. Massey is also superb as Helen- mixing a knowing minx quality in with a quite unprecedented naiveté. It’s very easy to see why Mark effectively falls for her, and why he would promise that he’ll never photograph her.
I suppose I do have to talk a bit about the violence and murders in this film. Alright, there are some, but please bear in mind that this was made in the 1950’s. As such, the standards of gore are pretty minimal- even the final death itself is completely bloodless. Nevertheless, such is the strength of this film, that the killing sequences themselves are frightening. The nearest equivalent I can think of is probably Psycho, which is also almost completely bloodless, but would anyone say that Psycho isn’t a true horror film? The sequence on the closed set in particular is downright horrifying as the scene gradually builds up with Mark encouraging his prey before administering the coup-de-grace.
Scorsese, as is appropriate for the curator of this film, introduced the DVD version that I just watched, and he made an interesting point. He argued that Peeping Tom is scary because it’s about the act of being photographed. He has a point, these scenes do induce real fear, and I believe it’s partially because of the air of intimacy that Powell has conjured up. Peeping Tom is never less than unsettling in this regard, and the feeling of creeping wrongness is amplified when you know that Powell himself played the part of Mark’s father, and furthermore cast his own son as Young Mark in the films. What a bastard.
Overall, Peeping Tom is a legitimate masterpiece and one that it is well worth hunting down. These films from the 50’s are usually Wolf’s territory, but this is a film with such a fascinating history that should be so important that I felt it was worth me taking a shot at it. If I ever recommend one film from these underrated ones, then this one is it- even if you watch it to see precisely how a great director committed the ultimate act of career Hari-Kari.
Was Peeping Tom worth it? Well, I’m inclined to say yes, but that’s selfish of me. Nevertheless, if one film should be praised to the nines then this one is it. Powell may never have worked again seriously (I don’t count those Aussie TV movies), but what a film to sign off on.
Thanks for saving this one Marty.
Until next time,