Another look at Peeping Tom

For cinema-goers who enjoy something a bit darker from their films, 1960 was something of a vintage year. While in America Psycho was unleashed upon the world, over here we were given psychological thriller Peeping Tom: one became an instant hit and the other was deemed a failure.Best known for his collaboration with producer Emeric Pressburger and films such as The Red Shoes, director Michael Powell’s decision to make Peeping Tom, the story of a young man who gets a sexual thrill from killing young woman, should have been a straightforward, and non-controversial, one.

Carl Böhm stars as Mark Lewis, a young man who was psychologically abused by his filmmaker father (played by Powell) as a child. Now a cameraman himself, Mark is drawn to capturing beautiful women on film, or rather capturing their fear on film, before murdering them.

Co-starring Moira Shearer, Shirley Anne Field and Anna Massey, Peeping Tom is an accomplished thriller, Mark treated with some sympathy by Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks, while actual blood and gore is left to the imagination.

Peeping Tom arrived in UK cinemas in early 1960, the first reviews appearing soon after. Instead of celebrating the release of a new film from an acclaimed director, the UK press turned on Powell. Reviews were almost universally scathing, words like “vicious”, “hideous” and “nasty” directed at the film’s makers instead of the characters’ actions within it.

The harshest review came from The Tribune on 29 April 1960, critic Derek Hill stating that: “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.”

Now, as the film gets an anniversary cinema release (at the Cameo from tonight and coming soon to the Filmhouse) and a classy Blu-ray special edition from Optimum, which looks at the scandal and the film’s subsequent reappraisal by Martin Scorsese and modern audiences, we can see what the fuss was about.

I found it a very dark and adult film which, unlike many “slasher” flicks, shows us how Mark came to be the way he is. We don’t forgive him for his crimes, but we do understand them. It’s not vicious, hideous or nasty but it is emotionally brutal, especially in Mark’s scenes with Helen (Massey).

It may not be better than Psycho but it’s certainly its equal.

Here’s a look at the trailer:

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