Friday, December 17, 2010

Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom first caught my attention when I saw it referred to as "the British Psycho."  Silly me, I was under the misconception that Alfred Hitchcock was British.  Still, despite being a stupid little sound byte, the idea intrigued me.  Later on, I read an interview with Martin Scorsese where he said that everything you ever wanted to know about filmmaking and the people who make films can be learned from Fellini's 8 1/2 and Powell's Peeping Tom.  A movie that is disturbing enough to be compared favorably to Psycho and artsy enough to be mentioned with 8 1/2?  Okay, if I wasn't interested before, I am now.

Peeping Tom sets the tone from the very beginning.  The camera's point of view is a little obscured, looking up at people in the streets; the point of view appears to be coming from a camera, hidden in someone's jacket.  The unseen cameraman solicits a prostitute and she takes him to a room.  He approaches her slowly, pauses, and a light shines upon her face; we do not see what happens next, but it is clear that the hooker is dead and that she died absolutely terrified.  The next scene shows Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm, credited as Carl Boehm here) snapping pictures for a naughty photo shoot.  Mark is socially awkward and is clearly attracted to female beauty, but not in the traditional sense; he is overwhelmed with the usual male lust for tops and bottoms, but he is also fascinated with capturing scars and glimpses of suffering on film.  There's never any question that Mark is the killer; he's far too creepy and his awkwardness makes it seem that connecting with a woman is taboo for him.  As the film progresses, we see Mark observing (not interacting with) everything around him, with his hand-held camera constantly by his side (he is a cinematographer, as well as a photographer).  When he sees something interesting, he films it; it could be police at work, a couple kissing, a girl looking sad, or whatever.  When he gives in to his urge to kill, the camera maintains Mark's camera's POV; it is not until the end where we realize exactly what he is doing.  There are hints along the way, though, when he asks one of his victims, "Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?  Fright."  That makes up the core idea behind this film, and it's an interesting one.

Peeping Tom is an ambitious movie.  It makes use of some pretty interesting psychology to make Mark a sympathetic character, despite his horrible actions.  The obvious intent of this movie is to examine voyeurism.  Mark is a voyeur in his own life, and even in his murders.  Heck, if you want to get all fancy and analyze this film (and director Michael Powell obviously wants you to), you can argue that the audience (AKA your face!  Oooh, sick burn!) is participating in these murders as passive observers.  From there, you can ramble on about the role of the audience in modern filmmaking, but even typing that made me yawn, so someone else will have to tackle that subject.  It shouldn't come as a surprise that a film about a cinematographer has great cinematography; for such an introspective movie, the colors are surprisingly vivid and the camera work is fantastic.  The shots are full of symbolism and meaning, but paying attention to those things just gives depth to the film --- if you don't know or care about such things, you can still follow and enjoy the film.  That's the way artsy movies should be.

The acting in the film is a little underwhelming.  The focus of the story is definitely on the idea of voyeurism, not the characters, so many of the actors have little to do.  Karlheinz Böhm certainly plays his part well, with an awkwardness that looks nearly impossible to be an act (but it is...acting!).  When I watched the film, Böhm kept reminding me of Peter Lorre, because his eyes were half-closed through most of the film.  But when I did a Google image search for him, Böhm looked pretty normal.  So, kudos to him for adding physicality to his role!  Anna Massey was pretty good as the optimistic love interest for Mark, but boy, is she ugly.  I'm not saying that Böhm is a top shelf prize, but I imagine that Massey played the "best friend" role more often than the leading lady.  My favorite performance came from Maxine Audley, who played Massey's blind and hard-drinking mother.  Dry wit, clever lines, and great delivery, this should have been a role that won awards, but Peeping Tom was an absolute bomb in the British box office, so no contemporary recognition was given to the film, director, actors, or cinematographers.

As technically and intellectually impressive as this film is, it has some flaws, although the most serious is not its fault.  The script plays with science for dramatic purposes on occasion.  The most glaring of these moments is when Mark gets spotted staring into somebody's window at night by the people in that room; they would have seen their own reflections, not Mark.  The intellectual bent of this movie also works against it, on occasion.  Since this is more of a disturbing movie than a frightening one, the immediacy of the story is sometimes lacking.  And then there are the obvious similarities to Psycho.  A mild-mannered man with deep-seated Freudian issues with his parent is going around, killing people?  Well, if you're going to copy, you might as well copy the masters, but...oh, wait...Peeping Tom was filmed at the same time Hitchcock was filming, and this actually beat Psycho to theaters by a few months!  That's just a tough break, especially since Psycho was so well received and this well-deserving film had to settle for a delayed cult success.

What is perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is how disturbing it is.  On the face of things, this is just a slasher movie with some fancy camerawork.  However, you tend to root for the killer in most horror movies (I know I do).  Watching them dispatch their victims is half the fun, but the idiotic decisions they make and their bad acting is often just as fun; you laugh at their misfortune just as often as you are scared by it.  Peeping Tom is not like that at all.  I didn't crack a smile while watching this (quite a feat), partially because the POV camera shots from the killer's perspective made it more difficult to disassociate from the murderer, and partly because it is disturbing but also disturbingly plausible.  It's a little too art house-style for my tastes, but it's still a film worth seeing and then watching again to catch anything you missed the first time around.


  1. I am intrigued. I will have to check this out. Have you seen 8 1/2? If not, I would like to get your take on it. It may be my favorite foreign flick.

  2. I have not seen 8 1/2 yet. My TV's aspect ratio is off, and some subtitles get cut off. It's on the top of my list after I figure out how to fix my TV.