Combustible Celluloid
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With: Karlheinz Böhm/Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Michael Goodliffe, Jack Watson, Shirley Anne Field, Pamela Green
Written by: Leo Marks
Directed by: Michael Powell
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 101
Date: 04/07/1960

Peeping Tom (1960)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Lights, Camera, Horror

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

From a screenplay by Leo Marks, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) is a cornerstone in film history. There are many great movies, but only a few (Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Pulp Fiction) have served as a turning point, a marker that changed everything that followed.

Peeping Tom was the first movie to turn cinema back in upon itself and play with the theme of voyeurism. Alfred Hitchcock first suggested the idea with Rear Window (1954) in which a character spends 2 hours sitting in the dark watching things happen to other people, but that was only a suggestion. That character, played by Jimmy Stewart, uses a still camera to see his subjects, and finally becomes directly involved in the action. Later (1963) Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini would use cinema as a subject in Contempt and 8 1/2 respectively.

In Peeping Tom Carl Boehm stars as Mark Lewis, a shy photographer who works as a "focus puller" on a movie set by day and takes "girlie" shots by night. The movie opens with us, the audience, looking at a call girl through a camera lens. She talks directly to us, and we follow her up a flight of stairs into her room. She begins to undress, stoic and workmanlike, until she finally looks back up at us. Her face changes to horror as we advance toward her. Then she dies.

The next scene has Mark watching the footage of the dead call girl, so we know right away that he's the killer. This is not a whodunit. We're interested in Mark the way he's interested in photographing a model with a half-mangled lower lip. He's a living experiment that we are secretly watching.

When a neighbor in Mark's building, Helen (Anna Massey) becomes interested in him, she invites herself over to his apartment, which includes a darkroom/screening room. It's Helen's birthday, and she asks to see something. Mark shows her a film of himself as a child with his father performing experiments on him, such as flashing a light in the sleeping child's eyes and tossing a reptile in his bed. The father in this film footage is played by director Michael Powell.

Mark and Helen become increasingly interested in each other. Helen is working on a children's book about a magic camera. Mark is fascinated by the idea and wants to take the pictures for the book. They go on a date, and Helen makes Mark leave his camera behind. He becomes almost impotent without it. They pass by a kissing couple, and Mark instinctively reaches for his camera, finds that it's not there, and realizes what it was he was doing. He becomes horrified, but also unsatisfied.

Later Mark meets Helen's blind mother (Maxine Audley). He is shocked by her blindness, her not being able to see into others' lives the way he can. But he also feels a connection to her. One night she hides in his darkroom, and he finds himself telling her everything.

In the meantime, Mark continues his killing spree. He stays late one night in the film studio with a bit player under the pretense of doing some screen tests. This actress is played by Moira Shearer, Powell's dancing star from The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Shearer dances a little for us, warming up for her big part. It's not a lavish production this time, like the earlier movies... it's just us and her, a small tape player and Mark. He then kills her, pulling a sheath off a leg of his tripod, revealing a sharp spike. He drives it into her throat, filming her expression as he does. But there's more. His camera setup includes a mirror in which the victim can watch herself dying.

Peeping Tom was made and released the same year as Psycho, but while audiences delighted to Psycho, they were repulsed by Peeping Tom. The movie was pulled, butchered by more than 20 minutes, and relegated to late night television. Director Michael Powell was all but banished from filmmaking. This is the man who, with his partner Emeric Pressburger, had been a part of England's greatest filmmaking team with a string of wonderful and successful movies in the 40's: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and Black Narcissus (1947). The few movies he made after Peeping Tom hardly opened, and still cannot be seen today. But thanks to director Martin Scorsese (a good friend of Powell's in his later years) Peeping Tom was restored and re-released in the early 80's and finally earned the critical acclaim it deserved. This new release, playing at the Castro this week and the UC Theater next week, is yet another new print, also supervised by Scorsese.

Even if some of its plot devices and symbolism will seem obvious to today's savvy audiences, Peeping Tom is still a terrific movie today. It's a stylish movie, and it contains the most lurid use of Technicolor ever. It's a horror movie, but not a playful horror movie like Scream. It gets us close to the killer's mind. Other movies like Taxi Driver (1976), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), Clean, Shaven (1995), and the upcoming I Stand Alone try the same tactic, but none of them is as daringly poetic Peeping Tom. The others try to shock us with their actions, but this one shocks us with its reactions. We're a part of this setup. Without the audience, there is no Peeping Tom.

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