Peeping Tom (1960)

A month before Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was released in theaters, a similar film was released in Europe. Both are overtly Freudian and about men killing off beautiful women in horrific ways. Both proved groundbreaking and shocking in their own way.  Yet while Psycho maintains some suspense over the nature of the killer, Peeping Tom has the killer front and center, presenting a compelling and conflicting examination of both his and our psychosis.

Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) is a shy, quiet man with a dark secret. He’s been capturing a series of murders he’s committed on film, watching and rewatching them after the fact. He’s got a bad case of voyeurism and it gets him in trouble when he catches the eye of Vivian (Moria Shearer) who takes a liking to him. But having a normal relationship is near impossible, especially as his impulse to kill once more grows with each day.

The film is both brilliant and off-putting by making the killer the protagonist. This makes us coconspirators in his killing as we partake of the action not through the victim’s perspective but through the killer’s eyes. In this way the film becomes a self-reflexive piece, holding up a mirror to the audience and dissecting their psychology. Why do we enjoy watching people die? Why are we so obsessed with fear? What is it that attracts audiences to derive entertainment from such violent acts?

The film is unsettling for the way it captures the murders. Instead of placing us outside the murder and allowing us to watch from an external spot, we are placed in the view of the killer as he records the murder. The opening shot of the film is one long, continuous shot of a murder. He solicits a hooker on the street, follows her up to her suite, watches her begin to undress and then moves in for the kill. It’s a sequence far ahead of its time, a precursor to the modern handheld horror trend.

The sequence also demonstrates the Freudian examinations of the film. We could easily conjecture from watching that film that a lot of Mark’s issues seem to rise out of a conscious suppression of the id. He’s constantly surrounding himself with sexual imagery, working in a ritzy little magazine store that also doubles as a studio for pornographic photographs. Mark often takes these photographs but with a disconnected, almost robotic precision.  By cutting off his sexual drive his violent impulses emerge.

These naughty shoots also serve to demonstrate the exceeding wit of the film. Screenwriter Leo Marks laces the film with succinct sarcasm and sly humor. The girls openly mock his lack of a girlfriend or any sexual desire. And the way he paces the dialogue and delivers a lot of information swiftly and succinctly makes the dialogue have a great rhythm that is just fun to listen to. It’s not the snappy, golden age Hollywood dialogue but it has as much intentionality.

And just as intentional as the dialogue are the fantastic images by director Michael Powell and cinematographer Otto Heller. There’s an inherent soft and pastel look to the imagery, lulling us in with a kind of beauty into the image play and making us sympathetic to Mark. However, the film also presents Mark with dark lighting and obscured framing, playing him up as the monster. The way the film plays with the conflicting views of character just with the images alone is as testament to the fine craftsmanship at work.

To delve deeper into Peeping Tom would involving having to reveal the central conceit of the film. And part of the impact of that film is to experience what remains to be one of the most disturbing and horrific ideas captured on film. Returning to the Psycho comparison, while Psycho scares with the visceral play and pacing of images and Peeping Tom frightens with ideas of fear and psychology. Also, those who complain about the way Psycho goes about explaining its villain will likely find the more character driven presentation of Peeping Tom less off-putting in its exposition. While both films are masterful works and among the greatest films ever made, Peeping Tom is a superior presentation to similar ideas and far more disturbing and effective overall.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing

Peeping Tom – Criterion Collection [DVD]