So you will remember back when I first saw Psycho I was trying to decide between it and another film; this was that other film. And the two films may have ultimately made for a good double-feature, because the psychological suspense I was missing from having Psycho spoiled for me was here, in this film.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a camera operator at a London film studio, living in genteel poverty in the top of his father’s old house and renting out other rooms to strangers. He makes a little extra money on the side taking racy pin-up photos, and spends all of his free time working on a documentary of his own – at least that’s what he says. Something about fear, he says it is. One night one of his tenants, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), spontaneously invites him in to the apartment she shares with her mother, where they are celebrating her 21st Birthday. Mark is a little too shy to join in, but Helen is so good-natured and friendly that he invites her up to his room instead for a quick visit. She wants to see one of his films, she says.
That poses a problem – since most of Mark’s films are snuff films he’s made while killing other people.
Unusually – and thankfully, I must say – Mark’s motivation isn’t sexual. It’s a little more basic, and strangely even sadder – Mark’s father was a psychologist driven to study the effects of fear on childhood development, and used his own son as his test subject. So poor little Mark grew up with a father who would do things like throw lizards in his bed or push him off stone walls or subject him to other torments, filming everything and studying how Mark responded. Mark’s father got a whole book series out of it, but Mark was left with an enormous psychological problem. And while he does share some of the stories about his childhood with Helen, he tries to keep his current filmmaking habits under wraps – something that becomes harder and harder as the police start investigating an uptick in murders in their neighborhood – the most recent of which is in the film studio where Mark works…
Peeping Tom was released only a month or two before Psycho, which quickly overshadowed this earlier film. And I understand why Psycho has the greater reputation of the two – Hitchcock’s attention to detail is slightly superior, and he gets better performances out of his leads than Boehm and Massey give us here. But only just barely so – Peeping Tom is still a good film, with an equally-good director at its helm (Michael Powell, who’s previously given us The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, among others). There are some throwaway moments of comedy, there’s a good deal of nuance in what makes Mark tick; there’s even some suspense in the audience gradually learning exactly how Mark kills his victims. We never see him actually committing the act – he has rigged up his camera to capture his victims in their death throes, and so instead we see the camera-eye view of their terror-stricken faces and their screams just before Mark strikes, with the camera cutting out before the final blows. Only towards the end do we see exactly how Mark does the deed.
One thing that may have hobbled Peeping Tom, though, is Mark’s x-rated photography side gig. It’s obvious that he’s only chosen this job to scout for potential victims – the kind of girl who would pose for a topless photo probably is down on her luck and mightn’t be missed if she were to vanish one day. So Mark isn’t getting any sexual thrills out of things. But Powell still saw fit to show the audience exactly how topless these topless photos were, resulting in the first instance of full-frontal nudity in an English film. This gave British censors quite a shock, and the film also suffered from censorship in the US, Italy, Finland and a handful of other countries.
British censors were already uneasy about the subject matter as it was; British film critics were similarly shocked, one of them claiming that this film would “kill” Powell’s career. Another review compared Powell to the Marquis de Sade, and still another said 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.” All of which seems unnecessarily harsh – at least, to someone like me who grew up in the era of Friday the 13th or other slasher films. But the vilification actually backfired, making Peeping Tom a bit of a clandestine taboo cult film among the younger film students of the early 1960s – Martin Scorcese, for instance -who sought out chances to see this film with the scandalous reputation. Fortunately they saw what the earlier critics hadn’t, and urged later critics to give the film a re-appraisal. Powell later noted in his memoirs: “I [made] a film that nobody [wanted] to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it!”