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Peeping Tom (1960)


Main image of Peeping Tom (1960)
DirectorMichael Powell
Production CompanyMichael Powell (Theatre)
Screenplay and original storyLeo Marks
CinematographyOtto Heller

Cast: Karlheinz Bohm (Mark Lewis); Anna Massey (Helen Stephens); Maxine Audley (Mrs. Stephens); Moira Shearer (Vivian); Esmond Knight (Arthur Baden)

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Mark Lewis is a focus puller in a film studio. Severely disturbed as a result of his abusive and manipulative psychologist father, he is gripped by an obsessive voyeurism that leads him to murder.

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More than 40 years after its release, it's hard now to appreciate the fury that greeted Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960). British critics were united in their loathing of the film, led by The Observer's C.A. Lejeune - once Powell's greatest champion - who complained, "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom." We can look at it more dispassionately now, but Peeping Tom was then, and still is, a highly disturbing film.

It appeared in the same year that saw the release of Hitchcock's Psycho (US), and the two films share certain similarities - the theme of voyeurism, an unusually frank (for the time) treatment of sexuality, and a narrative focus on a tortured but attractive killer. Psycho has never fallen out of favour, but it is Powell's film that is the more psychologically complex.

Mark (Carl Boehm) is the victim of a monstrously dominating father, who since his son's birth remorselessly subjected him to a campaign of constant monitoring, day and night, in the name of his scientific research. These experiences have turned Mark into a voyeur, driven to capture all of his experiences on film - he works as a focus puller in a film studio, and devotes his free time to his 'documentary'. They have also left him with an obsession with fear, and his killing is fed by his compulsion to capture on film the exact expression of fear at the moment of death.

Critical hostility was further fuelled by the fact that Powell cast himself as Mark's sinister father, and his own son, Columba, as the young Mark. But what might most have upset reviewers was the way the film suggested something disturbed about the cinema itself. As the blind alcoholic Mrs Stephens (Maxine Audley) - the film's wisest character - warns, "all this filming isn't healthy".

Powell's own understanding of the cinematic impulse allows him to explore this idea, implicating himself, and his audience, in Mark's pathology. Mark emerges as a disturbed but very human figure, as worthy of sympathy as his acts are of horror. Such sensitivity for a sadistic killer was too much for Powell's contemporary critics, but time has been kinder to the film, and even some of its objectors later changed their minds: The Sunday Times' Dilys Powell, who in 1960 thought it "essentially vicious", admitted in 1994: "Today, I find I am convinced it is a masterpiece".

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. First murder (3:46)
2. Mark as a boy (2:15)
3. Interrogation (2:49)
4. 'All this filming isn't healthy' (2:42)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Ackland, Noreen (1921-)
Audley, Maxine (1923-1992)
Boehm, Carl (1929-)
Davenport, Nigel (1928-2013)
Easdale, Brian (1909-1995)
Field, Shirley Anne (1938-)
Heller, Otto (1896-1970)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Massey, Anna (1937-2011)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Shearer, Moira (1926-2006)
Anglo-Amalgamated Productions
Late Powell and Pressburger