Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom Film Review

Released: 1960 by Michael Powell Theatre
Produced by: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Leo Marks
Starring: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Moira Shearer, Esmond Knight, Shirley Anne Field, Jack Watson, Nigel Davenport, Martin Miller, Miles Malleson, Pamela Green, Susan Travers, Bartlett Mullins, Michael Powell
Music: Brian Easdale and Wally Stott
Directed by: Michael Powell

Until very recently, it was not possible for the average person to compare Peeping Tom to Psycho. For more than three decades, the former film was lost in a cinematic purgatory, having been relegated to that fate by the demigod critics who found it wanting. Thanks to the efforts of Martin Scorcese, who rescued Peeping Tom from its untimely fate, we can now compare the merits of each film.

Carl Boehm, Peeping Tom, Michael Powell
German actor, Carl Boehm, who played Mark Lewis in Michael Powell’s controversial film Peeping Tom (1960).

Director Alfred Hitchcock deliberately chose a black-and-white milieu in which to film Psycho, perhaps in a tribute to the great Universal Pictures horror films. Director Michael Powell, like Britain.s Hammer Studios, chose a vivid colour palette to express Peeping Tom’s scenes of horror. There.s also a difference in cultural style between the two films. Psycho is every inch an American film, while Peeping Tom is peculiarly British. As an American, I am conscious of this as I watch each film. It may go a long way toward explaining the reaction of the British critics to Peeping Tom. They were coming at it from a whole different cultural direction. One has to wonder what they thought of Psycho when it came to Britain.

Powell starts Peeping Tom with a bang. We witness a murder from the vantage point of the killer [Carl Boehm] as the film opens. Boehm looks clean-cut and innocent and seems so tormented that he develops a great deal of sympathy in the viewer. We find it hard to believe that he is a stone-cold murderer. Without using a single outright shock, Director Powell nevertheless causes us to squirm in our seats at the intensity of watching a psychotic mind at work. The pace is indeed slower but all the more arduous for its leisurely exposure to depravity. The ending is far more final since the killer dies (unlike Psycho, where the killer merely winds up in an asylum). Perhaps Powell did not want any possibility of a sequel to exist. Psycho, as you may recall, spawned two inferior sequels.

The British critics made much of how utterly despicable Peeping Tom was. Because of Peeping Tom, Powell became a pariah and never really worked as a director in Britain again. Yet, put it alongside today’s horror films, its thrills seem mild. Perhaps Peeping Tom offered too unblinking a look into the aberrant, psychotic mind. Maybe the British critics found some intrinsic core of decadence in the subject matter of Peeping Tom, while the more freewheeling American critics enjoyed Psycho‘s less psychoanalytical roller coaster thrills. I feel, however, that the hysteria over Peeping Tom was unwarranted.

Peeping Tom is known to many by the very brief appearance of the model/actress Pamela Green. Though her screen time is limited, she’s a memorable presence. Michael Powell approached her for the film due to her large oeuvre of nude photography and because she would, unlike her female peers in the film, do an actual nude scene. The scene in question is extremely brief, given the year of its release, but it adds an unforgettable touch of realism to the film. It’s too bad Pamela wasn’t allowed more screen time, for she seemed to be an accomplished actor as anyone else in the film.

Peeping Tom is a treat for any serious horror fan. A well-thought-out plot and masterful direction make the film a satisfying experience. I suppose some more time must pass before Peeping Tom can rightfully take its place beside Psycho. It is undoubtedly as well-crafted a film. It cost Michael Powell his cinematic career to create his unique vision of horror. I think Peeping Tom deserves a chance with today’s horror audience. Watch Peeping Tom and Psycho together and enjoy some good, old-fashioned thrills from both sides of The Pond.

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