Peeping Tom is a 1960 British psychological thriller directed by Michael Powell and written by the World War II cryptographer and polymath Leo Marks. The title derives from the slang expression 'peeping Tom' describing a voyeur. The film revolves around a serial killer who murders women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions of terror.
Its controversial subject and the extremely harsh reception by critics effectively destroyed Powell's career as a director in the United Kingdom. However, it attracted a cult following, and in later years, it has been re-evaluated and is now considered a masterpiece.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) meets a prostitute, covertly filming her with a camera hidden under his coat. Shown from the point-of-view of the camera viewfinder, tension builds as he follows the girl into her house, murders her and later watches the film in his den as the credits roll on the screen.
Lewis is a member of a film crew who aspires to become a filmmaker himself. He works part-time photographing soft-porn pin-up pictures of women, sold under the counter. He is a shy, reclusive young man who hardly ever socializes outside of his workplace. He lives in his (dead) father's house, leasing part of it and acting as the landlord, while posing as a tenant himself. Mark is fascinated by the boisterous family living downstairs, and especially by Helen (Anna Massey), a sweet-natured young woman who befriends him out of pity.
Mark reveals to Helen through home movies taken by his father (played by director Powell in acameo) that, as a child, he was used as a guinea pig for his father's psychological experiments in fear and the nervous system. Mark's father would study his son's reaction to various stimuli, such as lizards he put on his bed and would film the boy in all sorts of situations, even going as far as recording his son's reactions as he sat with his mother on her deathbed. He kept his son under constant watch and even wired all the rooms so that he could spy on him. The father's studies made his reputation as a psychologist.
Mark arranges with Vivian (Moira Shearer), a stand-in at the studio, to make a film after the set is closed; he then kills her and stuffs her into a prop trunk. The body is discovered later by the horrified film crew. The police link the two murders and notice that each victim died with a look of utter terror on her face. They interview everyone on the set and become suspicious of Mark, who has his camera always running, always recording and who claims that he is making a documentary.
A psychiatrist, called to the set to console the upset star of the movie, chats with Mark and tells him that he is familiar with his father's work. The psychiatrist relates the details of the conversation to the police, noting that Mark has "his father's eyes".
Mark is tailed by the police who follow him to the building where he takes photographs of the pin-up model Milly (Pamela Green). Two versions of this scene were shot. The more risqué version is credited as being the first female nude scene in a major British feature (although even on the racier version, Milly only exposes one breast for a few seconds). Mark kills Milly and then returns home.
Helen, who is curious about Mark's films, finally runs one of them. She becomes visibly upset and frightened when he catches her. Mark reveals that he makes the movies so that he can capture the fear of his victims. He has mounted a round mirror atop his camera, so that he can capture the reactions of his victims as they see their impending deaths.
The police arrive and Mark realizes he is cornered. As he had planned from the very beginning, he impales himself with a knife attached to one of the camera's tripod legs, killing himself the same way he dispatched his victims, and with the camera running, providing the finale for his documentary.
- Director Michael Powell appears in a film from Mark's collection, as his father, A.N. Lewis, with Powell's own son Columba Powell playing Mark as a child. Both were uncredited.
Peeping Tom has been praised for its psychological complexity. On the surface, the film is about the Freudian relationship between the protagonist and his father and the protagonist and his victims. However, several critics argue that the film is as much about the voyeurism of the audience as they watch the protagonist's actions. For example, Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, states that "The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people's lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it." In this reading, Lewis is an allegory of the director of a horror film. In horror movies, the directors kill victims, often innocents, to provoke responses from the audiences and to manipulate their responses. Lewis records the deaths of his victims with his camera and by using the mirror and showing each of his victims their last moments, provokes their own fear even as he kills them.
Martin Scorsese, who has long been an admirer of Powell's works, has stated that this film, along with Federico Fellini's 8½, contains all that can be said about directing:
||I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. 8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.
Peeping Tom was an immensely controversial film on initial release and the critical backlash heaped on the film was a major factor in finishing Powell's career as a director in the UK. However, the film earned a cult following, and since the 1970s has received a critical reappraisal that not only salvaged Powell's reputation but also earned the film a re-evaluation. He noted ruefully in his autobiography, "I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it."
An account of the film's steady reappraisal can be found in Scorsese on Scorsese, edited by Ian Christie and David Thompson. Martin Scorsese mentions that he first heard of the film as a film student in the early 1960s, when Peeping Tom opened in only one theatre inAlphabet City, which, Scorsese notes, was a seedy district of New York. The film was released in a cut black-and-white print but immediately became a cult fascination among Scorsese's generation. Scorsese states that the film, in its black-and-white cut form, influenced Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary. Scorsese himself first saw the film in 1970 through a friend who owned a 35mm colour, uncut print. In 1978, Scorsese was approached by a New York distributor, Corinth Films, which asked for $5000 for a wider re-release. Scorsese gladly complied with their request, which allowed the film to reach a wider audience than its initial cult following.
Today, the film is considered a masterpiece and one of the best British horror films. In 2004, the magazine Total Film named Peeping Tomthe 24th greatest British movie of all time, and in 2005, the same magazine listed it as the 18th greatest horror film of all time. It was included in a BFI poll for the best British films of all time. The film contains the 38th of Bravo Channel's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.Roger Ebert has included it in his 'Great Movies' column.
The themes of voyeurism in Peeping Tom are also explored in several films by Alfred Hitchcock. In his book on Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo,Charles Barr points out that the film's title sequence and several shots seem to have inspired moments in Peeping Tom.
Chris Rodley's documentary A Very British Psycho (1997) draws comparisons between Peeping Tom and Hitchcock's Psycho; the latter film was released in June 1960, only three months after Peeping Tom's premiere. Both films feature as protagonists atypically mild-mannered serial killers who are obsessed with their parents. However, despite containing material similar to Peeping Tom, Psycho became a box-office success and only increased the popularity and fame of its director (although the film was widely criticized in the English press). One reason suggested in the documentary is that Hitchcock, seeing the negative press reaction to Peeping Tom, decided to release Psycho without a press screening.
In his early career, Powell worked as a stills photographer and in other positions on Hitchcock's films, and the two were friends throughout their careers. A variant of Peeping Tom's main conceit, The Blind Man, was one of Hitchcock's unproduced films around this time. Here, a blind pianist receives the eyes of a murder victim, but their retinas retain the image of the murder.
Peeping Tom has currently received releases on DVD by the following different distributors:
- Studio Canal/Warner Bros (Region 2)
Released with just the film and a photo gallery.
- Warner Home Vidéo / L'Institut Lumière (Region 2)
6 DVD boxed set of I Know Where I'm Going!, A Canterbury Tale and Peeping Tom
The Peeping Tom double disk set includes:
- Memories of Michael (Part 7) by Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell
(In English with French subtitles); 12 min
- A Daring Adventurer (Part 7) by Bertrand Tavernier
(In French with English subtitles); 20 min
- A Very British Psycho
(In English with French subtitles); 51 min
- My Fetish Film
An interview by the French director Gaspar Noé
(In French with English subtitles); 14 min
- The Film Poster
An interview by the French Director Gaspar Noé
(In French with English subtitles); 2 min
- Optimum Releasing (Region 2)
A special edition as another of their Studio Canal re-releases, which include the 2006 special edition of Don't Look Now. It was released on March 26, 2007.
- Brand new and exclusive commentary by Ian Christie, Powell expert
- Brand new and exclusive introduction by Martin Scorsese
- Brand new and exclusive interview by Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell's widow and Oscar winning film editor
- The Eye of the Beholder (30 mins) A documentary in which Scorsese, Schoonmaker and Christie talk about the film
- The Strange Gaze of Mark Lewis (25 mins) A documentary about the psychology of the protagonist
- Booklet containing essay, interview with screenwriter Leo Marks and extract from Powell's autobiography, Million Dollar Movie
- Behind the scenes stills gallery
Comparisons have been made between Peeping Tom and other significant films in this genre such as:
- Scarlett Thomas makes reference to the film in her 1999 novel In Your Face.