Peeping Tom (1960)
June 25, 2018 11:33 AM - Subscribe

A young man murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror [content warning].

Roger Ebert: Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," a 1960 movie about a man who filmed his victims as they died, broke the rules and crossed the line. It was so loathed on its first release that it was pulled from theaters, and effectively ended the career of one of Britain's greatest directors.

Why did critics and the public hate it so? I think because it didn't allow the audience to lurk anonymously in the dark, but implicated us in the voyeurism of the title character.

Martin Scorsese once said that this movie, and Federico Fellini's "8 1/2," contain all that can be said about directing. The Fellini film is about the world of deals and scripts and show biz, and the Powell is about the deep psychological process at work when a filmmaker tells his actors to do as he commands, while he stands in the shadows and watches.

Cinephilia and Beyond: The film was written by Leo Marks, an accomplished cryptographer during the Second World War, who managed to swiftly win Powell over with his idea for a movie about voyeurism after Powell’s ambition to do a film about Sigmund Freud’s life fell through. The story centers on a serial killer working as a cameraman who is obsessed with filming, especially driven to shoot the victim’s final expression of hopeless fear on camera, as the prostitutes he manages to lure to his studio finally understand their tragic fates. Mark Lewis is a psychologically complex but surprisingly human person who can be seen as a product of his upbringing: his father, a scientist, used him in a series of experiments when he was a child, with deep marks left in his psyche. What further aggravated the viewers back in 1960 was the fact that Powell himself played the role of the serial killer’s father, while Powell’s own son took the part of the young version of the protagonist. By doing this, Powell further acknowledged the startling connection between the process of filmmaking and the killer’s sadistic gaze through the lens of his camera. What the audience was either incapable or unwilling to understand is that voyeurism was not only a by-product of film business, but its very essence, and in dealing with the complicated subject so directly and without hesitation, Powell and Marks succeeded in making one of the most accomplished meta-films of all time.

Senses of Cinema: Comparisons can be made between Peeping Tom and Psycho, as both these films share a fascination with voyeurism. The two main characters of Peeping Tom and Psycho (Mark and Norman Bates respectively) are both voyeurs. However, Powell takes this voyeuristic notion significantly further in Peeping Tom by implicating both himself and the spectator. For example, at the beginning of the film – when Mark murders a prostitute – we are implicated as voyeurs. Powell lets us see exactly what Mark is visualising through the lens of his camera as he prepares to film her gruesome death. Powell focuses on the camera as a crucial prop in the representation of voyeurism. Mark demonstrates this voyeurism through his involvement with the camera and with the filmmaking process. In addition, this fascination with the camera also signifies the transition of Peeping Tom into a film-about-film. Mark’s disturbing and bizarre filmmaking project can be viewed is a highly mechanised, yet intensely private, experiment in artistic self-expression.


Filming locations

Diabolique Magazine Podcast

Peeping Tom and the Male Gaze

A shot-by-shot analysis of the infamous tripod-knife scene

Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom': the film that killed a career
posted by MoonOrb (10 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I know Peeping Tom from two things: a sample at the beginning of Saint Etienne's "Railway Jam" and my love of Powell/Pressburger films... but I cannot bring myself to watch it and possibly soil either of those things. The glue man from a Canterbury Tale is more my speed. Maybe now's the time.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:41 PM on June 25, 2018

It's fun to realize that this movie came out the same year as Psycho (in April 1960, vs September for Psycho). The movies are thematically not far apart -- in both cases, a disturbed loner murders women -- but in tone they're very different, and obviously they were received very differently.

If Powell had made Psycho, how would it be different? How would his career have gone? Likewise, what if Hitchcock had made Peeping Tom? What would he have done differently, and how would it have been received?

(My guess is that Hitchcock could have released Peeping Tom exactly as it was and we'd consider it a classic, though probably not the greatest movie in his oeuvre. But by 1960 he was already very well established, at the top of a long and storied career. Could Hitchcock have started his career with a film like Peeping Tom?)
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 9:59 PM on June 25, 2018

Hmm I feeling like peeping Tom is the more substantive film. Hitchcock was always more commercially minded. Aside from different styles etc, I think psycho gives the viewer a monster;peeping tom directly asks us if we are the monsters.

Tom himself is, weirdly, more relatable than Norman. And I think the film is much more genre breaking. People I think tend to forget how Hitchcock played with and in genres film goers knew - a lot of psycho is really police procedural. The emphasis is on narrative rather than theme.

Peeping Tom, at the time I feel had far fewer genre antecedents.
posted by smoke at 11:43 PM on June 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Frank "TV's Frank" Conniff of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has spoken very highly of this film.

what if Hitchcock had made Peeping Tom?

Well, he would've cast Jimmy Stewart, for one thing ;)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:26 AM on June 26, 2018

There was a good episode (they're all good) on Peeping Tom and Psycho from the Faculty of Horror podcast. It's a great discussion of the films and the starkly different reactions to them.
posted by figurant at 12:04 PM on June 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'm anticipating a remake of Peeping Tom as a stylish Netflix series, with Mark mugging and making quips for the camera, and running circles around the plodding detective on his case. The reviews will call it "stylish", "gripping" and "original".
posted by happyroach at 1:29 PM on June 26, 2018

This was the first truly fancy film I ever got into and still think it's great. His motivations are certainly CW-worthy, but it all works out in the end. I had an ex who did a paper on it with regard to gender, the role of the camera's eye (highlighted in the intro), Psychologist Dad, and all that meaty Men, Women, and Chainsaws theoretical stuff.

I'm still looking for one of those portable reel-to-reels that the actress dances to.

"...and I'm glad that I'm afraid." Wild shit for 1960, that's for sure.

Psycho always gets the First Slasher award, but I think it's due to this getting the brunt of the controversy. It simply wasn't going to be rewarded, similar to the also pretty-great The Sniper, said to be the first serial-killer movie. Society's gotta accept the art before giving it a name, and Peeping Tom didn't get it. Ruined Powell's career.
posted by rhizome at 5:13 PM on June 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I saw this film without having anything spoiled for me beforehand. The revelation of how he killed, after the slow build-up of tension, was so horrifying - I have never felt so scared by a movie. I don't know if it can even work for anyone the same way with that reveal presented right up front, pre-spoiled. (It reminds me in that way of Miracle Mile, which I was also fortunate enough to see without any idea of what was coming.)
posted by tomboko at 4:55 AM on June 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Came to this late in my horror movie career. Watched it expecting a slightly stilted “important” horror movie only due to its influence on subsequent films in the genre. It immediately became one of my all time favourites. It’s a genuinely terrifying film, not just on the surface but to its very core.

This and Black Christmas don’t get the respect they deserve as great horror movies rather than simply building blocks for other better known movies.
posted by slimepuppy at 3:26 PM on July 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Evolution of Horror podcast (which is terrific) did an episode on Peeping Tom and Psycho.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:20 AM on December 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

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