Saturday, January 5, 2013

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)


    Best known as the film that effectively put a damper in Michael Powell’s directing career (though I find that debatable), the recent re-evaluation of Peeping Tom has been much more favorable than the harsh reviews it received upon its release in 1960. This film has long been compared with Hitchcock’s Psycho, incidentally released the same year; this review is not going to excuse itself from jumping aboard that train. Compared to Peeping Tom, Psycho is much tamer. However, I find Psycho to be the better and more successful film.

     The film’s titular peeping tom is Mark Lewis whose first appearance does not reveal his actual physical appearance; rather, we the viewers are treated to a view of a prostitute roaming the streets at night from the point of view of Mark’s concealed camera. The prostitute beckons him to her house (shared by some other tenants). Once in her room, still from the point of view of Mark’s camera, we see the woman disrobe. She begins to panic once Mark approaches her and the scene cuts off with an extreme close-up of her tormented face. 

    We are immediately led to assume that she is murdered, though the exact methods used are not known to us until a bit later in the film. This film differs from Psycho in that we know very early on what we are being treated to. We know who the killer is by the second scene when Mark, again with his camera, is taping police officers removing the prostitute’s body from the house the next morning. Thus, the mystery of the film does not lie in figuring who killed the girl(s), but in what Mark is going to do next and what drives him to these vile acts. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, we do not arrive at these denouements until much later in the film and in a successive order that creates suspense. Psycho explores several facets at once and does so masterfully, whereas Peeping Tom focuses on only two (the why and the how, as in how in the hell is he going to get caught). But soon, Peeping Tom solves the why during the first half of the film and it becomes another generic thriller. The film’s soundtrack is also a tad bit distracting, attempting to create suspense during scenes that would have been better off without it. It almost feels that Powell is trying to shove the movie down our throats due to the repetitiveness of said track. "Hey, you, this is a scary part! Pay attention and cower in your seat", or lack thereof. 
As far as the acting is concerned, Psycho also trumps Peeping Tom in that respect. Nobody can top Anthony Perkins' performance as Norman Bates. Nobody. That being said, I actually loved Karlheinz Böhm's portrayal of Mark. Many critics have keyed in on certain of the over-the-top performances. I don’t see it as being necessary to nitpick because the acting styles are very much a part of the film and its era. They fit in with the mood of the film. As I was was saying, I liked Böhm’s portrayal of Mark. Well, up until the very end that is, where the mystery of how he kills the unlucky ladies is revealed (he attaches a sort of weapon to his camera and stabs his victims with it as they helplessly watch their fate through the lens of his camera.).
I didn't even care about how the murders were carried out by this point. Knowing the victims were murdered sufficed.
     In the end, in some sort of “symbolic” move, Mark commits suicide the same way he executed his “leading ladies”. I found the ending to be a lame cop out. It could have been handled better, even if it took the same route. This is in parts due to the character of Helen, Mark’s downstairs neighbor and love interest in the film. Last I checked, when somebody confesses to being a serial killer to you, you run the fuck out of there. You don’t cry on their shoulders and ask them to show you how they carried out their crime to “help me feel less frightened, Mark”. Girl, what? You should feel frightened about who he just revealed himself as and the fact that you’re still IN HIS APARTMENT, IN HIS DARK ROOM WHERE HE PLAYS HIS TAPED MURDERS. My favorite subplot of the film involved some really good characters and I ended up caring more about them than the film itself. Those characters are a demanding director and a diva actress on the set where Mark works as the focus guy. Those two are downright hilarious. Here's an actual quote from the director when the actress uncovers one of the dead bodies Mark's left behind "The silly bitch. She's fainted in the wrong scene." after she struggled to faint in a previous scene. Now, that's hilarious!
   The only thing better about Peeping Tom in regards to Psycho is the reasons for Mark’s conduct. His father was a biologist, specializing in how fear affected the nervous system. He used his son as his guinea pig, waking him up in the middle of the night by throwing lizards on his bed, wiring every room in the house and taping his every moment (including one where he visits his mom as she lays dead on her bed) all in order to gauge his reaction. I found that part of the story fascinating and did love the way it was handled. It would explain why Mark became a deeply disturbed voyeur and sexual deviant (besides his film work, he is an on-the-down-low photographer of soft-core pin-up pictures). 
A hard day's work back in 1960. Literally.
    It would explain his ability to shift from a socially awkward boy one second to a menacing predator the next. Nevertheless, an interesting facet and Böhm's effective portrayal of a serial killer are not enough to carry the film. I liked the concept more so than the execution. I did like it and was never bored by it, but I failed to really gain much out of the experience. I'll stick with Black Narcissus (another Powell product) over Peeping Tom any day. And I'll most definitely stick with Psycho over this any minute.


Ludovico Rating: 

2 1/2 out of 5. Would not go out of my way to watch it again.


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    1. If you really want to watch this one, then do so. But, I kind of wished I hadn't bothered.