PEEPING TOM (1960)
Mark Lewis is a shy young man, who is always hiding behind either a camera at the movie studio he works at, or behind his small handheld camera wherever he goes walking. Recently, Mark has taken a further step in his voyeurism, as he leads women into a false sense of safety, and then films them as he murders them. Within Mark's huge home, in which lets out many or the rooms to his tenants, he has an impressive array of camera equipment, film developing stations, and projection equipment. He spends his free time watching his own movies, that is, until he meets one of his tenants, a young and beautiful girl named Helen. Helen's outgoing personality works as an opposite tangent to Mark, and the two start spending time together. Mark attempts as best he can to talk with her, though his introverted tendencies often thwart his attempts to show what he is thinking. The only way he can "talk" with Helen is to show her his films. Helen soon starts to learn just how Mark has come to be the way he is, while Mark starts to fear that he may be unable to hold back from showing Helen the true face of fear and terror.
Director Michael Powell, working from a script by playwright Leo Marks in his screenplay debut, takes a shocking and frightfully realistic view of a murderer in this character study that gives a depth to the history of the killer Mark, and how he has over years and years organically turned into a monster hiding behind a seemingly innocent face and soft-talking voice. The result is an unsettling dissection of the make-up of a killer, and much like the same year's PSYCHO, unknowingly set the ground rules of serial-killer suspense and horror, with its for-the-time raw and shocking murder sequences, the blending of sex and violence, and tense atmospheric buildup.
Marks' script takes a deep look into the psychological creation of Mark Lewis, with his obsession with voyeuristic filming and examination of fright in his victims stemming back to his father's work as a child psychologist, who used Mark as his constant subject and filmed him growing up. This is turn forced the audience to examine the often debated "nature versus nurture" aspects of humanity's villains, murderers, and hate-filled supremacists. Without Mark's father's interference and objective observation of his life, Mark would most likely have turned out to be a well adjusted adult. Bringing Mark believably to the screen was a vital part to making the film work. The part fell on the shoulders of German actor Carl Boehm. Boehm's naturally boyish looks, sympathetic eyes, and soft voice with just a hint of an accent created a harmless looking individual. He projects a deep and powerful performance that resonates still today in performances by those in roles where the murder is compelled or drawn against their will to kill, rather than having a desire to willingly kill.
Powell incorporates voyeurism onto the screen in a quite compelling way as he draws the audience into Mark's world. In the opening sequence, in which we are introduced to Mark and his first victim, we see most of the scene through the viewfinder of Mark's camera, as identified by a framing cross that cuts the entire screen into four quadrants. This shot is repeated multiple times throughout the film, whenever Mark is using his camera. Arguably, these are the most important shots of the film, as we are in a way seeing through Mark's eyes and what he believes to be the most important things worth remembering. Through these shots, we become active participants in Mark's obsession. However, when these shots are being played back on Mark's projector, with either Mark watching them, or showing them to others, Powell focuses his camera on the character rather than the projector screen. This plays especially important when Helen is subjected to Mark's horrific film collection. We watch her recoil in terror, but we do not know what she is watching, thus we become voyeurs to Helen's frightful emotions.
Halfway through the film, a police investigation subplot is introduced as Mark's victims are found and a correlation between the murders is discovered. Mark becomes intrigued with the police investigators, and films them unaware as they do interviews on the film set that Mark is working on. Mark fully believes that they will catch them, and Mark seems to want to be captured, even offering up evidence to the investigators without them realizing it. When Mark becomes a suspect, he is tailed and thus becomes the subject of voyeurism himself. It is a role reversal that works exceedingly well. Leo Marks' script gives the investigators some decent screen time, and their detail oriented attempt to solve the mystery would help to pave the way to the police murder mysteries later that decade.
Powell's final product is a visceral piece that was destroyed by critics, and generally hated by audiences not quite ready for such a personal introduction and relationship with a killer. The film essentially destroyed Powell's thirty-plus year film career. PEEPING TOM was well ahead of its time, and can be looked back upon now a groundbreaking entry into the modern horror thriller. The recent Documentary GOING TO PIECES even gave the film a proper nod as a precursor to the slasher. Before getting approval by the BFCC, many of the film's more grotesque shots were cut out and forever lost. The Criterion Collection has released the most complete version available, including a brief nude shot that was redone with the actress clothed for the American theatrical release. But whether it is the stigma of the title, or that the film is just too "British", PEEPING TOM has still yet to gain its proper place in the lexicon of classic cinema.