There were two films released in 1960 which courted controversy for their psychological thrills and a journey into the mind of a psychopathic murderer. One become a storming critical and commercial success, while the other was viciously torn apart by critics because of its content and sunk without a trace for almost a decade. Psycho made a household name of its director Alfred Hitchcock, while Peeping Tom killed the career of its director Michael Powell. The two films were released one month apart.
Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) is a member of a film crew and fills his free time photographing and recording daily events in his life. From modelling shoots to footage of couples kissing, he always carries his handheld camera with him. One night Mark follows a prostitute to her flat and while filming brutally murders her. The following day he records footage of the police investigating the scene of the crime. When he returns home, he meets his downstairs neighbour Helen, who is celebrating her 21st birthday. Initially reluctant to socialise, he and Helen become close friends and Mark begins to show her his collection of films, notably ones of him, filmed by his father, an expert in recording fear in other people. As the police investigation continues apace, Mark is torn between his voyeuristic tendencies and the new relationship in his life.
To talk about Peeping Tom is to talk about Psycho, the two films are historically, thematically and stylistically linked. Much like Rear Window two years previously Peeping Tom explores the fetishistic view of film-making, taking the audience into the film itself and presenting the created reality in a first-person style. From the opening scene, the audience a placed within the camera, following the action as the protagonist sees it, while the whole time the soon to be familiar clicking of the reel of film rotating accompanies the unfolding violence. Like a lot of Hitchcock’s work, the actual violence is suggestive rather than visual, which heightens the suspense and tension. The fact that there is only one scene to feature blood is astounding and it shows just how neatly directed and expertly edited Peeping Tom is.
The cinematography is slick and the colour pallet rich and overtly stylistic. Nobody lives in the world in which the film is set, full of deep reds and cold blues, yet within context this vision of early 1960s London falls within the pastiches that would follow in decades to come. Bohm’s central performance is every bit as deranged, normal, happy and confused as Anthony Perkins Norman Bates, and much like his kindred spirit uncomfortably invokes the sympathy of the viewer because of his up-bringing and his attempts to change. It’s easy to see why post-war critics didn’t like the atmosphere and characterisation, and also why young film-makers in the 1970s like Martin Scorsese fell in love with Peeping Tom and he even cited it during the release of his Oscar-winning family film Hugo.
Released exactly one month before the Hitchcock classic, Peeping Tom gave a press showing for selected critics. Due to the controversial nature of the film, and Powell’s incredible ability to create tension from the most innocuous scenes, they slated it, causing Powell to quit directing in the UK and Peeping Tom disappeared within days. Learning from this mistake, Hitchcock did not press screen Psycho and it became one of the most iconic and popular horror thrillers of all time. Yet when compared restrospectively, Peeping Tom is every bit as well made and constructed as its peer and deserves more notoriety than it currently possess’.