Peeping Tom (1960)

9 Oct


This character's relationship with his camera is not a healthy one.


There was a moment while watching “Peeping Tom” where I physically shuddered. And I have the benefit of being a modern viewer and knowing there are certain places a film from 1960 just will not go. I can’t imagine what audiences of the time must have thought of this shockingly effective psychological thriller.

The “Tom” of the title is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) who works by day as a studio cameraman (with a little moonlighting as a pin-up photographer) and hopes to become a director very soon. He spends his nights collecting unsettling footage for what he terms a “documentary he’s working on.” Lewis catches the attention of downstairs neighbor Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), whose blind mother (Maxine Audley) also rents an apartment on the lower level. Mark and Helen become close friends despite Mark’s awkwardness and his struggle to keep his impulses at bay while spending time with her. He shares with her details of his childhood and how his psychologist father subjected him a series of terrifying “experiments” to record the effects of fear on children. What he doesn’t confess, however, is that he’s continuing his father’s work. When Helen’s mother seems close to intuiting Mark’s secrets, he’s forced to desperate measures to complete his masterpiece.

This is not a film which attempts to keep secrets from its audience. From the get-go, “Peeping Tom” is honest about what its complex protagonist is up to. That it so cleverly keeps back the one crucial, horrific detail of how he’s doing it is just genius. The audience is distanced from Mark at the outset of the film, but writer Leo Powell’s story is brilliantly constructed to garner sympathy for a character the audience knows for a fact is a cold-blooded killer. Through its measured reveal of the atrocities visited upon Mark by his father, Powell’s screenplay remakes Mark as a redeemable character. Even as we watch him stalk and carry out his meticulous plans for murdering other women, we wait for the moment of clarity, the instant where our faith in Mark will be earned. That it never is proves profoundly unsettling.

As Powell’s story aligns the audience with Mark, director Michael Powell’s unflinching camera makes us co-conspirators in the action. Seldom has a film been so brashly honest about the viewer’s implicit approval of the on-screen action. There is a moment early in the film when Mark is watching his dailies in his screening room, and what he is seeing on his screen for the first time is our second take. It’s as subtle as a hammer, and the unorthodox bluntness is extremely effective. Mark’s murders are filmed in such a way that we see only either what he sees or what his camera sees; we are not allowed the victim’s point of view until the very end of the picture. It’s a tactic which brutally reinforces the audience’s involvement in Mark’s actions.


"Peeping Tom" beats you over the head with the idea of cinema as voyeurism. It's a heavy touch, but it works.


Though it would seem impossible to force the audience to identify with a violent sociopath, there are brilliant sequences which betray the viewer’s loyalties. In one of them, Mark has murdered a stand-in for the principal actress on the production he is working on, and he has hidden the body in a trunk which is used as a prop in one scene. Once the body is discovered, investigators descend on the set to take down alibis, poke around and answer questions. Mark sneaks into the set, which has been closed to all but official police personnel, and uses a catwalk to eavesdrop on the action. A handful of pens drops from his shirt pocket and clatters on the floor, and all goes silent for a moment. Someone makes a joke, and the police continue their business. I realized then that I had been holding my breath, hoping the police would not catch Mark.

Boehm does fine work as Mark Lewis, but it’s clear he’s a non-native speaker; his delivery is sometimes distractingly clunky, especially given that no other characters mention his obviously German accent throughout the whole of the film. To his credit, however, he’s exceptionally effective at conveying emotion without speaking. His more silent sequences are deliciously creepy, and watching the struggle between the different aspects of his personality is riveting. Massey is passable as Helen; she’s not annoying, but she isn’t overly endearing either.

Truly this is a film which belongs to its director. Powell pushed boundaries with this thriller. While comparatively tame by modern standards, the implied violence and the final reveal retain their shock value. Powell’s use of a heightened color palette, verging on garish at points, works as a concerted visual assault, almost as if daring the viewer to keep watching. And his insidious repetition of footage, that viewfinder cinematography, the scene-within-a-scene nature of the film, all that just serves to dare us to stop. Don’t write this one off because of its age — it’s every bit as insidiously unsettling as it was 50 years ago. Three stars out of four.

Peeping Tom“: Unrated (common sense rating 13+). Starring Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey and Maxine Audley. Directed by Michael Powell. Original story and screenplay by Leo Marks. Cinematography by Otto Heller. Original music by Brian Easdale.

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