The conventional narrative of the impact of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom is that the film destroyed his career and reputation. Like most legendary stories of film history, this one is a mixture of truth, hyperbole, and exaggeration. Powell, director or co-director of such beloved classics as The Thief of Bagdad, 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, "I Know Where I'm Going!", A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Tales of Hoffman (many of these in collaboration with Hungarian screenwriter/producer Emeric Pressburger), was upheld by UK critics as a British institution. These same critics turned on Powell with a vengeance upon release of Peeping Tom in 1960. They found the film sleazy, morbid, disturbing, and disgusting, to name just a few of the adjectives hurled in Powell's direction, and early reviews kept audiences away. The negative response delayed its release in the United States until 1962. Powell's reputation was damaged by the response to this film, and his later work was ignored or marginalized by these same critics.
His career, however, wasn't destroyed, and he managed to work steadily, if not quite as successfully, for the next 18 years in both film and television. He also wrote two successful autobiographies and lived long enough to see both his and Peeping Tom's reputations fully restored and to befriend a new generation of filmmakers he influenced, particularly rabid fan and admirer Martin Scorsese. He even fell in love with Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and enjoyed seven years of marriage with her before his death in 1990.
Watching Peeping Tom again last night, I remained surprised by the controversy and outrage in 1960. It's a masterpiece, plain and simple, one of the great films about the voyeurism inherent in being both a filmmaker and a cinephile. Though the film is direct about its main character's side job photographing nude and partially clothed women for the dirty old man market, there isn't much sexual content in the film and most of the violence happens outside the frame. Not one drop of blood is displayed in the film. What, then, got under the skin of the British mainstream establishment in 1960? There had to be something more than the fact that one of their respectable heroes made a film about a serial killer of women. In fact, there is a subtle streak of perversity in most of Powell's films, which had so far failed to offend those reviewers' delicate sensibilities. I can't profess to understand the motives of strangers, but my guess is that most reviewers of the time period were extremely uncomfortable with the amount of sympathy, empathy, and commonality they felt for the killer and his motives and the dark implications of the character's eroticization of fear and they shifted that discomfort to an attack on the so-called prurience of the subject matter. Whatever the case, I'm glad this critical approach to the film didn't last.
Shot in rich, luscious Eastmancolor that makes the drably vomit-like color palette of so many recent films look that much worse, Peeping Tom is about a man named Mark Lewis, played by the remarkable German actor Karlheinz Bohm, who later became a regular in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's troupe. Mark works as a cameraman at a London film studio, moonlights as a photographer for dirty magazines, is the landlord for the downstairs tenants at the home he inherited from his late father, a sadistic psychologist obsessed with voyeurism, and aspires to be a film director. He also murders women, films their deaths, and spends most nights alone in his upstairs room watching these films. Bohm doesn't attempt a British accent, so the audience must suspend disbelief when Mark says he was born and raised in the London house he currently inhabits. However, his German accent is not distracting and merely adds to his character's shy, lonely, disturbed outsider status. Bohm is the perfect actor to play this man. Capable of embodying disturbing men with contradictory qualities, Bohm is both subtle and charismatic, both awkward and determined. He is this man, accent or no accent.
The film grows even more complex when Mark befriends one of his downstairs tenants, an aspiring children's author named Helen Stephens (Anna Massey). The young woman lives with her mother (Maxine Audley), a blind, jaded alcoholic who nevertheless knows when to take action. That description sounds ridiculous on paper but sometimes words are inadequate. This is one of those times. You get the sense that Mark cares about someone for the first time in his life and is receiving reciprocal feelings, also for the first time. Unlike in most films, this friendship is developed not merely to ratchet up the suspense, but to humanize the murderer, to make the audience empathize with him.
Peeping Tom is a darkly honest film about the impulses leading filmmakers to do what they do and film audiences to watch that work. I could write more about this, but the effect would be like taking a mallet to Powell's graceful visuals and turning them into clunky words about Big Themes and Big Ideas. I also won't be getting out my mallet to talk about the Freudian themes of Mark's relationship with his sadistic father, but rest assured the film is remarkably graceful here, too. I will just tell you to watch it. It's a great film, and a beautiful and disturbing one.
Fun fact: Powell and Alfred Hitchcock were close friends for more than 40 years, their friendship beginning when a young Powell worked as a still photographer on the set of an early Hitchcock film and ending only with Hitchcock's death in 1980. Both Peeping Tom and Psycho were released in 1960, feature voyeuristic yet sympathetic male leads who murder women and have parent issues, and push buttons that made 1960 critics uncomfortable. Hitchcock received the same critical drubbing and moral outrage Powell did, with a few notable exceptions (Andrew Sarris took a beating from his fellow critics for praising it). Hitchcock got through the controversy much easier than Powell did. After seeing what happened to Peeping Tom, which was released three months before Psycho, and guessing he would be in for the same treatment, Hitchcock canceled all press screenings of his film so audiences would see it before the reviews came out. It worked. Psycho was a huge box office hit. Eventually the critics came around on that one, too.