Peeping Tom (1960)

Directed by Michael Powell; Written by Leo Marks

Perverse and perversely thrilling.

It’s impolite to stare, parents tell their children. Growing up, we’re told the face, the signpost by which we signal our mood and personality, is a holy site not to be desecrated by invasive eyes, and so we’re taught to look past unless invited in. While we adhere to this societal expectation, we also know there’s no illicit pleasure more sweet than watching others without them knowing. 

Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom understands that cinema is a voyeuristic art form that safely allows that pleasure of observing an otherwise private moment. It also takes it to a perverse, chilling extreme in the exploits of Mark Lewis, its central character, who films his murders of marginalized women, and not only that, he forces them to live out their last moments in forced observation of their own face twisted in mortal fear. Powell, alongside him, forces the viewer inside Mark’s POV and never strays far from his side. Doing so, he makes murderous voyeurs of us too.

Mark’s exploits don’t go unnoticed. Policemen are soon hot on his trail, and worse is his blooming relationship with Helen, the young woman who rents a room downstairs, and whose innocence and interest in him threatens to break the fourth wall of dispassion that has kept Mark at arm’s length from the reality of his vile acts. 

Karlheinz Böhm is perfect as Mark, as he shifts between vulnerable loner and off-putting psycho with unnerving fluidity. One moment he’s a forgettable everyman, the next an alien being that poses an extraordinary threat in his mere existence. Opposite him, a picture of gentility, grace and innocence, is Anna Massey as Helen, the girl downstairs whose face shows no sign of anger, contempt or hidden malice. Both their performances are elevated by Otto Heller’s stark, evocative cinematography that charges proceedings with the unnatural hues of darkroom red or jaundiced yellows. 

Peeping Tom is a first-rate thriller, a creepy exploration of a dark man’s thoughts and neurosis, and gorgeous cinematic craft to boot. It’s also ingenious provocation by Powell, as he has us watch this man do terrible things to women, have them confront their own despair as their last impression of life, and then have us sit down with him to fetishize it all in his own darkroom, purveyors of snuff and terror smut. 

Perverse and perversely thrilling, it’s a risque little devil of a film, poised with bad intentions that will provoke, entertain, and send shivers down your back. 

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