At the time of original release, 50 years ago, critics were whipped into a frenzy by what they saw as a sick, voyeuristic piece of filth, outraged by the calculating murders within. What fools they were. Peeping Tom was much more than an exercise in voyeurism; it was an incredibly intelligent picture of psychological struggle, genuinely moving in its depiction of mental conflict.
Mark Lewis, the shy, socially awkward peeping tom of the title, is an aspiring filmmaker. Working by day as a focus-puller for a film studio, he supplements his income by shooting saucy pictures, sold from under the counter of a seedy Soho newsagent. By night, he works on his own documentary: a study in fear, or more specifically, the moment his victims realise they are about to be killed, as they witness their own terror. You see Mark’s father, a psychologist, researched the concept of fear. His son was his prime subject, constantly observed through viewfinder while tormented, creating a man desperately dependent on his camera, obsessed with furthering his father’s work. Nobody in the world can screw you up as much as a parent…
Karlheinz Böhm’s portrayal of the tortured Mark was pitch-perfect, moving, beautiful, presenting a vulnerable man at the mercy of his psychology, recognising his sickness yet powerless against it until he can achieve the ‘perfect film’, to serve as the closure he needs. Powell’s expert direction evokes sympathy for a character that should by all rights be a monster, and as such, heartbreaking is the scene in which Mark realises there is no quick fix for his affliction, and likely is the murder of a girl he has fallen for.
What Powell created here was, and is, a timeless, sublime masterpiece, the misreading of which all that time ago, a crime of epic proportions. Now lovingly restored for its 50th anniversary, viewing this is an absolute privilege. Peeping Tom is a classic that any self-respecting film buff should see and be moved by, over, and over, again.
Peeping Tom is available on DVD and Blu-ray now