'Views For Sale' - Peeping Tom review

Posted by Alexander Hay

As the horror/thriller classic 'Peeping Tom' is re-released today on Blu-ray, it's worth asking why this film has become ever more relevant since its first outing, over 50 years' ago.

Getting to the point with 'Peeping Tom'It's easy to see the devil in every shadow, but very hard to see him looking back at you in the mirror. How else to explain why Peeping Tom was so reviled by the press when it was first released in 1960?

A story about an insane film-maker making high brow snuff movies in-between taking soft porn shots and slumming it in the dog days of the British film industry, it exposed the nasty, dirty sexual hypocrisy and social rot of the times in stark detail. Pulling no punches, it made it all too clear too that even watching fake mayhem on the screen means condoning at least the notion of violence. The gaze implicates us all: No wonder the critics hated it.

And yet, while it ruined the career of director Michael Powell, as professional suicide gestures go, it was a brilliant one. (Fittingly, the protagonist both lives and dies by the camera in the film.) Vividly coloured, even luridly so, the film is perfectly shot and arranged, with a script that shifts from menace to black humour with ease.

Crowning this is the performance of the male lead, Karlheinz Bohm (interviewed below), who channels a sinister, expressionist creep that dominates every scene he's in, yet somehow manages to be pathetic and vulnerable too. Overall, the film is a consummate package - even nowadays, and ironically for a film about watching, it can be very hard to watch at times, and deliberately so. The camera-eye-view is always a sinister, looming presence, and by choosing to see through it, so are we.

Peeping Tom has, inevitably, become a deeply influential film. Along with infamous video nasty (and underrated brutal satire) Cannibal Holocaust, its influence can be seen in films like The Blair Witch Project, the Paranormal Activity films and the rigours of Spanish plague-zombie movie [REC].

As in, all these films are as much about filming and the nature of filming, as they are about horror and murder, perhaps more so. The camera transforms what it records, but also moulds who's doing the filming - a harsh truth Michael Powell made clear long before teenage audiences became hooked on the 'novel' idea of using video camera footage to tell a story.

If anything, Peeping Tom has relevance today. If you think a film where people die via a camera that spears and films them at the same time is shocking, then what of today, where people commit suicide live on web cam? Our times are hideously voyeuristic, saturated with porn and probed relentlessly by CCTV, reality television and ever greater intrusion into our personal lives. What Peeping Tom does is ask the question we seldom wish to ask for ourselves - who is at the other end of the camera, leering? Often it is us.

The Blu-ray package is excellent too, with some informative, in-depth documentaries, including one with Martin Scorsese, who also provides an introduction to the film he helped bring back from obscurity. Tellingly, this British classic is not being reissued by a British company but a French one, a depressing thing to ponder. It seems we still like to punish or ignore those who reveal to us harsh truths and stunning, yet brutal spectacles, after all these years.

PEEPING TOM is out now on Blu-ray. You can get a copy from all good retailers, including Amazon and Play.com. RRP £19.99.

Q&A with Karlheinz Böhm for PEEPING TOM: 50th Anniversary

1) How did you become involved with Peeping Tom? Were you already familiar with Michael Powell's films?

When I got the offer to do Peeping Tom, l was just shooting another film in London. At that time I was very busy as an actor and appeared also in one or the other English movie. Therefore it was not too big a surprise for me that Michael Powell offered me the leading role in Peeping Tom - despite the fact that he had the reputation of an extraordinary filmmaker.

2) When you first read the script, how did you respond to the character of Mark Lewis? What was most challenging about the role? Were you aware that this sympathetic approach to a serial killer was a very new concept at the time?

After having read the script for the first time, I was very skeptical and not very much interested in playing the part of a "serial killer". I was absolutely not aware, what playing this part would mean to me - in that phase of my professional development - and was only convinced to sign the contract after the discussions with Michael Powell and by the psychologically differentiated way in which he approached the character of Mark Lewis.

3) What are your memories of shooting in London in 1960? What do you remember of Michael Powell's style of filming, did you understand what he was trying to achieve and the techniques he was using in order to do this?

Even though I must admit, that I do not have a very detailed memory of the film shooting anymore, I do remember that working with Michael Powell was very intense. For me as a young actor, it was at times difficult to understand, what he was trying to achieve. However, it all developed while we were working on the scenes, and step by step he convinced me to achieve some sort of identification with this kind of murderer.

4) How do you look back on your involvement in this film 50 years later? Did the content of Peeping Tom change the way you thought about making and watching films?

Almost 30 years ago, I started working with my humanitarian organization "Menschen für Menschen" and stopped working as an actor. When I look back on my involvement in film or on my time as an actor in general, I see it as one phase of my life, which I am fully accepting as part of my personal development. The movie "Peeping Tom" I consider to be an absolutely ingenious piece of art made by Michael Powell, which gave me the chance to develop new dimensions of my performance as an actor.

5) I understand that you and Michael Powell attended the premiere of Peeping Tom in London? What memories do you have of that evening?

The film was first shown in the Plaza cinema in early April 1960 in the presence of people from the media, the film business and members of the royalty. At the end of the performance, Michael Powell and I lined up outside the showroom. We were excited and curious to see the reactions of the audience. We were absolutely puzzled, when they all left the theatre in silence, ignoring us completely.

6) How shocked were you by the violent critical reactions to the film? When do you think opinion began to change about the film, now recognized as a classic?

The first comments of the critics were indeed devastating in a way that none of us had expected and I must admit that I was actually shocked by those harsh and negative reactions. ln the 1970's Michael Powell and in particular "Peeping Tom" were rediscovered by the film industry and directors like Martin Scorcese. As a consequence the movie was then presented to and appreciated by a wider audience at film festivals, such as the New York Film Festival in 1979. Critics even listed it among the top ten movies of all time and I am deeply happy that - even though it took a long time - people eventually understood and acknowledged this brilliant piece of art created by Michael Powell.

7) Are you still busy with your charity work? lt would be great to learn a little about this.

I would like to point out, that Menschen für Menschen Foundation and all the work that we have been doing in Ethiopia in the last 30 years have become the sense of my life! I hope that I have many years ahead to be able to continue this work - together with my Ethiopian wife Almaz - as long as possible.

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Alexander Hay

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