In the oeuvre of director Michael Powell, Peeping Tom (1960) occupies a unique position. Alongside Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) it numbers among his most famous films. Today it is also one of his most respected films and widely regarded as a classic. Upon its initial release, however, Peeping Tom was reviled by critics and generated a good deal of controversy. Indeed, the uproar caused by Peeping Tom when it was first released was so great that it has become the stuff of legends.
Given the film's subject matter it is perhaps understandable why it caused such an uproar upon its initial release in 1960. Peeping Tom is the story of Mark Lewis (played by Karlheinz Boehm, who was billed as Carl Boehm), a lonely recluse who works as part of a film crew and takes girlie pictures part time for additional money. Unknown to everyone, he also murders women and films their deaths with a portable motion picture camera. Mark's life is complicated when he meets a young woman, Helen (played by Anna Massey), whose mother is renting the flat below his in his late father's old house.
Peeping Tom began life as a screenplay by Leo Marks. Mr. Marks was a cryptographer who worked with the Special Operations Executive during World War II. Following the war he pursued a career as a playwright and screenwriter, writing the play The Girl Who Couldn't Quite! and the film Cloudburst (1951). For nearly his entire life Leo Marks had been fascinated by Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. He eventually decided that he wanted to write a study of scoptophilia. Mr. Marks's thoughts on scoptophilia eventually led him to the idea of a young man who murders women and films their deaths, with the camera essentially becoming a symbol of murder.
About the same time Leo Marks and director Michael Powell were planning a biopic of Sigmund Freud. This project came to an end when they learned that John Huston was also planning a film biography of Freud (which would come to fruition as Freud: the Secret Passion, released in 1962). Leo Marks then told Mr. Powell of his idea for what would become Peeping Tom. Michael Powell decided that would be his next film and told Leo Marks to write the screenplay. It was Michael Powell who decided up on the title Peeping Tom. When Mr. Marks objected to the title on the grounds that it might "get all the wrong people", Mr. Powell simply responded, "Well, let's get the wrong people in as as well as the right ones!"
Peeping Tom was produced by Nat Cohen of Anglo-Amalgamated Productions, with additional financing obtained through the National Film Finance Corporation. It was budgeted at £125,000. According to some reports Nat Cohen wanted to cast Sir Dirk Bogarde as Mark Lewis, but the Rank Organisation (to whom he was under contract at the time) refused to loan him out. Michael Powell considered Laurence Harvey (who had a recent success with the film Room at the Top), but he proved unavailable. Ultimately German born Karlheinz Boehm was cast in the role of Mark Lewis. At the time Karlheinz Boehm was little known in either the United Kingdom or the United States, but having starred in director: Ernst Marischka's films Sissi (1955), Sissi – Die junge Kaiserin (1956), and Sissi – Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin (1957), he was very well known on the Continent.
Peeping Tom was shot over the course of six weeks starting in October 1959. Much of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios, as well as on location at various places around London. It was photographed by Otto Heller, who had shot such films as His Majesty O'Keefe (1954) and The Ladykillers (1955), and would go onto work on such films as The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966). It was shot in Eastmancolor, the same process used on the popular (and then notorious) Hammer Films.
Peeping Tom was submitted to the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) not long after its completion. In all the BBFC required seven cuts to the film, including reducing some of the murders and cutting the shot of a nude woman (apparently the legendary nude shot of famous glamour model Pamela Green). Even after the cuts the BBFC certified Peeping Tom "X", meaning that only people over the age of 16 could see the film.
Peeping Tom was released on 16 May 1960 to hostile reviews and a great deal of controversy. In the Tribune critic Derek Hill wrote, "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain." Caroline Lejeune of The Observer claimed, "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom." In The Daily Express Len Mosley wrote, "In the last three months ... I have carted my travel-stained carcase to some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But nothing, nothing, nothing — neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta — has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week while sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom." Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times thought Michael Powell had been tainted by the film, writing, "He cannot wash his hands of responsibility for this essentially vicious film."
Despite the controversy surrounding the film and contrary to popular belief, Peeping Tom did not disappear from British cinemas after only a week, nor was it withdrawn from circulation. Following its premiere Peeping Tom did brisk business at the Plaza in London for two weeks. The film also did well in pre-release engagements in such places as Bath, Bristol, Doncaster, Leicester, and elsewhere. An engagement at the Gala Royal on London's West End Peeping Tom proved very successful as well. Throughout the summer of 1960 Peeping Tom continued to do well at not only the Gala Royal, but smaller theatres throughout Britain. What is more, the film seemed to have some staying power in the United Kingdom. Indeed, according to the article "Peeping Tom: The Myths" by Steve Crook on the web site The Powell & Pressburger Pages, Peeping Tom played in Liverpool on a double bill with Revak the Rebel (1960) as late as 1962.
While Peeping Tom was not pulled from distribution as commonly believed, this is not to say that its initial release went smoothly. The film was banned outright in Reading, Berkshire on the basis of Anglo-Amalgamated Productions' press kit and the bad reviews it had received alone. It was also due to the controversy that Peeping Tom was pulled from theatres in the large ABC Cinemas chain after only a week. It is perhaps because ABC Cinemas cut short their run of Peeping Tom that the legend emerged that the film was pulled from distribution after only a week. As pointed out above, this certainly was not the case. In the end, while Peeping Tom was hardly a smash hit, it actually did modestly well upon its initial release in the United Kingdom.
Peeping Tom did have some difficulty getting distribution in the United States. At the time American International Pictures (AIP) distributed Anglo-Amalgamated's films in the United States. They distributed Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and would distribute Circus of Horrors (1960). Ultimately AIP passed on distributing Peeping Tom, feeling it would not appeal to their audience. Peeping Tom went through the entirety of 1960 and much of 1961 without finding an American distributor. At last, in July 1961, Astor Pictures announced they would be releasing Peeping Tom in the United States.
Sadly, Peeping Tom would not fare particularly well in the United States. The Production Code Administration required extensive cuts to the film in order to qualify for a production seal. As a result Peeping Tom was reduced from its British running time of 101 minutes to a mere 86 minutes. Perhaps because of the cuts the Legion of Decency gave Peeping Tom a rating of "B" (Morally objectionable in part for all); given the controversy the film had stirred up in the United Kingdom one has to wonder that the original British version would not have received a "C" rating (Condemned).
Regardless, in the United States Astor Pictures struck upon an odd means of distributing Peeping Tom. As might be expected of a film directed by Michael Powell, Peeping Tom played art houses. At the same time, however, it also played in grindhouses better known for low-budget horror movies or even sexploitation films. It would seem Astor Pictures could not make up its mind as to whether Peeping Tom was an art film, a horror movie, or a sexploitation movie. While Peeping Tom never made a good deal of money in the United States, it proved to have some longevity on the grindhouse circuit. It was still being shown in theatres as late as 1966.
Of course, here it must be pointed out that Peeping Tom was not the only notable film distributed by Astor Pictures in the early Sixties. They also distributed François Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Unfortunately Astor Pictures overextended themselves not long afterwards and they went bankrupt in 1963. In 1969 Anglo-Amalgamated, the company that produced Peeping Tom, would become part of EMI. At some point thereafter the rights to Peeping Tom were bought by Brad Marks Enterprises Ltd., who retitled it Face of Fear and, with further cuts, released it to television.
Fortunately throughout the years Peeping Tom was able to overcome the controversy it had stirred up in the United Kingdom and its somewhat haphazard release in the United States. Over the years the film developed a cult following among film buffs. In 1977 the Telluride Film Festival held a tribute to Michael Powell at which Peeping Tom was shown. It was in 1978 that Corinth Films approached filmmaker Martin Scorsese about providing money for a re-release of the film. Mr. Scorsese, who had seen the American cut upon its initial release in the United States and had long been a champion of the film, agreed to give them $5000. If it had not been before, Peeping Tom was on the path to reappraisal.
Of course, it must be pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, Peeping Tom did not end Michael Powell's career. In fact, his film The Queen's Guards was released in 1961, not that long after the controversy over Peeping Tom. Unfortunately The Queen's Guards received generally poor reviews and died a quick death at the box office. Even with the failure of The Queen's Guards, Mr. Powell would make several more films: Herzog Blaubarts Burg (1963), They're a Weird Mob (1966), Age of Consent (1969), and The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972). He also did some work in television, directing three episodes of Espionage in the United Kingdom as well as one episode each of The Defenders and The Nurses in the United States. While Michael Powell's glory days might have been behind him, his career did not end with Peeping Tom.
As often been noted, Peeping Tom was released the same year as Alfred Hitchock's Psycho (1960). In fact, the premiere of Psycho in New York City was only a little over a month after the premiere of Peeping Tom in London. Some have even claimed that it was due to the harsh critical reception that Peeping Tom received in Britain that Alfred Hitchcock decided against holding a press screening for Psycho, although it seems equally plausible that Mr. Hitchcock did not want the press spoiling the surprise ending of Psycho. Regardless, the two movies are similar in several ways. Both deal with literate, mild mannered murderers who were the products of dysfunctional parents. Both feature the murders of beautiful women through either slashing or stabbing. And in both the murders come suddenly and, at least initially, unexpectedly. While Peeping Tom and Psycho do share a good deal in common, they differ a good deal as well. Peeping Tom features a much higher body count than Psycho. Indeed, while Norman Bates only seems to kill when the opportunity arises, Mark Lewis actually goes out and seeks out his victims. Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two is that while Peeping Tom was shot in lush Eastmancolor, Psycho was shot in black and white.
Regardless of any other similarities or differences between the two films, one thing that Peeping Tom and Psycho have in common is that they have both generally been considered horror films. Over the years there have been those who have denied that Peeping Tom is a horror film, even though in its initial release the film was promoted as a horror movie on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of the original posters for Peeping Tom in the United Kingdom featured the tagline, "Do you know what the most FRIGHTENING thing in the world is...?" Some posters in the United States went even further. They featured the tagline, ""More horrible than horror! More terrible than terror!" and prominently featured the spear with which Mark Lewis killed his victims. Regardless of what anyone thinks today, it would appear both Anglo-Amalgamated in the United Kingdom and Astor Pictures in the United States thought of Peeping Tom as a horror film and promoted it as such.
Beyond having been originally promoted as a horror film in its original run, over the years there have been those who have noted similarities between Peeping Tom and the slasher films that would emerge in the late Seventies and early Eighties. In her essay on Peeping Tom in the book Fifty Key British Films, Isabelle McNeill notes how Peeping Tom anticipated the slasher film genre. She quotes the characteristics of slasher films Carol Clover listed in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws that feature in Peeping Tom. Quite simply in the film "...the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognisably human..." and the victims are beautiful women. What is more, the locations of murders are not at home, but some "Terrible Place, and the weapons are something other than guns. Finally,the attacks are often from the victim's point of view. To Carol Clover's list Isabelle McNeill adds one more way in which Peeping Tom anticipates the slasher films of the Seventies and Eighties. Quite simply, Peeping Tom has its own "Final Girl" (the woman who survives to confront the murderer at the end) in the form of Helen.
While the resemblance between Peeping Tom and the later slasher films has often been noted, it has rarely, if ever, been noted that the film also resembles the concurrent Hammer Horrors as well. Indeed, despite the fact that Peeping Tom is set in London in the late Fifties and the Hammer Horrors in earlier times, Peeping Tom looks a good deal like a Hammer film. Like the Hammer movies Peeping Tom was shot in lush Eastmancolor. Like the Hammer Horrors a good deal of attention was paid to the detail of the sets for Peeping Tom. If Hammer had been making horror films set in the present day at that time, it would be easily to believe their sets might look like the sets of Peeping Tom. Beyond the look of the film, however, Peeping Tom resembles the Hammer Horrors in one other respect. Quite simply, Mark Lewis as played by Karlheinz Boehm resembles Dr. Victor Frankenstein as played by Peter Cushing. Both are aloof, clinical men who can be charming at times. What is more, both men are obsessed with their individual pursuits. In the case of Dr. Frankenstein that happens to be building monsters. In the case of Mark Lewis that happens to be murdering women to record their faces in fear as they die. At any rate, Mark Lewis would not have been out of place in a Hammer film!
Of course, Peeping Tom is not nearly as graphic as the later slasher films or even the concurrent Hammer Horrors. Despite the number of murders in the film, one never sees any bloodshed. That having been said, that makes it no less a horror film. In fact, I rather suspect many, perhaps most people, find Peeping Tom much more frightening than slasher films from the Seventies and Eighties (most of which aren't very scary at all) or even the classic Hammer Horrors. Michael Powell was able to build suspense in the various murder sequences of Peeping Tom without resorting to gore or shock tactics, to the point that they are very frightening indeed. For myself, the sequence featuring Moira Shearer as Vivian numbers among the scariest scenes in any film. It is true that Peeping Tom is not a traditional horror film. It is a horror film that is literate and cerebral, but it is a horror film nonetheless. Michael Powell described it as a "Freudian thriller".
While Peeping Tom can be considered a part of the cycle towards horror films sparked by Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, to a degree it can also be considered part of another trend in British film making at the time. Quite simply, Peeping Tom shares with the films of the British New Wave a tendency towards social realism. While for the most part the films of the British New Wave examined the lives of the working classes in the North, Peeping Tom examined the gritty underbelly of London. Like the world of the British New Wave films, the world of Peeping Tom is one where class was swiftly becoming less important. It is a world where Mark Lewis, who is obviously upper middle class at the least, is free to interact with such lower class institutions as a newsagent's shop dealing in pornography and lower class Soho prostitutes. Like the British New Wave films Peeping Tom even makes use of real life locations.
That is not say that there aren't significant differences between the films of the British New Wave and Peeping Tom. Most of the British New Wave films were shot in black and white, while Peeping Tom was shot in striking Eastmancolor. Most of the British New Wave films were shot in a pseudo-documentary style while Peeping Tom was not. Still, there would appear to be more similarities between Peeping Tom and the British New Wave films than differences. Indeed, much of the power of Peeping Tom to frighten and disturb perhaps lies in that its milieu seems all too contemporary and realistic.
Of course, much of the power of Peeping Tom to frighten and disturb probably also lies in the fact that it is essentially a film about a filmmaker who literally kills to make his films and in doing so makes some unsettling statements about movie making and movie audiences. In his review of Peeping Tom Roger Ebert commented, "Why did critics and the public hate it so? I think because it didn't allow the audience to lurk anonymously in the dark, but implicated us in the voyeurism of the title character." Indeed, it must be pointed out that unlike other horror movies of the period (even Psycho), Mark Lewis is the protagonist of Peeping Tom, this at a time when it was generally taken for granted that audiences would identify with the protagonist. The film is made all the more disturbing by the fact that Mark Lewis, unlike many other movie monsters, is presented with some sympathy.
While Peeping Tom invites the audience to sympathise with Mark Lewis, however, at the same time most of the murders are shot from the victim's perspective. In these instances the audience sees what the victim sees. We see Mark Lewis's spear coming in for the kill. In effect the audience becomes the victim. Through his skill as a director Michael Powell insured that audiences would be both the victimiser and the victim in Peeping Tom, something with which most critics probably were not comfortable in 1960. Martin Scorsese, who may well be the film's biggest fan, believed that Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom said everything that there was to say about directing. Of the two films he said, "8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films."
Of course, Peeping Tom is an extremely complex and sophisticated film, so that its themes go well beyond filmmaking and the participation of audiences in watching movies. In fact, it would probably take a fairly lengthy book to deal with the many themes upon which the movie touches. Peeping Tom not only deals with filmmaking and voyeurism, but such themes as the relationships between children and their parents, sexual repression, sexual perversion, violence, fear, and the collapse of the class system in post-war Britain. In many respects Peeping Tom is a potpourri of many of the anxieties plaguing the United Kingdom following World War II.
Critically reviled upon its initial release in Britain and suffering from slipshod distribution in the Untied States, Peeping Tom has come to be regarded as a classic. In 1999 the BFI ranked Peeping Tom number 78 in their list of the top 100 British films. In 2004 Total Film ranked Peeping Tom as the 24th greatest British film of all time. Once condemned by British critics as trash that was unworthy of director Michael Powell, in the end Peeping Tom has come to be regarded not only as one of Michael Powell's greatest films, but one of the greatest films of all time.