Peeping Tom

Year: 1960
Production Co: Michael Powell (Theatre)
Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Cast: Karlheinz Böhm

Like Hugo and Rear Window, this is another movie that I think a lot of cinephiles love because it's about filmmaking as an art and cinephilia as a pastime (and the attributions of vouyerism it's always attracted), something that has much more cultural cachet in the post Tarantino era. You can tell as much from the fact that it joins the other titles of the hallowed Criterion series.

Whether the film's actually any good on its own merits aside from the fetishisation of cinema is another matter. In that regard, I think it's a creature of its time and place.

The stylised acting and dialogue are heavily anchored in the period it was made, and although I wouldn't go as far as to say the movie suffers for it, a contemporary remake with a more naturalised approach wouldn't be out of place. You only have to watch the original trailer making it out to be a grindhouse horror film to see how the culture of film appreciation has changed around it.

The subtext is the director's complicity in the horrors we see on movie screens to a quite literal degree, as camera operator Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm, looking a bit like a young, clean cut Richard O'Toole) makes a living in various film-related fields, from working at a London film studio to shooting porn stills for a newsagent.

But it's his after-hours filmmaking passion that really drives him. He kills women and films the whole thing, including the aftermath as the police and public try to figure out what's going on – splicing them into documentary films about his exploits as a killer.

Mark himself seems to be fetishising the art of filmmaking to get the most extreme emotional reactions out of his actors. The production he's working on is falling into disarray as the long-suffering director buts heads with an actress not interested enough to raise much of a reaction, but what better way is there to invoke fear in a performer than to actually attack and kill them?

As Mark goes about his dark business and keeps his head down, the pretty young Helen, who lives in the same guesthouse, takes a shine to him.

But as Mark is bought more out of his shell by Helen's acceptance, friendship and the hint of romance, it only confuses him – his compulsion to kill at odds with his wanting to protect and be with her. It also doesn't help that he's driven by another compulsion besides killing – like any artist he wants an audience, but he knows that it gives in (but he knows if he gives in to this need it will probably get him caught) to his wanting to show the films to someone it will probably get him caught.

It's like a mash-up between Psycho and Cinema Paradiso, the love of the cinematic arts turned dark and twisted in the hands of a man who – thanks to a similarly fractured psychology as Norman Bates – is an unseen danger to everyone around him.

Some old movies strike me as being just as naturalistic as anything made today, like To Kill a Mockingbird. But some (like this) are made with the creative aesthetic of the early or mid 20th century stage – all letter-perfect dialogue delivery, stiff performances and blocking straight out of a stage play.

Those that are lose the essential authenticity that makes me buy into a movie, and because I'm also not as taken in by anything that shows a bit of cine-love as most cinephiles, it needed more than it had to impress me. At its heart it's just another serial killer story, but without even any blood or scares.

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