1 Hr., 36 Mins.
Peeping Tom November 19, 2018
n his review of Me. I Am Mariah...the Elusive Chanteuse, Mariah Carey’s minorly acclaimed LP from 2014, the critic Jordan Sargent posits the most typical ways an artist’s career might decline. “For some, the end comes suddenly and without warning, while others experience a slow, bewildering decline into mediocrity,” he wrote.
For Michael Powell, the much-lionized English film director, falling out of
public favor looked something like what was described in the first category.
For a period lasting from 1939 to 1957, Powell co-directed steadily venerated feature-lengths with the filmmaker Emeric Pressburger, whom he met in 1938 while they were both working for London Films.
Their 18-year partnership, which would see a couple of post-breakup reunions down the road, saw the creation of some of cinema’s most acclaimed, influential films. Often remarked about was their shared, innovative visual sensibility — defined by robust color and unconventional angling. Even more so, though, was how those visuals were complemented by sinewy performances and urgent themes. Awards attention was consistent; actors were eager to work for them.
After the release of Night Ambush, a war film from 1957, Powell and Pressburger parted ways, in the name of pursuing solo projects. Most artists who cry independence hope their careers will be renewed, inspired by their liberation. But Powell’s career would essentially be destroyed “suddenly and without warning” by the time he finished his second post-Pressburger feature. The film, Peeping Tom, a psychological thriller thematically comparable to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was also released in 1960, was a 180 — an unambiguous horror movie that markedly contrasted with the oft-operatic movies for which Powell and his longtime creative partner were known.
The feature is concerned with a saucer-eyed nebbish and photographer (Carl Boehm) who moonlights as a serial killer. A voyeur whose kinks are enforced by a traumatic childhood, he, for God knows how long, has undergone something of a ritual: pick up women, charm them under the guise of taking photographs of them, and then brutally murder them. He turns his camera on in the meantime — enabling himself to view the snuff films later on — and additionally flips a mirror during the carnage so that his victims can see their dying expressions.
When Peeping Tom premiered in London, in April, 1960, it was met with the kind of critical vilification that might otherwise be reserved for such vacuous “directors” as the maligned Uwe Boll or the mocked Chris Sivertson. Derek Hill, of the London Tribune, suggested the film be flushed down the “nearest sewer”; the Daily Express’ Len Mosley histrionically and insensitively likened the misery the picture installed in him to the sorrow he felt when hearing of the plights of the “leper colonies of East Pakistan.”
Although Powell would continue making films, he was, on the public and critical fronts, finished. It would not be until the 1970s — and beyond, partially as an effect of the affections of the director Martin Scorsese — that the movie would come to be reexamined. Now, appreciation is no longer confined to the cult circuit: In the majority of film circles, Peeping Tom is regarded as a masterpiece, usually drawing comparisons to the aforementioned Psycho.
Peeping Tom left me cold, though it has its merits. The color photography on which Powell would at least partly build his name, is typically sumptuous; indeed, the drawn-out sequences spotlighting the protagonist’s impulsive tendency to seduce and destroy, with a camera by his side, are as intriguingly macabre as they are impressively novel. (The most effective sequence in the movie is the photographer’s dragged-out killing of an actress played by the flame-haired Moira Shearer, who starred in Powell and Pressburger’s magnum opus, 1948’s The Red Shoes.) The score, by Brian Easdale, is all thunderous piano and mood-setting clangor.
The feature has been celebrated, in part, for the way it turns the tables on its audience. Film-watching, in essence, asks us to be voyeurs. Time and time again, we pay to lounge in a theater seat, engulfed by the dark, and watch the lives of fictional others unfold. Those in front of the camera, while aware they are being watched, do not know who is watching them. Peeping Tom, by focusing on a character who, in many ways, reflects our own behavior, is uncomfortable to engage with because it obliquely asks us to confront ourselves. Many of the reasons why the photographer is a frightening antagonist can be linked to his voyeurism. But aren’t we, in a lot of cases, doing the same thing by simply watching a movie?
The subtext is sophisticated. But Peeping Tom, superbly crafted and smart as it is, facilely unspools as a muted depiction of one man’s destruction of others as a repercussion of his childhood traumas. This is, of course, something that would also be found in Psycho, which would debut in June. But the latter excels because it accentuates the evils of the horrors inflicted, and provides us with a tangibly contrite villain. Peeping Tom, in a David Cronenberg-esque fashion, depicts its violence without much feeling. It is more concerned with exploring the psyche of its mostly aloof central fiend than it is with outrightly untangling the brutality of the narrative. The film is a lushly photographed, strangely indifferent feature-length illustrating violence against women, not a palpably scary horror movie. While it is not the assault critics of 1960 portrayed it, it’s not an explicit masterpiece, either — more an intelligent but hollow change of pace for a grandiosity-dependent filmmaker with some flashes of brilliance. B