Peeping Tom is a great and unpleasant film made by Michael Powell three years after he and his partner in the Archers, Emeric Pressburger, went their own ways. British critics loathed it, said so loudly, and the movie died within weeks of its release. Some say it destroyed Powell's career. It certainly damaged his reputation. It might damage my reputation, as insignificant as it is, if I don't say again, spoilers ahead.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a young man who works as a camera puller at a movie studio. At night he photogaphs girlie pictures for magazines. His father, a psychologist, studied the effects of fear by cold-bloodedly putting his son in terrible situations and photographing the child's reactions. Lewis lives in the second floor of a rooming house and often watches those old movies while he sits alone in the dark.
Lewis also does something else. In the tripod of his camera there is a concealed knife. As he photographs a girl the knife pushes into her, while the camera films the terror in her face as she realizes she is going to die, then while she is dying. We join in with Mark; we watch with him. He plays back these movies, too.
As we watch Peeping Tom we become a voyeur participant in what he does. Mark meets the young woman who lives below him and it is apparent that she is at first curious about him, but then attracted to him. He finds within himself an attraction that might be love, might be salvation. At the least it is conflicted. The movie plays out with tension, remorse and even sympathy. The ending is somewhat unexpected, but with hindsight also inevitable.
Perhaps that is what made this movie so controversial. Lewis is a sympathetic figure. You know what his father put him through because you've watched those old movies. Boehm playes Lewis as a shy, repressed, sad young man. Anna Massey, who plays Helen Stephens, the girl on the first floor, is a first-rate actress and in this role she is excellent. She eventually realizes something is wrong with Lewis, but still wants to give him love and help.
This movie was released just weeks after Psycho. Hitchcock's career was enhanced by his movie, Powell's was hurt by his. I think the difference was that while Norman Bates was weird to begin with (and had “psycho” written all over Anthony Perkins face) and the frights were real, you could laugh at yourself afterward. Hitchcock encouraged us to appreciate the fright giggles he put us through. Not so with Peeping Tom. The voyeur aspect of the deaths still make a viewer squirm. There are no giggles. Powell gives us an emotionally damaged Mark Lewis, and the murder scenes aren’t funny.
For fans of Michael Powell, he plays Mark Lewis' father in the old movie clips that show the fear experiments. Powell's young son played the young Mark Lewis in those scenes.