When Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" first released in 1960, it was the unfortunate and melancholy end of a great filmmaker's career. But if there was ever a great movie to end a man's profession, this would be it. If you ask me, "Peeping Tom" only offended those who just weren't ready for it. But then again, it was 1960, so nobody was. It wasn't violence that had people feeling uneasy; it was the atmosphere, the filmmaking techniques, and the realism of "Peeping Tom". People were simply trying to deny that it was not only a masterpiece of the voyeurism cinema, but also a masterfully told and crafted psychological study of a killer. We don't want to think thoughts of violence and murder; so this is why we might not like "Peeping Tom". I can't say it's for everyone, not even now, as it can be seen on Criterion Collection DVD, where it is most appreciated. People are more excepting of this material nowadays; although I would have always been all-for this movie. That I can tell you up front.
Some people put the camera to good use and make great films out of both their material and their equipment. The central character of "Peeping Tom" is Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm), and he is a man that uses the camera for some particularly different and disturbing things. For instance, we first see him filming his encounter with a prostitute on the streets. He follows the woman into her house, and only stops filming when he kills her and films the poor lady's reaction. Later, Mark watches his nightly outing on a projector screen in his home.
Mark has a job as the member of a film crew. He often photographs whores and prostitutes because that is the kind of things he is assigned; and it's clear that he needs to move up on the food chain. Mark is a social reject; he lives in a building where there are other people, yet he is only just talking to one of the woman who happens to be a tenant of his (as he owns the building). I suppose his fetish for filming the deaths of feminine victims contributes to his isolation, but that's for another day.
We follow the "peeping tom" as he struggles to perhaps make one healthy connection with that very woman who lives in the same building. She's not sure of his secret, but she's concerned for him; especially when he reveals to her a tape of Mark's father conducting psychological studies on him like a test subject. Maybe Mark's childhood is the reason why he's a voyeur. Or maybe he's always been that way.
I'm a sucker for movies that study the psychology and complexity of the human mind. I love "Psycho". I loved "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer", which came out a few decades after this film, but still counts as a damn good example. There are people out there like Norman Bates, Henry, and even Mark; although some still protest that films don't need to be made about them.
Oh, but they do. That's like saying that there should be no films that cover challenging and different material at all. "Peeping Tom", like the other two films I referenced, does not exploit its subjects, but it rather does them justice as plot elements. The film is disturbing both for what it doesn't show, and also for what it has on its mind. I'm fascinated with this movie, and can't see why anyone, today, would despise it. People who, perhaps, lived in the time of its release will probably still find its negative impact still living forevermore, but that's the point; this film has not aged. It is still great, it is still challenging, and it is still a frightening work of realistic thriller-fiction.
Karlheinze Bohm was perfectly cast as Mark. The best movies voyeurs, stalkers, and killers are played exquisitely and interestingly by their performers. And I reference "Psycho" yet again, now; Norman Bates was played by Anthony Perkins, and nobody else could have done a finer job. Both Bates and Mark Lewis are played with social innocence; the kind that makes both characters so intellectually and internally frightening. If "Peeping Tom" scared me, it was because it was so darned smart.
If there is a dark ally of cinema known as "voyeurism cinema", I suppose each entry must be treated with special, different criticism. Thus, if "Psycho" is a masterpiece of "voyeurism cinema", then so is "Peeping Tom"; and if "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" is a smart, disturbing vision of a killer, then hell, so is this film. "Peeping Tom" is uneasy and unnerving enough to turn some people off, but who gives a damn. You either see this film, love it, or you don't. I see it as a masterpiece that demands repeated viewings to flawlessly decipher. There are few films like it, and for good reasons. I say smell the disturbingly mellow flowers, and let the uneasiness come in without controversy or negative excitement. It will do you good if you do this.