"The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people's lives."
What do we love about movies? We love that they challenge our sensibilities without directly challenging our morals. Most film-goers would consider watching a film to be normal. This does not make you a voyeur. This is the exact idea that Michael Powell tries to reverse in his 1960 classic, Peeping Tom. This is my first thriller on the 1077 Films to See Before You Die, and it was a creepy experience.
Peeping Tom tells the story of a young serial killer named Mark who films his acts of murder. More specifically, he films their facial expressions as he kills them. Though Mark is obviously the bad guy in the picture, he is presented as a victim of his abusive father. He is desperate to free himself of the curses his father has left on his psyche and murders to relieve his voyeuristic urges. Carl Boehm plays Mark with a shy and sadistic monotone that practically shouts "I AM A PSYCHO" at the audience. It is his performance that makes the film believable.
But it is not the acting that makes Peeping Tom a great film. Powell managed to shoot the entire production in a way that eerily places the audience in the center of the action. This style creates an aura of awkward intrigue that forces the viewer to become part of the story. We are shown murders through the viewpoint of Mark's video camera which makes us a part of the savage surveillance.Powell turned us all into voyeurs. And we actively partake in the action, on the edge of our seats. We are troubled, disgusted, horrified, yet engulfed in the madness.
Another interesting aspect of Peeping Tom is the highly saturated color schemes that Powell uses to keep your attention. "Death colors" like red and black pop into view against a backdrop of brown, white and gray. This technique helps the message because it makes everything feel off the pale. Noticeably inspired by Hitchcock, Powell uses the human eye as a weapon against the audience. He knows how to use his camera to force your attention exactly where he wants it. Peeping Tom is a remarkable display in elementary horror film camera technique.
It is worth noting that Peeping Tom was considered far too gruesome for mainstream cinema at that time. The 1960 audience was not very fond of the raw and unashamed story of a voyeur. They also did not appreciate the uneasy feeling Powell's genius camerawork created. Peeping Tom was pulled from theatres in the United States and United Kingdom due to offensive content. But after several years the film began to gain a steady following with fans, such as Martin Scorsese, demanding the film be re-evaluated. Once critics looked at the film's artistic achievements and well crafted performances it was re-released. It is now considered one of the classic psychological thrillers in all of English cinema.
In the 2010's we are much more desensitized to this type of violence and perversion, but these ideas were all new to the silver-screen in 1960. Powell's career never really recovered from the Peeping Tom controversies, but his legacy as a brilliant filmmaker will forever be displayed in his most influential and popular release. Peeping Tom is uneasy, terrifying and terrific.
Peeping Tom: B-
My Next Film......Duck Soup (McCarey. 1933)