We Westerners hate and resist having our hypocrisy exposed. We get that trait honestly and through tradition, having inherited it from both our Puritan forefathers and Mother England. Both sides of the political and ideological spectrum sow vilification when someone, especially an insider, turns the lens on our own hypocrisy. That is true horror; and when an artist does so in film, purportedly the most accessible of mediums, the backlash can be catastrophic. Case in point: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Released the same year as Psycho, Peeping Tom, which is not as overtly violent as‘s classic, nevertheless opened to furiously scathing reviews from American and British critics: “It is the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing” (The Spectator). “The only satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain” (Derek Hill, writing in The Tribune). Audiences reacted with even more hostility, and it took the French to set the record straight a few years later when Peeping Tom was received there to widespread acclaim and enthusiasm.
Peeping Tom committed an unforgivable sin in lensing the hypocritical voyeurism of both filmmakers and film goers (that Powell condemned even himself in the film did not earn him a pardon). Before 1960, Powell’s career was notable, extensive, and esteemed, which included numerous wartime and post-war collaborations with Emeric Pressburger: 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Stairway To Heaven, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Hour Of Glory, to 1951’s The Tales Of Hoffman. Backlash to Peeping Tom was cataclysmic, resulting in Powell being permanently blacklisted by both British and American film industries. He was reduced to working (sporadically) for television and producing only three feature films over the next twenty years. That work included a television treatment of Bela Bartok’s opera “BlueBeard’s Castle” in 1963 and 1969’s bitter, semi-autobiographical Age of Consent.
Predictably, the West eventually came around, and Peeping Tom has now been posthumously recognized here with a reappraisal led by, who famously championed it as one of the great achievements for both Powell and for cinema.
Peeping Tom opens with the first person perspective of Mark Lewis (the eerily blank and blonde Austrian Karlheinz Böhm, son of Fascist conductor Karl Böhm) covertly approaching a prostitute with a rolling 16MM camera hidden under his pervert’s trenchcoat. He throws an empty Kodak box into a trash receptacle , follows the courtasan up to a seedy hotel room, and films her undressing. Lewis zooms in for the extreme close-up on her face, twisted and frozen in fear, as he lunges toward her for the kill. Cut to Continue reading PEEPING TOM (1960)