Peeping Tom (1960)

FEBRUARY 16, 2011


Today marked the 4 year anniversary since the first and only time I ever missed a day since I began doing Horror Movie A Day, so it’s kind of fitting that I chose to watch Peeping Tom, which questions our role as a viewer for horror films (not entirely unlike Funny Games, but in a far less condescending/far more enjoyable way). But also, it’s one of the classic films I hadn’t yet seen, which was part of the reason I started HMAD in the first place – if not for daily viewing, I probably never would have found the time to check the film out. Indeed, back in 2006 (pre-HMAD), I read a book called “The Rough Guide To Horror Movies”, and Peeping Tom was one of the few I hadn’t seen but it was the ONLY one I hadn’t even heard of, so I was like “I must see this!”. Five years later...

The ironic thing about the film is that at the time it was released, it was not only hated and barely released, but it was also considered shocking due to its subject matter. Folks were outraged at the material in the film, such as.... uh, a pair of breasts and a killer who we’re meant to sympathize and identify with. There’s actually precious little on-screen violence in the film; I can’t imagine what would have happened if they showed a graphic murder scene or two. Director Michael Powell probably would have been executed, instead of merely run out of town as he was.

The DVD was released via Criterion, but since I watched the Netflix streaming version I didn’t have access to the bonus material. However, I did read the obligatory essay on the Criterion site, which points out that “it stands in opposition to British realism and merges with the European fantastic, such as ETA Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen, and also hovers on the edge between popular and high cultural traditions, marking the uneasiness of English culture”. Yeah, whatever. I just thought it was a really good thriller. If you want that sort of analysis, look elsewhere (I don’t even know who ETA Hoffmann is, for starters). But I guess it’s another feather in the movie’s cap – I didn’t have to read between the lines or place it in its cultural context to enjoy it.

And I certainly don’t need to brush up on my 1950s British politics to enjoy the performance of Carl Boehm as the “Tom” of the title (his name is Mark, for the record). He was inexplicably German, but it sort of fit the idea of him being a guy that didn’t quite fit in with the world around him, and the “mistake” didn’t bother me in the slightest. Boehm is indeed quite sympathetic; the scene where he spots the necking couple and instantly reaches for the camera that his date forced him to leave behind is actually kind of sad (maybe I just sympathize with someone not fully being used to not having something they’ve always had at their reach for the past 14 years – I MISS HAVING A CAR, DAMMIT). I was also tickled by his demeanor, which reminded me of Misha Collins’ performance on Supernatural as Castiel. If you’re a fan of that show, imagine Castiel impersonating Udo Kier or maybe Tim Curry and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Boehm brings to the film.

I had to wonder though – what is up with people in movies always being drawn to weirdoes who clearly possess some disturbing baggage? As with Roman, Spiral, etc, our female protagonist is inexplicably drawn to a guy who most pretty girls would cross the street to avoid. Our guy barely says a word, creepily carries a camera around with him at all times, and was raised by a guy who filmed everything he said and did for years. Yeah, what a catch. It didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film, mind you, but I’m always kind of confused by this sort of behavior – I’d prefer some sort of inciting moment that kicked off their relationship (i.e. she was using him to make someone else jealous, or whatever).

Another thing I enjoyed was the occasional humorous tone, such as an early scene where a gentlemen tries to discreetly buy some pornography at the photo shop that Mark works for (love that he forgets to take the non-porn items he paid for). There’s also a shrink character who is introduced in the 3rd act who was a total delight; he seems more interested in watching how movies get made (Mark is a camera operator for a studio) than helping a recent trauma victim (an actress who found one of Mark’s victims stuffed into a prop chest) or offering any sort of expertise or analysis to the police. The heroine’s mother also has a wonderful sharp tongue; if they were doing a remake they’d get Jessica “Mrs. Bluth” Walter for sure.

The way Powell works in a sort of “history of film” motif is great too; whenever Mark watches footage from his ‘documentary’ (which has no source sound), the soundtrack turns to a jaunty piano score that you’d expect to hear over a silent film. And the climax is essentially that of any Universal horror monster movie, with Mark (in a Frankenstein type role) literally dragging a female around his lab, throwing switches in a crazed panic as the police close in from outside. All that’s missing is a fire and some pitchforks.

And now that I’ve talked about the end of the movie, I must mention the brilliant opening, in which we see Mark kill a hooker, largely through the POV of his camera. In the following scene, we watch Mark watch what he shot – cementing the central concept of the film in an instant (and with remarkable economy!). Again, this is why I found the film far more successful than Funny Games; both films make us question what we want to see in these movies, but the violent killer in this film was sympathetic – I don’t know if we necessarily want to see him kill anyone, but we DO want him to “succeed” as we would any protagonist. It’s just that his goal seems to be killing folks. Far more effective “makes you think” tactic than having a couple of snobby assholes killing other snobby assholes, at any rate.

If I had one genuine issue with the film, it would be its rather abrupt ending. I would have liked more police involvement (they question him briefly and don’t really seem to think he’s the culprit), or perhaps more of his panic leading up to the finale. It’s also abrupt in the more technical way – there’s no end credits or even a “The End” title card. It just fades to black and then Netflix tells you what you just watched (Peeping Tom, in this case). Apparently, some footage excised by the censors back in the day was never fully restored and is considered lost forever, so perhaps that played a part in the 3rd act’s somewhat uneven pace, but it wasn’t really damaging.

Not sure how long the stream will be available on Netflix; I guess Criterion is pulling all its titles from the service as part of their new deal with Hulu Plus. However, Criterion already lost the rights to this particular film (the physical disc is now out of print), so maybe it’s exempt. I dunno. All I know is, if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing a terrific thriller, one that would make a fine pair with Psycho (for the obvious reasons) as well as Inception (both films tackle the role of a filmmaker in a unique way, though obviously in Inception it’s more of a metaphorical theory). Or just watch it on its own. Your call!

What say you?


  1. Great review. This one is a favorite of mine, it was really ahead of its time.

    Also, the movie is available on regular Hulu, apparently Lionsgate owns the rights to it now.

  2. A terrific alltime classic: highly tense and thrilling but also quite disturbing

  3. Hoffman is a famous sci-fi writer, wrote the short story The Sandman which i think he's most famous for. you should check it out some time.

  4. The Udo Kier comparison was quite apt, and not just because they are both german (the dude from Human Centipede was Kier-esque but was unlike Peeping Tom [Mark]). I liked your insight on wanting this protagonist to succeed even though we don't want him to succeed at what he wants to succeed at (even though we really do because were all a bung of degenerate gore hounds).

    I saw the Criterion a few months ago. I seem to remember one of the features referred to Scorsese being a huge fan of and early defender of Peeping Tom. Kinda cool.


    Essentially, what he is most famous for is the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which was turned into "The Nutcracker" ballet.

  6. I'm glad you finally got to enjoy this film, as its always been a personal favorite - both for the clever means in which it inserts the audience into the killers role, and also for Powell's taught pacing and stylistic touches. Its just a tense little gem.

    Another interesting factor for anyone interested in serial killer lore, the story is loosely based on Harvey Glatman - one of the original bondage murderers - famous for photographing his victims. That gives it an extra-creepy edge.


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