Directed by: Michael Powell
Premise: A disturbed cinematographer (Carl Boehm), obsessed with capturing fear on film, photographs himself killing women.
What Works: Peeping Tom is one of those films that is generally appreciated and even adored by the few people who have seen it but is largely unknown to wider audiences. For those who have an understanding of cinema, film theory, psychology, or those who enjoy meta-textual films (movies about movies), Peeping Tom is exemplary. This is a multilayered story about obsession and the way cinema reflects and embodies our fantasies but also shapes them. Peeping Tom picks up on the idea that although films are a way of literalizing our dreams and desires, the concretizing of our dreams can make film more important to us than the dreams ever were and film can create a meaning and a reality of its own. This is a powerful idea, one that has been done since in films such as 8½, Natural Born Killers, and Scream. Peeping Tom is distinct in that it was one of the first films to do this and it continues to be distinguished in how well it handles that theme. Aside from the complex thematic material, Peeping Tom can be appreciated for its wit and intelligence. While not a full blown satire, Peeping Tom does have satirical elements, especially in the way it sends up the British film industry. That satire takes a dark turn as the film contrasts the factory-like production of mainstream film with the seedy but organic environment of pornography and snuff. And the way Peeping Tom links those two platforms of cinema together is subtle but skilful and has serious implications for the way consumers of cinema engage in some degree of scopophilia. All this is grounded in the frightening and even tragic portrayal of a man dealing with severe psychological issues. Carl Boehm does a terrific job as Mark, the cinematographer whose obsessions with capturing women in fear, lead him to murder. Boehm conveys the desperation of his character’s desire and makes him very sympathetic but in a responsible way that does not excuse his crimes but makes them understandable.
What Doesn’t: If Peeping Tom has any flaw it is that the film has not aged very gracefully. Although the thematic material is still relevant, the look of the film is less timeless and a lot the characters and settings place the film in a specific era. There is nothing wrong with that and viewers who are best able to appreciate Peeping Tom would probably accept or look past those qualities anyway.
DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition of Peeping Tom includes a commentary track, a documentary, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Peeping Tom is an important film and one that ought to be more widely seen and appreciated. What the film suggests about cinema, both in its production and in its appeal to viewers, is more than a little subversive and deserves serious consideration.
Episode: #309 (October 10, 2010)