Film Recommendation of the Day 2/06: Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell’s cult thriller Peeping Tom, a film that pushed the boundaries between film subject and audience, was vastly ridiculed and critically lambasted upon its initial release. Powell himself recalled one of his favorite critical slanders that stated, “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.” But the reaction wasn’t really against the artistic credibility of this fine film but rather against the subject matter which shined an uncomfortable light on the reality of the film experience in relation to the audience’s typical role as a voyeur. Peeping Tom is about the secret life of a mentally disturbed cinematographer who captures the film’s theme of voyeuristic sadism by filming his victims with the sole intention of reliving the murders in the darkness and loneliness of his apartment room. Because the character has a place within the British film industry as a cameraman his perversion is really meant to be a haunting parallel to that of a typical movie attendee; the ultimate voyeur indulging vicariously in the adventures and lives of the false reality of the movie screen. What is most shocking is the audience’s inevitable understanding of such a foul and repugnant human voyeur. But this is what makes Peeping Tom such a fascinating film experience and could be seen as the British cinematic equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Peeping Tom offers a very disturbing yet realistic thriller which contains revealing imagery that relate to the world of cinema and nothing more.

Director Michael Powell had been making films for over 30 years by the time Peeping Tom was released and it unfortunately ruined his career. Powell had always pushed the boundaries of cinema throughout his extensive and experimental career, which saw the creation of such great films as A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The Red Shoes. It was always difficult for Powell to be independent from the British film industry and attempt to make the films he truly desired to create. So it’s quite easy to see Peeping Tom as a final deviation from the expectations of British filmmakers during the time, as the film’s portrait of Pinewood Studios makes an absurdist, vicious, almost vengeful picture of an industry’s total complacency in the face of creative decline. It isn’t the first time that a film was derided by critics and eventually appreciated including Citizen Kane, which many film historians and critics believe to be the finest film ever made. Peeping Tom was ahead of its time fitting right alongside such critically acclaimed modern day psychological thrillers as Silence of the Lambs or Michael Hanake’s Funny Games. As British film theorist Laura Mulvey stated, “Powell’s project was to make visible on the screen the invisible, the intuitive, and the hidden in human life through films that were ‘composed’ out of all the aesthetic elements of the cinema.” And he did just that.

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