What Went Wrong With… Peeping Tom (1960)?

An old phallic cine camera

Peeping Tom, in case you don’t know, is a drama-thriller directed by Michael Powell starring Karlheinz Böhm and Anna Massey. The movie which is about a voyeuristic serial killer who wields a film camera with a blade secreted in the tripod, is more known for the controversy stirred-up by the press when it was first released in 1960. So incensed by the picture’s apparent content, tone, and morals, critics at the time lambasted Peeping Tom to the point it was withdrawn from cinemas and the director effectively blacklisted from the British film industry. Intrigued by this overreaction as a teenager in Art College (and generally annoyed by the “Video Nasty” situation) I watched Peeping Tom on DVD and surprise, surprise, it was rather tame. I couldn’t for the life of me see what was so controversial about it. Aside from a few mainstream journos looking for the ’60s equivalent of click-bait, I doubt that the general public would have been negatively affected by this flick, even back then.

I have never and will never agree with mass-hysteria or mass-critic overreactions to art; just look at all the blasphemy shite that The Life Of Brian got accused of or more recently, all the “incel” claims that Joker received from well-known critics. A film is a film; you can share your personal opinion about it but when you effectively mob-up to suppress its “message” or try to wipe a piece of art from history, I’m the first person to call attention to this preposterous, fascist-esque irrationality.

There were of course, a few reviews from 1960 which spoke about Peeping Tom in a positive light but most of them were negative. Here’s a selection which were included in Ian Christie’s article in the 19-25 November 1988 issue of Radio Times

The Spectator: “We have had glossy horrors before… but never such insinuating, under-the-skin horrors, and never quite such a bland effort to make it look as if this isn’t for nuts but for normal, homely filmgoers like you and me.”

The Observer. “It’s a long time since a film disgusted me as much”

Daily Worker: “Wholly evil”

Daily Telegraph: “Sick minds will be highly stimulated.”

Tribune: “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer.”

After watching this film once again, this time on pristine Blu-ray, I still cannot see what the fuss was about; the outrage, the revulsion, the calls for censorship. I mean, this movie was banned in Finland until 1981! 😒 Like most shunned works, Peeping Tom has now gone in the other direction, with a cavalcade of retrospective overrating. Ever since Martin Scorsese said Peeping Tom was the mutt’s nuts, his nerdy fawners (which includes film tutors, film students, film historians and of course contemporary critics) have come to the consensus that yes, Scorsese is indeed right about everything. The critic swingometer has now been thrust the other way with great force it seems, and this rather average film is now being heralded as a classic. It’s ironic that the modern counterparts to the cunty clique of critics who got this film essentially banned six decades ago are now declaring this flick as a flawless masterpiece. The truth is of course Peeping Tom wasn’t that bad to be shocked and appalled sixty-odd years ago and it isn’t that good to be celebrated and eulogised today. Powell’s film is just an average movie which, if it weren’t for critics both past and present, would just be a movie about a killer. Nothing more, nothing less.

Peeping Tom is apparently the first film to show the audience the perspective of a character which makes this a notable work in the thriller (or horror genre). This however, brings its own question. Is something that came first (or did something first) automatically the best by virtue of it being the original? Is a cave painting objectively better than a painting by, let’s say Salvador Dalí? I would argue that you can improve on an idea. I’ll give props to Peeping Tom for being the first P.O.V. film, hence the not-so-crap score below, but every other element is far from original. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (which was released in the same year) and Frenzy (which coincidentally starred Massey) and which both tackled sexual “perversion” and killers, are better films in terms of acting, pace, direction, and atmosphere. I mean, take the silent movie-esque piano track that plays during all the projections in Peeping Tom… is it playing in the scene (which is daft) or is it indicative of a mediocre score?

There’s lots of other elements that make Peeping Tom a badly-made film. The heartbeat that a blind character hears (brilliantly played by Maxine Audley) when touching our antagonist, continues beyond her physical contact which is either bad editing or bad direction. The falling pencils and pens when Böhm is hiding in the studio rafters isn’t as tense as it should be. The scene in which we see a sex worker with a cut in her lip, isn’t seedy enough, and isn’t that good a comment on photographers being “aroused” by the unpleasant aspects of life. We also have the phallic tripod leg which our antagonist points upward like an erection during the final scene, and this is too obvious to be a clever metaphor about sexual arousal. Speaking of sexual arousal, you at least see Pamela Green in the nuddy, but other than attracting dirty old men, I can’t see the allure of this rather dull movie.

Martin Scorsese said “Peeping Tom shows the aggression of [film], how the camera violates” which sounds to me like a pretentious description. Scorsese called this film “lurid” and “disturbing” in the documentary “The Eye Of The Beholder” so hey, it must be. He’s also called it a “frightening experience” which it really isn’t. There’s absolutely nothing here that’ll scare you. A killer on the loose should be thrilling… it isn’t. Being forced to watch a voyeur should be uncomfortable or arousing… it isn’t.

Likening photography and film with being a “pervert” isn’t really delving into the issue of immorality, debauchery, the mental state of film-makers, or indeed voyeurism. We’re offered a repressed bloke who gets-off on filming his kills but this is Tinseltown bullshit; this has never happened in real-life in the entire history of serial killers. In addition, a so-called “peeping tom” or voyeur isn’t created by will and conditioning by an outside force, in fact most if not all fetishes have an unknown origin (unless you get a shrink involved to forensically and fakely track someone’s kinks).

There’s also the cliched idea of blaming parents for a child’s psychological state. It’s kinda like those contrived serial killer documentaries you see on TV where everything has to have an overt explanation – his mother was overbearing, his father was neglectful, he had no parents – what about the countless other people with an identical upbringing who aren’t killers? In Peeping Tom, thanks mainly to the second-choice casting of an Austrian-German actor, we also venture into a slightly stereotypical idea of dastardly German science and the cliché of Nazi experimentation.

So what about the film’s looks? Is the art direction something noteworthy? Not really; the colour is a mixture of George Pal’s The Time Machine and David Lean’s This Happy Breed, and yet, the way some critics speak about the “palette”, it’s like they’ve found the precursor to Dario Argento. We’ve also got critics speaking about how Brian De Palma’s Blow Out was influenced by this film even though De Palma is a confirmed Hitchcock-phile not a Powell-nonce. I’d say this movie has more in common with films like Never Take Sweets From A Stranger; a decent enough movie about a “controversial” topic but definitely not worthy of being placed in lists such as “The Best 100 Films From Last Century”!

To me, Peeping Tom has influenced films such as The Last Horror Film which is essentially a comedic version of Tom but with a point. But, if critics are going to poo-poo that movie, I don’t understand their 96% approval rating of Peeping Tom. Okay, it may have come first (ooh err missus) but it’s no more entertaining.

I don’t agree with age ratings but Peeping Tom is a PG-13 at best. I still can’t get over the fact that this movie was banned and careers were blackballed… over this shite? This leads to another question: if the passage of time can affect how the public perceive something and if time can also drop a film’s certification from X to 18 to 15, what’s the point in any rating at any time? Surely we should allow everyone to watch everything? Someone is always gonna get “affected” or offended by any and everything but when the establishment censors or “cancels” something, they’re preventing the other, saner people in society from watching or consuming what they want. On a side note, people from a particular side of the political spectrum keep moaning about “cancel culture” these days, but they conveniently forget all the historic instances their supposed side were busy protesting, boycotting, or banning shit left right and centre… Last Tango In Paris, The Life Of Brian, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, The Sex Pistol’s “God Save The Queen”, and Peeping Tom… and the list goes on.

What’s really infuriating about this situation, is that a movie like Srpski Film which was released in 2010, got the same treatment from snooty mainstream critics and the media at large; resulting in editing, banning, and once again, the effective blacklisting of the writers and the director, the latter of which is quite talented. If we can’t learn from our past mistakes and we continue to find certain art “too much” for the sensibilities of the public, allowing self-appointed bodies and so-called experts to babysit and “protect” us from morals not conducive to “normal” life, we’ll keep blackballing artists only to apologise moments before their death as was the case with Michael Powell. For fuck’s sake, let people make their own minds up, and even if “lots” of people feel something is too violent or too sexual or “too much”, we should keep the work in public view so that all the other folk who aren’t reactionary morons (and who usually outnumber the angry mob) can enjoy what is at the end of the day, a piece of frigging entertainment!

‘Cause Peeps Said So.

Writing: 4/10

Directing: 5/10

Acting: 6/10

Overall: 5/10

2 replies »

  1. I don’t think that you understand why this movie was suppressed. Then (1960) and now, very important and powerful people and entities don’t want some of the sordid details of their games given away. The most cruel forms of conditioning and mind control have an actual basis in fact, more than just the scant bit you may have heard about the CIA’s MKULTRA program. The late Dave McGowan, who wrote the book “Programmed to Kill”, describes it better than I can. You can go to this link scroll halfway down for the story. The writer of the movie was actually involved in this sort of disgrace, though he was coy when interviewed about it. You tell me, why, when the movie is not all that graphic by current standards, was it taken down by Netflix?

    • That doesn’t make much sense. I have no doubt that sordid stuff is going on all the time in high society and by various spy/government/military agencies but if this film contained information that needed hushing, surely the screenplay could have been read and discarded/rejected instead of the much more convoluted idea of putting it into production, releasing it, critically panning it, and blacklisting the director (who had nothing to do with the story) whilst allowing the writer continue penning movies? That’s hardly planned suppression by the establishment, and if it is, they’re pretty crap at it.

      In addition, I assume the kind of things you linked to in the article are still going on behind the scenes from the 1960’s to the present day? But throughout these very years and decades, the film has been out on DVD, Laserdisc and Blu-ray for (almost) everyone to buy, and now it’s available to rent on Prime Video (in the UK). It’s probably no longer on Netflix because the licensing ran out. But irrespective of all this, Peeping Tom is still a shit, overrated film, regardless of who wrote it and why, which was the point of my review.

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