An Adult Movie for Grown-ups

The once-reviled Peeping Tom has been re-released into a world where torture and porn barely register

Film Modern Life

The career of the highly-esteemed British director Michael Powell never quite recovered from the critical mauling he received on the release of his psychological thriller Peeping Tom in 1960. The film, about a psychopathic voyeur, is now being re-released to mark its 50th anniversary, and has long since been judged a masterpiece by cineastes. But that’s not how they saw it when it opened. It was condemned by the Spectator‘s critic as “the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing”, while the New Statesman considered it one that “stinks more than anything else in British film”. The Financial Times condemned it as “frankly beastly”, and in language the Daily Mail would be proud of, the left-wing Tribune thought it deserved to be “flushed swiftly down the nearest sewer”.

 
The 1960 original poster for “Peeping Tom”

Those are pretty impressive tributes. It’s hard to imagine any film getting such treatment now. Your average critic, battered into submission in this era of torture porn and super-sized sex, will muster at most a world-weary shrug, and affect an air of indifference or sophisticated liberal disdain. But Peeping Tom arrived in a world that still exercised moral judgment (this was the year of the Lady Chatterley trial) and expected its critics to be the moral as well as aesthetic keepers of the gates. So it was considered an outrage: the controversy convinced Hitchcock not to show his new, similarly themed movie, Psycho, to the critics. Powell, who had been the toast of the British film industry for movies such as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death, sloped off to Australia in search of work.

Why the fuss? There was virtually no blood and only a few flashes of naked flesh. It’s not explicit as such. But what it did display was an interest in exploring sexual pathology in a way that put the audience squarely in the middle of the action — something which had never before been done so frankly in a British film. Mark, played by the Austrian actor Karlheinz Böhm (then known as Carl Boehm), is a humble focus-puller working at a film studio by day and taking “glamour” photos of young women in his time off. Damaged as a child by being the subject of his own father’s psychological experiments into the nature of fear, he films a series of women on his ever-present camera before murdering them with a makeshift skewer. What was especially disturbing in 1960, however, was the fact that attached to Mark’s camera was a mirror, so that, as he filmed their terror, the women could see their own fear reflected back at them as death approached. And the audience, being behind the camera, became complicit. 

Would this shock people now, this sense that they are effectively being forced by the director to take part? Would they feel “sick” and “filthy”? Almost certainly, those coming to the film new will find it tame. The idea that a camera is intrusive and itself an instrument of voyeurism would not worry younger viewers who live in the era of Big Brother, where porn is not just something done above seedy newsagents in Soho and where people happily film themselves having sex and then share it with the world via mobile phone and internet. Indeed, for many now, not to be on film or recorded in some way is effectively to cease to exist.  

But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t bother to see Peeping Tom. As a social document, they would surely find it fascinating. They would be surprised by its lurid Sixties colours and its abstract piano score. They would be amused by its stiltedness and theatricality and fascinated by the alleyways, apartment blocks and accents of the London of half a century ago. They might like the party frocks, the tarts and the chaps, and wonder why nobody (except a blind neighbour) seems to notice anything strange about the quiet, creepy and obviously weird Mark. 

But most of all, they might be struck by the seriousness with which Powell dealt with his subject. Strange as it might seem given all the fuss, Peeping Tom is a very unsensational film. 

We are aware of a guiding intelligence throughout. We are invited neither to condemn nor to cheer Mark. The fact of his death at the end is not to put the moral universe back on an even keel, as it might be in a lesser work, but rather the logical conclusion of his own, twisted experiment. It is — in the truest and best sense of the term — an adult film. 

Speaking of which, films for grown-ups might seem rarer these days amid the super-heroes and talking bugs clogging up the screen, but they are still there, if you care to look. One such is The Kids are All Right. It is certainly worth seeking out, if you can see past the right-on subject matter of domestic drama within a Californian lesbian partnership. Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, two of Hollywood’s best actresses, play a couple whose union is threatened when the sperm donor they used to beget their children re-enters their lives and causes emotional havoc. Witty, occasionally self-mocking of the puritan streak often present in so-called alternative lifestyles, and very believable, it is, counter-intuitively, a moral and — shock, horror — almost conservative film, in the value it puts on family loyalty, discipline and responsibility.