Peeping Tom
Dir: Michael Powell
Michael Powell is perhaps better known as one half of the team, Powell and Pressburger. Together, they created a number of classic British films including 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp', 'A Matter of Life and Death', 'Black Narcissus', and 'The Red Shoes'.

Whilst this partnership worked well for the filmmakers both commercially and critically, there was one film that Michael Powell wanted to make alone. That was 'Peeping Tom'.

It tells the story of a young man who works as a film technician. However, he hides two secrets. The first is that as a child he was subjected to bizarre experiments in fear by his father which have left him pyschologically scarred. The second secret is that he likes to kill women, and film their dying moments.

We will probably never know what drove Powell to make such a 'dark' film. There are stories that he forced his two young sons to watch the filming of some of the more gruesome scenes, and that there was something significant in the fact that he cast his son as the main character while still a child, and cast himself as the main character's father.

It was clearly a film somehow close to Powell's heart. He worked for months with the scriptwriter, and much effort was put into ensuring that the main character was three-dimensional - much more than just a cliched movie serial killer.

He was proud of the film, and felt that he had made something truly groundbreaking.
However, the reaction of both critics and the public was akin to disgust.
They were appalled by the 'voyeuristic' element of the film that seems to place the audience in the front seat to watch the killings, and offended that the killer himself is portrayed as human, sensitive, intelligent, and almost likeable.

With 'torture-porn' films like the 'Saw' series now considered pretty normal fare, it is hard to imagine how a film could so profoundly shock people. I suppose if one looks at Powell's reputation and status in the British film industry, it must have been something like the reaction that might be provoked if Spielberg were now to make a sympathetic film about a pedophile.

'Peeping Tom' was pulled from cinemas after only five days. It was released in the US, but was considered too 'British' and had a limited run.

Soon after, Powell left Britain to live in Australia.

Ten years later, director Martin Scorsese saw 'Peeping Tom' and was so taken by the film, that in 1978 he gave $5000 to a distributor to re-release the film. In 1979 it played at the New York Film Festival.

Now, it is considered a classic of its genre. Website 'Rotten Tomatoes' gives is a 'tomatometer' rscore of 95% and referes to it as a 'classic work of voyeuristic cinema'.

It is interesting to note that at the start of his career, Powell worked on a number of Hitchcock's films, and the two remained friends throughout their lives. Hitchcock's 'Psycho' bears some similarities to 'Peeping Tom', and was released three months after 'Peeping Tom'. It is interesting that whilst both were dark, disturbing, controversial, shocking works, one director was castigated, whilst another found his flagging career reinvigorated.
However, I think it is arguable that of the two films, 'Peeping Tom' has lasted rather better. Episodes of everyday US crime series now contain shots and subjects as disturbing as anything in 'Psycho', and whilst it remains a great example of storytelling, it has lost much of its power to shock. 'Peeping Tom' however still packs a punch.

Paul Spurrier