In 1960 audiences were revolted by a film of such shockingly voyeuristic violence that it created a media outrage. And later on that year, Psycho came out.
Although it’s fallen by the wayside in the fickle memory of the collective cinema, Peeping Tom is so much more modern and disturbing in its implications, and its implication of the audience, than Hitchcock’s contemporary film that it comes across as severely screwed up even now. Imagine being made to identify with Norman Bates for the entire film, knowing straight off he’s the murderer. Now imagine him holding the camera. And that there’s a psychological reason for his behavior that’s not a tacked-on psychiatrist-ex-machina.
I don’t want to completely identify Peeping Tom with Psycho, although I just have—I merely want to illustrate how much more effective the former is at evoking similar themes in a way which is still relevant. The color of the prints has aged poorly, and the psychology is extreme, but the major theme of a man whose demonic need to produce and record the effects of fear by killing women is central to much discussion that still goes on around the issue of watching in the cinema.
The plot is subtly constructed by a screenwriter who was a major figure in WWII code-breaking, and the care taken to reveal new, startling information is shown in the film’s lack of sensational “pow!” moments. Nothing ever jumps out at you. The killer is known from the start. Yet each new piece of information adds to our understanding, and indeed our sympathy, for the protagonist; even as we fervently hope Mark’s young, innocent tenant Helen (Anna Massey) will make it through alive.
Though concerned with a pathological peeping tom and the horrific murders his disorder drives him to, the film is really about the director as filmmaker and us, the audience, as accomplices. Michael Powell, the director, plays Mark’s father in old home footage, with young Mark played by Powell’s son. The layers of watching and being watched compound, as Mark watches Helen watching movies his father made of Mark as a child. Helen’s mother’s blindness adds another complication, as well as an innate distrust of someone who needs to see so deeply and often that he cannot leave the house without his camera. In the end, the negativity of critics may have been due as much to the equating of watching with pathology as to outraged morals. For whatever reason, it’s very unfortunate that this film has been largely ignored since then except by a few “movie brat” directors like Scorsese and De Palma.
Then again, De Palma might not have had a career if people had had access to this gem.