Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell directs Carl Boehm, Anna Massey and Moira Shearer in this London thriller about a serial killer who likes to film his victims fear as they realise they are at his mercy.

An unsettling experience, seedy and daring yet still set in the world of cinema where posh accents and the class system rule. It often feels like an Ealing comedy with sexual violence, child abuse, back alley fumbles and scarred perversions. This is the gateway, the “Newman’s Passage”, from a chaste and reserved form of British cinema, to an unflinching, uncensored modernity. With its nudity, fetishes and violence it actually feels more adult and risky than most modern releases. Yet it still has room for a Moira Shearer dance number and bumbling coppers. It has to have its cutting edge transgressions… it is a film that explores pornography, the desire to watch and record that that should not be seen. Powell explores this in his characters and he explores it in us. The film is a warped mirror, turned on the viewer, so we can see our leering grotesqueness. It is a film with more ideas to churn around than Hitchcock’s similar Freudian Grand Guignol Psycho, though that contemporaneous classic is still the tighter and more satisfying genre daredevil. The vivid use of colour is marvellous. Brian Easdale’s cheeky and intrusive score sticks in the memory. The casting is a little off but somehow works better for it. Carl Boehm’s thick German accent is ignored, he brings a vulnerability and inscrutability to his central turn. Massey sells her attraction to the quiet boy upstairs but you never are sure whether she desires the sweetness of the man or his mysterious perversions which are blindingly obvious from their earliest interactions. Maxine Audley is also fantastic as the bitter, housebound mother who knows more about the plot and the world than everyone else. Unevenly paced and tonally off, you can see why the film was reviled on release but it proves a rollercoaster of romance, shock, self parody and tragedy for current movie fans. A landmark.

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