“It’s an assault, this film,” says screen scholar Ian Christie. “A slap in the face.” A slap duly repaid by the critical establishment, circa 1960. “The sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing,” spluttered The Spectator. And that was one of the nicer notices. In 1994, reviews doyenne Dilys Powell u-turned on her earlier savaging (“Today, I find I am convinced it is a masterpiece”), but the damage had been done: Michael Powell’s career – spanning masterpieces like A Matter Of Life And Death and The Red Shoes effectively perished with Peeping Tom.
So why the moral lynching of one of Blighty’s all-time great directors? Well, the subject matter is a bit on the provocative side... “How would you like to make a film about a young man killing women with this camera?” That, the story goes, was screenwriter Leo Marks’ original pitch to Powell, who signed on without long-time collaborator Emeric Pressburger. The filmmaker may have been stretching his wings working without Pressburger, yet, as Christie’s yap-track explains, the material fleshed out a theme he’d developed in The Red Shoes: “The sadistic, masochistic nature of artistic creation.”
Not that the movie is particularly bloody. There’s more claret-shed in the Hammer horrors of the period, or in Hitchcock’s Psycho, which would soar mere months after Tom sank. Psychologically, though, it’s a chainsaw massacre, soaked in dread, compulsion, voyeurism... and a disturbing dose of sympathy. It’s the latter that surely rattled the hacks’ cages, Powell drawing us into the tortured cortex of Mark (Carl Boehm in a role turned down by Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde), a gentle monster whose murderous fascination with filming fear is rooted in an abused childhood. Implicating the viewer in acts of violence is a ploy that’s been bastardised in tat like The Last Horror Movie, but here it carries a genuine jolt, acres ahead of its time.
The style hardly softens the blow: uncomfortable POV shots and a palette that saw Powell crank his colour-dial from lush (Shoes, Black Narcissus etc) to livid. “The picture has a nasty edge to it,” says Tom’s number-one fan, Martin Scorsese, who provides the filmed introduction to the movie. “A lurid quality, like looking at something in The National Enquirer – only in colour!” (Compare and contrast with the stark, sober monochrome of Psycho.)
It’s not all tragic pathology and morbid lust, though. Listen to the commentary and you’ll be let in on a smattering of film-industry in-jokes, mostly at the expense of the Rank Organisation. Despite having a touch of the schoolmaster about him, Christie leaves little ground uncovered, whether it be technical, historical or sartorial (Mark’s duffel coat and moped being modish signs of the changing times). Another academic heavyweight, Laura Mulvey, whose theory of the cinematic ‘gaze’ could hardly be more pertinent, crops up in one of two fine featurettes, rubbing shoulders with Scorsese (pivotal in the movie’s Stateside revival), Boehm, Powell’s widow (and Scorsese’s Oscar-winning editor) Thelma Schoonmaker and his son Columba, who stars alongside papa in the film’s unsettling home-video segments. Elsewhere, French director Bertrand Tavernier amusingly relates how Powell’s vision shook up Gallic prejudices against British cinema, where films were (stereo)typically about “the defence of a small local train.”
But what the many fans assembled here keep coming back to is Peeping Tom’s disturbing insights into the dark underbelly of cinema, nutshelled in the line, “All this filming isn’t healthy.” Ironic, though, to hear that in a movie which – nearly five decades after the shitstorm – has never looked more robust.