Aug 10, 2014
Maybe it is because I do not give a shit if anyone knows that Hitchcock is nowhere near one of my all-time favorite directors, but I do not have to think twice about saying that I am more a Peeping Tom (1960) kind of guy than a Psycho (1960) kind of guy. While I cannot remember the first time I saw Hitchcock’s Psycho or how many times I have seen it total, I have only seen Peeping Tom twice, with my first time being about a decade ago and my second time being a day ago. While I still think Hitchcock’s proto-slasher flick is a groundbreaking masterpiece in its own right, even if it did have a strong influence on the mostly aesthetically worthless slasher sub-genre, there is just something about a crazed kraut would-be-auteur murdering dumb bimbos with his tripod whilst filming their reactions as they die that is slightly more captivating than seeing a weirdo bourgeois fag like Anthony Perkins roaming around in an outmoded grandma dress. The once-infamous film that more or less ruined the career of highly respected English auteur Michael Powell (Black Narcissus, The Tales of Hoffmann) and introduced sex to celluloid for the perennially frigid British public (the work is noted for being the first mainstream British film to feature nudity), Peeping Tom is, among other things, arguably the greatest film ever made on the subject of scoptophilia (which is actually mentioned in the film and described by a rather Jew-y psychiatrist character featured in the movie as, “The morbid urge to gaze”), as a work that seems just as critical of the viewer as it is self-critical on the director's part as a perniciously playful work where an aspiring filmmaker quite literally kills, including himself, for his art. The story of a terribly deranged and equally lonely young dude who treats his movie camera like it is his cock and refuses to go anywhere without it, Peeping Tom is a work with many layers as a result of both intentional and seemingly unintentional idiosyncrasies. Indeed, one of these more blatant idiosyncrasies is Austrian-German actor Karlheinz Böhm aka Carl Boehm—an actor that became famous in his native country starring in wholesome Heimat films and alongside Romy Schneider in the historical period piece Sissi (1955)—whose Germanic accent is quite clear in the film and must have added an extra subtextual creepiness to the British who had yet to (and arguably still have yet to) get over the Second World War and blamed the krauts for destroying their glorious empire (indeed, the Brits may have eventually defeated Germany in WWII, but politically speaking, it was a total loss for them). A work created in the collapsing empire that also created the dreaded Hammer Horror films and later waged a war against the entire genre in the early 1980s via the Video Nasty phenomenon, Powell’s somewhat eccentric semi-self-reflexive excursion in voyeurism is indisputable proof that our more prudish brothers over the pond can indeed produce masterful horror films, yet Peeping Tom is more than just as masterful proto-slasher flick, as a sometimes strangely touching work featuring a somewhat obscured tragic love story. Indeed, the story of a seemingly ½ autistic aspiring filmmaker who falls for a seemingly ¼ autistic aspiring novelist and vice versa, Powell’s work features what is quite arguably one of the most sad and awkward romantic subplots in film history. Undoubtedly, what sets Böhm’s character apart from pathetic ‘human’ killers like Norman Bates and Peter Lorre’s character in M (1931) is that the all-too-human serial killer of Powell’s film is oh-so close to being normal that his self-prophesized death via celluloid becomes all the more ‘touching.’ It should also be noted that the character's affliction is a direct result of having a camera shoved in his face during his entire childhood. A sort of masterful admittance of guilt on Powell’s part as a filmmaker who had thrived for many decades on stealing the souls of other people via celluloid, Peeping Tom is arguably the most charming condemnation of cinema ever made for which the filmmaker himself would ultimately be wrongly condemned.
Beginning with a scene from the perspective of a camera viewfinder of a faceless man with blue-eyes secretly filming and ultimately killing a trashy blonde prostitute who only charges two quid for her sensual services, Peeping Tom immediately forces the viewer to become conscious of the fact that they are getting a cheap thrill from seeing a seedy snuff flick. The killer cameraman in question is a seemingly benign blond beast by the name of Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) who, on top of being a camera man’s assistant who moonlights as a quasi-pornographer who takes salacious softcore pin-up snapshots for a shop owner who secretly sells the images to informed patrons as part of an underground black market business he has going, is the forsaken progeny of a brilliant yet seeming psychopathic scientist named Professor A.N. Lewis (quite fittingly played by director Michael Powell himself) who used his sole son as a guinea pig for various psychological experiments on the reaction of the nervous system to fear. Indeed, during his childhood, Mark had cameras in his face during his most humiliating and horrifying moments, including when he paid respects to his prematurely deceased mother's corpse, as his mad scientist father would intentionally strike fear and dread in his son to further his ‘scientific research.’ Naturally, Mark’s rather unconventional childhood completely screwed him up and turned him into the deranged dude he is today, as a young and handsome man who is approached by various beauteous women yet seems to be only able to achieve orgasm by watching the fear in a woman’s eyes as she dies in front of his movie camera. Indeed, Mark has a blade (or what he calls a “spike”) at the end of the tripod of his camera and he drives it into his victim’s body in an erotic way whilst filming their death. On top of that, Mark has a distorted mirror attached to the end of his camera so that his victim’s become witnesses to their own deaths, thus making their reaction all the more horrified (Scottish auteur Donald Cammell would later incorporate this theme into his somewhat artsy fartsy 1987 serial killer flick White of the Eye). Of course, complications come into Mark’s life when he meets a young and somewhat dorky female writer named Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who seems rather attracted to the pathetic killer’s glaring peculiarities. Indeed, Mark is both an occupant and the landlord of a home he inherited from his scientist father and Helen and her blind mother are his new tenants. When Mark informs Helen that he is her landlord, she is rather shocked, remarking you, “walk around as if you haven’t paid the rent.” Of course, little does Helen realize that, every night, Mark is editing and screening snuff films while she is asleep in the room below his.
When Mark makes the amateur mistake of killing a stand-in, Vivian (Moira Shearer), on the film he is working as a camera assistant on, he finds police officers, including a certain Chief Inspector Gregg (Jack Watson), hanging around the movie set. Of course, being a deranged dude and all, Mark is more intrigued than petrified by the presence of the police, as it gives him the rare opportunity to document their criminal investigation (in fact, Mark also goes back to the site where he killed the prostitute, even capturing the moment when the hooker's corpse was put in the back of a hearse). Meanwhile, Mark begins to develop an almost normal romantic relationship with Helen, though he is rather ill-equipped when it comes to properly courting a young lady, but he at least attempts to make a serious effort to make her happy. Indeed, while Mark refuses to go anywhere without his camera (his entire life is like an unending documentary as shot from his singular cockeyed perspective) as if it is his cock, Helen actually convinces him to leave it behind during their first date and though he suffers from minor ‘camera withdrawal,’ by the end of the night, he seems more interested in his quasi-lover than his camera. Although she has no idea what he means, Mark tells Helen that he will never film her, lest he gets overexcited by her fear and kills her as well. Ironically, it is Helen’s blind mother Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley) who becomes almost instantaneously aware that there is something not quite right about Mark and warns him to stay away from her daughter and that he needs to get some serious help. Of course, Mark becomes quite excited upon learning that Helen is about to have her first novel, which is about a ‘magic camera,’ published, as she offers him the opportunity to shoot photographs for the book, which he gladly agrees to do for free.
When a German Jewish psychoanalysis aka “sneezer geezer” named Dr. Rosan (played by real-life Austrian Jew Martin Miller, who became famous for his onstage parodies of Adolf Hitler) is brought on the set by the police to determine if there are any glaring peculiarities among the crew members, Mark foolishly does not think twice about approaching the soul doctor to ask him about his affliction, thus learning that he suffers from a bad case of scoptophilia which, according to the discernibly dubious Herr Döktor, can be easily uprooted over time via regular psychoanalysis sessions. Of course, Mark’s conversation with Dr. Rosan alarms Inspector Gregg, who has his men follow the assistant cameraman around town. Of course, that does not stop Mark from killing a pin-up model named Milly (English glamour model Pamela Green)—a decidedly ditzy super slut who explains earlier on in the film that she has bruises on her face because, “I went out with my boyfriend. Getting married next month. Trouble was my fiancé saw us”—while police officers are lurking around the building. Needless to say, when Helen wanders into Mark’s room when he is not there and becomes curious enough to run his projector to see what kind of films he makes, she is in for quite the surprise. Of course, Mark walks in on her while she is watching the murder footage and when Helen asks regarding the footage, “it’s just a film. Isn’t it?,” the snuff auteur, who is honest to a fault like so many other basketcases, stoically states, “No. I killed them.” In his own weird way, Mark proclaims his love to Helen by confessing regarding the murders, “I made them watch their own deaths. I made them see their own terror as the spike went in. And if death has a face, they saw that too. But not you. I promised I’d never photograph you.” After the police discover Milly’s corpse, they naturally realize Mark is the killer and head to his home. Realizing there is no turning back, Mark decides to direct the ultimate climax to his life's film by filming his own death, stating to Helen right before he drives his tripod blade into his throat, “Helen, I’m afraid. And I’m glad I’m afraid.” Of course, one must respect a man who is willing to die for his art.
In a clip featured in the documentary A Very British Psycho (1997), director Michael Powell states regarding his marvelously macabre yet unnervingly touching masterpiece Peeping Tom, “The film was full of compassion…for a diabolical murderer…but then for me, he was not a diabolical murderer, he was a cameraman.” Indeed, while Powell implicates both the viewer and the filmmaker (i.e. himself) with his film, his remark from A Very British Psycho makes it quite clear that he did not have a guilty conscience about it at all. Of course, as demonstrated by the fact that the film was unanimously trashed by critics upon its release and ultimately destroyed Powell’s career, Peeping Tom unquestionably induced a deep sense of guilt in filmgoers upon its release as it made them not only realize that they had an unhealthy addiction to voyeurism, but also that they got a sadistic kick from filmic murder and mayhem. It should be noted that the film was penned by British Jewish cryptographer turned screenwriter Leo Marks, who became interested in cryptography after his father introduced him to Edgar Allan Poe's story The Gold-Bug (1843) as a child, used ‘coded poems’ while working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War while waging an occult war against Uncle Adolf, and later would provide the voice of Satan in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Anyway, what many film critics seem to ignore regarding Peeping Tom is Marks’ depiction of psychoanalysis as a sort of esoteric devil’s art that had the capacity to transform a perfectly normal little boy into a deranged killer. Ironically, the film also depicts psychoanalysis as the only true potential cure for Mark’s affliction. Going back to Scorsese, the great Guido American filmmaker would once insightfully remark regarding Powell’s meta-slasher flick, “I have always felt that PEEPING TOM and 8½ say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. 8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while PEEPING TOM shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.” To his credit, Powell would use the failure of Peeping Tom to further embrace his lifelong obsession with scoptophilia, as he would later direct a rather young, voluptuous, and ultimately underage Helen Mirren in the Australian film Age of Consent (1969) where an old artist played by James Mason eventually finds the inspiration to paint once again after coming into contact with a busty unclad teenage girl. As for Karlheinz Böhm, he would demonstrate that he was just as good at playing unsympathetic, if not rather charismatic, deranged bourgeois dudes in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s underrated darkly comedic Sirkian thriller Martha (1974). A wonderfully wicked cinematic work where a crazed aspiring filmmaker (he even has his own director’s chair) catches crusty cunt street rabble in the crosshairs of his camera and subsequently penetrates them with his tripod in what can only be described as the ultimate cinematic climax, Peeping Tom is ultimately a reminder that it feels good to wallow in fear, murder, and death, so long as, to quote Wes Craven’s singularly classless and tasteless 1972 Bergman (non)remake The Last House on the Left, you remind yourself that, “It's only a movie.”
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:52 AM
Soiled Sinema 2007 - 2013. All rights reserved. Best viewed in Firefox and Chrome.