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Peeping Tom (1962, Karlheinz Böhm, Moira Shearer)

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Peeping Tom was reviled on release, destroying the career of one of Britain’s most distinguished directors, but has been judged in retrospect as an essential and influential addition to the psychological-horror genre.

Karl Böhm plays Mark Lewis, a young reclusive cameraman who also moonlights in the soft-porn trade. But his interest lies beyond gloating over images of naked women. His psychologist father insisted on using young Mark as a guinea pig in an experiment to study the symptoms of fear, often filming the terrors of his son, leaving the adult Mark a killer obsessed with capturing images of horror. His compulsion is to complete a film cataloguing the moment of death of his victims, his murderous psychosis driven by his upbringing.

Into Lewis’s life comes Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who lives downstairs with her mother (Maxine Audley). Drawn to the gentle Lewis, she shares the filmed childhood experiences of the young man, little guessing either the content of the other cans of film in his room nor the designs he has on studio colleague Vivian (Moira Shearer)…

Powell’s career as a film-maker spanned over four decades and among his credits are A Canterbury Tale and, from 1941 and in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. Powell was also fascinated by the ballet and Shearer was to star in The Red Shoes, but Peeping Tom practically finished his career – he worked little after its release and died in 1990.

At the time of its release, British critics found it hard to deal with the sometimes brutal realism Powell brought to the film – the doyenne of British film critics, Dilys Powell, seemed to sum up the confusion when she wrote, ‘Perhaps one would not be so disagreeably affected by this exercise in the lower regions of the psychopathic were it handled in a more bluntly debased fashion’ but in 1990, in a re-appraisal, she wrote, ‘Today, I am convinced it is a masterpiece. If, in some afterlife, conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise.’ Across the water, the Americans seemed to have a calmer point of view – Variety wrote ‘Offbeat chilly yarn about a psychopathic killer. Saved from unpleasantness by shrewd direction and excellent photography… this pic is above the level of the run-of-mill horror film and has obvious box-office potential.’

production details
UK / 101 minutes / 1962

Director: Michael Powell
Writers: Leo Marks

cast
Karlheinz Böhm as Mark Lewis
Moira Shearer as Vivian
Maxine Audley as Mrs. Stephens
Brenda Bruce as Dora
Esmond Knight as Arthur Baden
Michael Goodliffe as Don Jarvis
Jack Watson as Chief Insp. Gregg
Shirley Anne Field as Pauline Shields
Pamela Green as Milly
John Barrard as Small Man (uncredited)
Robert Crewdson as Shop Assistant on Film Set (uncredited)
Michael Powell as Mark’s Father – A.N. Lewis (uncredited)
Susan Travers as Lorraine the Model (uncredited)
Nigel Davenport as Det. Sgt. Miller (uncredited)
Miles Malleson as Elderly Gentleman Customer
Anna Massey as Helen Stephens

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