Sunday, February 19, 2012

Underrated Movie #148: Peeping Tom

Title: Peeping Tom
Year: 1960
Director: Cockeyed Caravan favorite Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Stars: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

The Story: A psychopathic cameraman gives women screentests, then murders them with the sharpened end of one leg of his tripod, while capturing the horror on their faces. Can the love of his neighbor keep him from killing again, or will it take the police?

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a bit of a stretch. It was certainly unfairly ignored and/or condemned at the time of its release, but it has long-since been discovered and lauded by Scorsese and others. But it’s still not a household name, and it deserves to be ranked alongside its close cousin, Psycho.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Powell’s career consistently paralleled Hitchcock’s, except for the fact that when Hitch left for America and became a broadly popular master filmmaker, Powell stayed home in England and became an increasingly strange and unique artist. Then, in 1960, both geniuses had the same idea: Throw propriety to the wind and make a lurid little serial killer movie that broke every taboo. Amazing, Hitchcock succeeded in bringing his audience along with him down this dark hole, but Powell didn’t. Audiences were revolted by this movie and Powell’s career was ruined. But for fans of both, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. (One big difference, though, is the presence of color. No director has ever made a more poetic and bold use of color than Powell.)
  2. This is the movie that launched a thousand film theorists. In the ‘80s and ’90s, “gaze theory” was all the rage. It explored the viewer’s fetishistic craving for horrific images, especially of violence towards women. Boehm’s killer tripod became the ultimate expression of this theory, but it also showed the problem: these theorists sought to condemn both viewers and filmmakers as un-self-aware partners in victimization, but Powell was all too aware of his own culpability, and he forced his viewers to accept theirs as well. All too often, these theorists claimed that they were revealing accidental subtext when they were really just re-stating the text.
  3. The backstory is that our killer was raised by a B.F. Skinner-like psychiatrist who filmed his son’s entire childhood, subjecting him to terrible things and capturing his reactions on film. So how does Marks reveal this horrific backstory? Does Boehm tell someone about it? No, that’s not visual. Does he watch the films over and over by himself? Slightly better, but too bleak. Here’s the best version: His flirtatious neighbor barges into his apartment and asks to see a movie in his home theater. He can’t resist showing these “home movies,” though it may ruin the budding relationship. This way, our hope and despair are intertwined.
  4. Here’s the ultimate example of the ticking clock for a scene. Boehm is in the middle of developing the film of his last victim’s death when his crush stops by again. The conversation is pleasant, but if he keeps talking to her too long, he will ruin the film of his previous kill. Powell literally intercuts the timer in the darkroom with their flirtatious conversation, until Boehm is ultimately forced to decide between the two.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other underrated post-modern psycho-sexual thrillers from the ‘60s include Sam Fuller’s Naked Kiss and Bogdanovich’s first movie Targets.

How Available Is It?: For once, we have a print that looks absolutely gorgeous on Watch Instantly. There’s also a Criterion Collection DVD, but I haven’t seen it.

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