Karl Boehm is a tortured photographer-murderer touched by Anna Massey
Author: msroz from United States
27 January 2015
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Peeping Tom" (1960) is a deep and sophisticated treatment of a man whose personality has been so twisted by his father that he has become a peeping tom who murders women and films the murders. Michael Powell directed from a story and screenplay by Leo Marks. Marks also wrote the story behind "Cloudburst" (1951), which is about an ordinary man driven to murder out of revenge. And he co-wrote another psychological screenplay, "Twisted Nerve".
"Peeping Tom" features a top-notch performance from Karl Boehm as the troubled protagonist. He is driven and he knows it. He's not psychotic but twisted, having been made that way by his father who was a biologist interested in fear. His sadistic father is shown in old film and was played by Powell.
Boehm's murders torture him. Anna Massey and her mother, Maxine Audley, live in the house owned by Boehm, the same house where he grew up. Massey is attracted to Boehm and unknowingly is trying to draw him back to normality. Her blind mother is more suspicious. Rather than turn this into an ordinary thriller, although it does have some suspense, "Peeping Tom" provides much exposition of Boehm, showing us what he sees through his camera, showing us the details of his murders, and having us watch his films after he has made them and as he watches them. He's the focus of the film, as the title suggests, and not any good guys or detectives, apart from Massey who likes him. Boehm's relationship with Massey is explored in quite a lot of realistic detail too, as part of the explication of Boehm's character.
Film noir marks a broad movement of movies into more sophisticated and deeper themes and areas of exploration than what came before, as well as a change in focus and emphasis on more subterranean characters and realistic psychologies. We certainly can find prior movies that herald such depth and focus, but in some sense, film noir marks the maturation of movie stories and ways of telling them. It also marks the audience acceptance of this material.
"Peeping Tom" belongs in the noir category and is usually placed there. Daring for its time, it brought grief to Powell. The film explicitly shows extreme evil in family life and what it leads to. Psychosis is not the only source of evil; Boehm is not at all psychotic. The film shows the extreme difficulty of someone who is afflicted by conditioning of emotions from overcoming it. Hope and love do not conquer all. There are forms of corruption that accrue through family life and they are resistant to change.
All of this is shown without the presence of a character like a doctor who presents it to us or by other such non-cinematic means. There is no prologue here from a psychiatrist, corresponding to those introductions by prison wardens and district attorneys that begin some crime-noirs. Nothing like that is done here to soften what we see. We see much of it through the eyes of Boehm's character himself. He is the undoubted protagonist. It brings to mind Carradine playing "Bluebeard". It brings to mind both treatments of "M".