Assistant cameraman Mark Lewis murders a Soho prostitute while filming her death, returning to the scene next day to record the police investigation. Returning home after photographing two models, Milly and Lorraine, in saucy poses for sale by the newsagent who owns the shop below, he finds his lodger, Helen, celebrating her 21st birthday. Bringing him a slice of cake, she asks him to show her one of his films as a birthday present. He shows her some film of his childhood, when his father used to sadistically torment him. Helen is horrified and sympathetic. At work the next day, Lewis persuades stand-in Vivian to take part in an after-hours filming session; there, he stabs her to death with his tripod and secretes the body in a trunk. The next day, he films actress Diane Ashley's terrified reaction when she opens the trunk. He once more films the police investigation, saying that he is making a documentary. Helen introduces him to her blind, alcoholic mother, who has her suspicions about him. When he returns from a night out with Helen, he finds her mother in his room wanting to know about the films she hears him watching every night. He considers killing her, but doesn't because of Helen. Unaware of what she has escaped, but still uneasy about him, she tells him to stay away from Helen and seek help. He arranges another photoshoot with Milly and kills her. By the time the body is discovered by the newsagent Mark has returned home to find a horrified Helen watching one of his films.
Now regarded as not only a very fine film in Michael Powell’s canon, but also a pivotal British film of the Sixties, Peeping Tom
was utterly vilified when first released, gathering reviews which were utterly scathing, many personally attacking Powell, who, tellingly, also appears in flashbacks as the lead character’s father, the reaction to the movie essentially derailing his career, he being reduced to directing very lame comedies such as the dire They’re A Weird Mob
before retiring from active filmmaking. The reaction also reached across the Atlantic, with the 109 minute film being cut to 86 minutes for US release. Powell’s film is a cold and detached look at voyeurism, with the central character only being able to feel reactions or emotions, and it is heavily hinted in the sexual field as well, through the camera lens, and as portrayed by Carl Boehm, Mark Lewis is an observer even in the scenes where he is the protagonist, often watching rather than reacting, and the performance, deftly directed, is unsettling. There are several truly superb sequences, such as the opening murder of a hooker (played by Brenda Bruce) and the killing of the starlet (Sally Ann Howes), who believes she has been called to the studio for a screen test. A quite brilliant supporting cast also includes Jack Watson (The Wild Geese),
veterans Miles Malleson, Esmond Knight and Bartlett Mullins, and early roles for both Nigel Davenport and Michael Goodliffe. Truly unsettling and skillfully made, Peeping Tom
is a film which really has the power to disturb, without resorting to crude shock tactics. The film was eventually ‘rediscovered’ in the Nineties by Martin Scorsese who hailed it as the fine piece of work it is, and brought Powell back to the heart of the filmmaking world before his death in 1990. Interestingly the film was remade, in an unauthorised Italian version in 1970, entitled Giochi Particolari (literally Strange Games) and starring Marcello Mastroanni and Timothy Dalton, in only his third film, which was never released in the UK.