The opening sequence is horrifying: taken from the point of view of a serial killer’s camera, ogling at a prostitute’s ass, following her up the stairs and then closing in on her to kill her, lingering on her screaming face.
Carl Boehm (real spelling Karlheinz Böhm) plays Max, a creepy isolated guy who takes movies of women right at the moment of their deaths. He sits in his projection room in his apartment and watches the footage over and over again. Max is soft spoken, submissive in nature, shy, and obviously tormented. The women who come into his circle (all with blazing red hair) are drawn to his shyness, he seems quite harmless (to them – to us it is obvious that he is way way off). He works as a focus puller at a nearby studio. He seems sexless, except for his menacing behavior in the final moments with his victims.
Peeping Tom was reviled upon its opening. Hated and loathed. It effectively ended Michael Powell’s career. Seeing it now you can see where the revulsion came from. People don’t like to be shown themselves, people don’t like to be implicated in their own dream-worlds. The film is a critique of the act of watching. There would be more where that came from as the 60s went on, as the 70s went on. The fantasy element of film-making was giving way to something more realistic, and Peeping Tom (while not realistic at all) was starting to poke away at the magic bubble of Movie-making, and asking pointed questions of its audience. Why do you like watching? What do you get out of it? Do you like violence? Why? Do you ever consider the implications of your own propensity for watching?
The film isn’t a finger-wagging scold, however. It’s an immersion into the damaged psychology of a guy so messed up by being filmed throughout his childhood by his bullying terrifying father (who wanted to see what Fear looked like on the face of his own child, wanted to study it) that he can never JOIN life, he is forever on the outside. The only way he can engage with life and other people is 1. by filming them and 2. by killing them. This gets into one of my favorite topics, psychopathy. Studies have been done on people who rate high on the Psychopath Scale (most of these people are in prison). Normal people have adrenaline surges when they view something violent or dangerous (on television, in the movies, in a photograph). Even a photograph of a dead body covered in a white cloth can elicit a charge of adrenaline (which, in this case, means empathy). Those who rate as Psychopaths have the opposite reaction to dangerous/violent images: they flat-line. It is as though the images calm them down, soothe them, they find such images RESTful. Peeping Tom has as its lead character a guy like that. And Max is so strangely sympathetic too (kudos to Boehm), because he is shy and fearful and damaged. But any time a woman is in his presence, you fear for her.
Now. The main reason to revel in Peeping Tom is the color. And WHAT colors. I wouldn’t know how to even begin to light the scene in Max’s dark-room/projection room to get the effects that Powell gets. The scene is mostly darkness and shadows, but there is a sickly red glow pulsing underneath that black. But then, where the dim lights shine, table tops and chair tops gleam in an underwater green. So we have a red glow and an underwater green surrounded by pitch-black, and rising up out of it is the blazing red hair of one of Max’s victims. Lighting such a scene so it’s not all a wash, so that the colors are highlighted with the intensity needed, requires such skill, such feel for the way light works, the way it changes the surfaces of things it touches … Each scene, each shot, is a masterpiece. No surprise. Michael Powell is Mr. Color and his The Red Shoes is one of the best uses of color ever put on film. Even though Peeping Tom‘s topic is still disturbing, still repulsive, its beauty is undeniable. The beauty adds to the destabilizing effect of the film.