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Lizards in the Bed

[whitespace] Peeping Tom
With a View to a Kill: Carl Boehm and Anna Massey screen some horror footage in Michael Powell's scandalous 1960 classic, 'Peeping Tom.'

Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom' is one of the most gorgeous horror films ever made

By Richard von Busack

THE TITLE of the 1960 film Peeping Tom is a rebuke to moviegoers, who sit guilty as charged. Director Michael Powell tells a contemporary fairy tale, the story of a serial killer. Yet Peeping Tom is also about the obsessions of a film director. The antihero, the woman killer Mark (Carl Boehm), is a focus-puller at a British film studio, working on a fluffy production titled The Walls Are Closing In. He's also a girlie photographer in his spare time. His weapon is a camera: a tripod with one metal leg as sharp as a bayonet. He films while he kills.

Wittily (and frighteningly), Powell makes Mark's red-lighted home screening room the Gothic castle of a mad scientist, with the sound of the echoing drip of developing fluid substituting for the moisture oozing from the rock walls at Castle Frankenstein. Mark is a Bluebeard who keeps his victims in a series of film canisters. The police are closing in on Mark; he knows that the time is short for him to complete his snuff-film "documentary." He's also being courted by the sweet, sad girl next door (Anna Massey), who knows of his tortured past. It's an old-fashioned horror film; science has gone wrong once again. Mark was the subject of cruel experiments by his psychiatrist father (voiced by director Powell); dad used to toss lizards in his bed to wake the child--and film the results. ("I never had a private moment in my whole childhood.")

This grossly misunderstood film all but ended Powell's career. It was lambasted for bad taste, even though it's one of the most gorgeously photographed (by Otto Heller) horror films ever made. Only about an eyedropper's worth of blood is spilled--enough to drown most British reviewers of the time. Powell's allegory about the bad conscience of a film director is as strong as Boehm's performance. Boehm is physically big like the other creeper of the British movies at the time, Herbert Lom. But he's more wounded than Lom, with his cold fish eyes, buttery accents and reserves of madness (remember when actors held madness in reserve?). You could call Boehm's Mark the best Peter Lorre performance never given by Peter Lorre. With his lonely passions, Mark is oblivious to the lively London around him. He's in the dark and can't come out. "Whatever I film, I lose," Mark says, reflecting the passions of an artist--a mad one--in opposition to the dumb, commercial cinema represented by The Walls Are Closing In. Director Powell imagines the perils of the uncompromising filmmaker as vividly as he imagines the perils of uncompromising ballet artistes in his best-known film, The Red Shoes. Mark is desperate to make people see. And that was Powell's aim throughout his life.

Peeping Tom (Unrated; 101 min.), directed by Michael Powell, written by Leo Marks, photographed by Otto Heller and starring Carl Boehm and Anna Massey.

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From the April 15-21, 1999 issue of Metro.

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