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Peeping Tom

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 10, 2015

You’d think I would have noticed, before this fourth or fifth or sixth time seeing it, that there’s a naked woman right in the middle of this film. However, thankfully, a number of our attentive BYU students did notice for me.

Peeping Tom is a very famous film, which is at least partly to say, a very infamous film. We wonder, properly, whether reputations are actually consistent with reality. Well, let me report that, 1960 or not, this really is a very nasty movie. Now, as then, there are a number of ways to think about this. People often get upset when other people get upset about movies. They think that being offended is a sign of intolerance and ignorance, even an inclination to burn books. That can be true, of course, but it’s a gross caricature to suggest that it is only and always true. (For more thoughts on that, see our review of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, q.v.)

So if we look at and think about Peeping Tom in that context, certain possibilities emerge. Writer-director Michael Powell, a most properly celebrated artist, co-responsible for a ridiculous number of the very glories of British Cinema, has experienced or effected a terrible decline in taste and in morals. Oscar Wilde! (As it were.) Or perhaps this isn’t a decline, but rather that a removal of censor restrictions, perhaps a general loosening of community standards, enabled Powell to show his true colours for the first time.

Other possibilities come to mind, or ought to be entertained. Has Powell, so long one of film’s very greatest visual artists, and a man quite properly distinguished by the awesome exactitude of his work, suddenly chosen to work in a completely different register? In a way Peeping Tom is actually quite Tod Browning-like. You’ll remember Browning for having directed the 1931 version of Dracula, released by Universal. I’m actually thinking of The Unknown (1927), or Freaks (1932). There’s plot in these pictures, and certainly a  modicum of industrialized craft. But you can’t help being struck, overwhelmed actually by how untrammeled they are. Nightmares! Monsters from the Id! Peeping Tom belongs right there, a real repository of raw dream matter, explicit content that would reward careful analysis, or which registers powerfully as it is.

Or, I’ve wondered, is Peeping Tom just a mess? Mr. Scorcese et al. have celebrated it endlessly, and not without reason. But one of its most celebrated aspects, its famous observations about scopophilia generally, and the inherently voyeuristic nature of cinema more specifically, now feels pretty undigested, pretty heavy-handed. In this respect, maybe it’s fair to compare Powell’s film to Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 milestone, Breathless. They are, or they have been super-influential, to the point of their innovations becoming thoroughly appropriated and absorbed, across the board. The result for the contemporary viewer, seeing them for the first time, can be a feeling of being underwhelmed. What’s so great about this? Well, callow youngster…

Let’s note, though, that the underwhelm is strictly in the psychoanalytic register. As a film, as an exploration of the dark and wide-ranging depths of cinematic expression, this is a nasty movie! An extraordinarily beautiful one too. Reputation/s complicated. Reputation/s deserved.