24 January 2012

Fin's Review: Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom Michael Powell's 1960 release is an undoubted classic and despite the revulsion it caused in the 60s it is now considered by many to be a masterpiece. Martin Scorsese has identified the film as being hugely influential to the development of his career. Scorsese loved the film so much he used a significant amount of his own money to re-master the film. The British Film Institute included Peeping Tom in its poll for best British film ever made. As a result I feel slightly unqualified to criticise a film which has so much critical respect and admiration. However I really didn't like this film, in fact I thought it was pretty terrible. Clarky has done an excellent job of analysing the film and its importance which I do not dispute but I'm going to base my review on my experience of watching the film As we have mentioned many times on the blog many of the classic films that have been hugely influential to the development of the genre can occasionally be underwhelming to the modern viewer. Despite this it is usually possible to see why the film is so important and well loved. However in Peeping Tom's case I could not see what the fuss was about I found it to be poorly acted, boring and perhaps most damaging really silly. It also does not help that Peeping Tom has aged so poorly.

Peeping Tom is the story of Mark Lewis a lonely, troubled film fanatic. Mark Lewis has turned his entire life into a film carrying his camera with him everywhere he goes. Unable to form relationships Mark lives alone in his small flat which doubles as his dark room. However Lewis is much more sinister than your everyday loner he is in fact a murdering psychopath. As a result of his upbringing by his sadistic psychoanalyst father Mark is obsessed by the effects of fear and of recording these effects on camera. Mark records himself killing his victims in a twisted attempt to capture the perfect moment of fear on their faces. 

This is undoubtedly a strong set up and an intriguing premise but despite this the film never really gets going. The film initially manges to keep you attention with an unnerving and bizarre tone particular in the scenes in the seedy sex shop. However this effect soon wears off and the film becomes a bit of a bore-fest. Powell never manages to translate an interesting premise into an interesting film and in some ways the strength of the backstory is part of the films problem. The story of Marks upbringing and his emotionally sadistic father is much more interesting than the main story being told on screen . I wanted to know more about Mark's fathers experiments in fear and the effect this had on Mark. Instead we get the bland story of Mark as an adult. Part of the problem is Mark himself the actor Karlheinz Bohm is very poor and his lack of on screen Charisma makes him very hard to be interested in. It is however really unfair to single out Bohm as the acting is universally poor.

Peeping Tom's biggest problem is its tone, at times I didn't know if I was watching a benchmark horror or a Carry On film. There were moments of bizarre inappropriate humour throughout this film. I have no problem with humour in a horror if it works but I felt it had no place in this film and therefore it was even more jarring. 
The lowest point has to be the bizarre dance sequence before Mark's second victim is killed it was quite simply ridiculous. Combine this bad acting, bizarre tone and a dull romance and you get a poor film.

I had looked forward to seeing Peeping Tom for a long time and I'm glad I have finally seen it. However in my opinion it is massively overrated. I think much of the hype comes from people involved in film making and for them I'm sure it has a real appeal however if you are simply a viewer there is very little to recommend. 

1 comment:

  1. I know what you mean to a certain extent Fin, but I didn't think the acting was as bad as you make out. If you look at the style of acting that was prevalent in the 1960's then I think Karl Bohm gives a terrific and understated performance as Mark. You can't deny that there is something not quite right about his character, yet it is a small detail, something you can't put your finger on, shown by the fact that most of the characters are fooled by him. They see him as the mild mannered, shy neighbour, which is what makes him so effective.

    Indeed the only person who can "see" Mark for what he truly is is Helen's blind mother (apparently a, very meta, dig by Powell at film critics who are unable to see films for what they really are).

    Also, I think the humour is supposed to be jarring here. You find it funny, and are momentarily enjoying yourself during a very dark film about murder and voyeurism. This is yet another technique by Leo Marks, the screenwriter, to get you to identify with Mark and makes you even more complicit as the viewer.

    The scene before the police interrogation is a case in point. Funny but also deeply unnerving as you realise how psychotic he is. Again, it is the understatement of Bohms performance that makes the difference here.

    [Mark is about to be interviewed by the police and is filming their investigation]
    Clapper Boy: Suppose they catch you?
    Mark Lewis: Oh they will. They look very efficient.
    Clapper Boy: Don't you mind?
    Mark Lewis: No.
    Clapper Boy: Mark, are you crazy?
    Mark Lewis: [laughs] Yes. Do you think they'll notice?

    I thought that entire scene was nerve wracking, I couldn't believe he gave his camera across so easily in case they checked it for his alibi. I was on the edge of my seat!

    It could also be argued that the fact that the romance seems dull only goes further to implicate the viewer with Mark. We are not interested in Helen who, as we noted ourselves is, no beauty but when the other, more beautiful, actresses (Mark's victims) were on screen our interests were piqued. Again, we are identifying with Mark and become excited, although not to the same level as he is, by the more attractive women in this film.

    Finally, I liked the fact that you don't get more than an inkling of his backstory. Anything more that you put on screen to "justify" his actions may have come across as trying to normalise the horror of what he does (something I think that Psycho suffers from as I stated in my review). You also run the danger of anything that you put on screen being a cliche and dampening the audiences reaction. As we always say at HC, the scariest stuff is what the director chooses not to show you. Here Powell decides only to hint at Mark's childhood and the implications that this has on his later life, allowing the viewer to join the dots. Which I believe is ultimately more rewarding.


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