Forget Pressburger, it's Powell and Hitchcock.
Peeping Tom (1960) is very much from the Hitchcock universe of suspense and the Michael Powell movie was very much an inspiration for the release of Psycho just a few months later. Not because the two early serial killer films dive into the almost relatable lives of voyeuristic murderers but because the reviews and repercussions of Peeping Tom changed the course of marketing and the release of Psycho. Powell’s movie was a bomb with critics and the audiences didn’t come to the theaters as a result. Critics were offended to be put into the shoes of the killer, watching murders from a first person perspective, the purveyors of his fictional snuff films and it killed the career of a master director. As a result, Hitch decided not to screen Psycho for critics ahead of the release and rather market the shock value of the film through the mystery of the movie and it paid off as perhaps the first true blockbuster movie to hit theaters. But it's Frenzy (1972), one of Hitchcock's later films, that feels closest related to Peeping Tom.
In the middle of the movie, Powell brings back the star of The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer as an actress victim of the killer, played by Carl Boehm, whose body is disposed of in a chest sized box on the set of the movie being made within the movie. The dancer's box is reminiscent of the chest in the 1948 Hitchcock movie Rope, and the murders of both movies relate to sexual deviancy of the killers in both movies as it is seen when the movies were made, a voyeur and pornographer in Peeping Tom and not so subtle homosexuality in Rope. While the killers in Rope are filled with suspense to see if they can get away with their box not being revealed despite holding a party in the same room, the Peeping Tom killer is in suspense with excitement knowing that his box will be revealed as though a birthday present is being opened, and he is experiencing the reactions of all the onlookers. In general, however, Peeping Tom is most referenced with Psycho because of the releases of both movies and the incredible shock value of both movies.
As it turns out, Peeping Tom has more disturbing implications than Psycho and is quite well made in its own right. Powell was the directing half of the creative team of “The Archers,” Powell and Pressburger. The latter was given equal credit to Powell as the writer due to mutual respect and the incredibly high level of creativity from the pairing. They aspired to make movies that were at least ten years ahead of their time, while they also managed to put out a good number of movies in a relatively short period of time. Four of their films from 1943-1948 alone are now considered classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, while the rest of their films are also quite good. The partnership officially ended in 1957, but there was no bad blood. They made two later films together a decade later and also wrote a novelization of The Red Shoes.
The motives, as deranged as they are, might be as fully fleshed out for the main character than almost any serial killers or super villains in movies. He grew up as an experiment in childhood fear for his psychiatrist father. His father filmed his final moments with his dying mother and he was given his very own camera when his father remarried. He is creating the documentary of his own life, and the murders he commits, while documenting the final moments of fear in his victims. And it’s not just their final moments, it’s their reactions to their final moments in a distorted reflection. That reflection stuns the victims so that he can pierce the victims’ jugulars with a pointed leg of the camera’s tripod. The murder weapon seems questionable as to the realistic nature that it could actually kill, but it is familiar questionable use of a camera as a weapon as Rear Window’s flash bulbs.
While there are a few connections to other Hitchcock movies, I wanted to pair Peeping Tom with Frenzy as two movies from British masters about serial killings in London. While Peeping Tom murders with a symbol of voyeurism and hunting women’s sexuality, Frenzy’s killer strangles with neckties, a symbol of male status and is the embodiment of the old phrase “it isn’t about sex, it’s about power.” It’s not just that ties are a masculine symbol, but the first murder is noted that a tie from a country club is used.
It’s a little jarring that Frenzy is a Hitchcock film made in England decades after moving to Hollywood. He had created such an American expectation from his characters that Sean Connery as the lead in Marnie is a little awkward to not have a lead with a straight American accent like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. While this seems it could be a standard wrongly accused/man on the run movie, Jon Finch has a certain edge to him that makes you not really sure if he did it, and his arrest subverts the expectation that the main character can find a way to get away.
These very serial killer movies with very British serial killers have Jack the Ripper in their DNA. So many American serial killer movies are based on Ed Gein, his story or the mythology around him including Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs. It’s only fitting that the the two countries have shocking serial killers that permeate their stories of murder and public terror. It’s not that they killed very many people compared to later serial killers, spree killers or mass murderers, it’s that they’re so shocking that these shocking movies only need to give evidence of three or four murders, much like Jack. And much like Jack, we never really see the killer in Peeping Tom get caught. The killer ends his spree by carrying out the end of his documentary with his own death before the police can finally move in on him, although he sure left a lot of incriminating evidence behind to end the mystery.
Letterboxd Reviews of Frenzy and Peeping Tom
Next Month: The 2010 Hindsight Awards highlighted by Scott Pilgrim vs The World