Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.   With 254 under his belt and 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.

This week’s inaugural film essentially destroyed its director’s entire career.  How many movies are responsible for bringing down a director, especially one responsible for five of the greatest films in history of British Cinema?  Peeping Tom (check out Ebert’s original review) is such a film, and views a tormented character raised by a psychologist who pushed the limits of voyeurism for scientific purposes.  The results are dark, as you’ll see after the jump.

The Players:

  • Director: Michael Powell
  • Writer: Leo Marks
  • Cast: Carl Boehm (Mark Lewis), Moira Shearer (Vivian), Anna Massey (Helen Stephens), Maxine Audley (Mrs. Stephens)

The Plot:

[Warning--Spoilers Ahead!]

A mild-mannered man with major skeletons in his closet (his entire childhood was essentially a prolonged experiment by a cruel psychiatrist) is bent on regaining a sense of control in his life by becoming a voyeur.  As a filmmaker by day/serial killer by night, Mark deceptively arranges to shoot “documentary footage” of his subjects/victims, intent on capturing the frightened expressions of his prey in the moments prior to killing them.  Eventually, Mark becomes close to a potential victim and becomes intensely conflicted (“I can’t photograph you, I lose everything I photograph”).

The Good:

  • The Performances – Having the type of sixth sense that blind people often have in movies, Maxine Audley plays Helen’s mother and is responsible for some of the more eerie and suspenseful scenes in the film, as her curiosity towards Mark grows. Her ominous lines of dialogue are nicely suited for this horror film, and her cold suspicious expressions are pretty chilling. Carl Boehm is also very effective.  Strangely, something about him reminds me of Orson Welles.
  • Voyeurism –  In 1960, thematically, voyeurism was ahead of its time.  Most of us think of voyeurism as a more modern problem, mostly enabled by today’s technology.  Here, we are made to think about ourselves as voyeurs, of sorts, when we watch movies.  This film has resonance today, reminding us of reality television and the quasi-private access it provides.
  • Historical Significance: – Before directing Peeping Tom, Mr. Powell had co-directed 4 of  the British Film Institute’s (BFI’s) Best 100 films of all-time, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948).  Peeping Tom stands at number 78.  Nevertheless,  Peeping Tom is perhaps just as well known for essentially destroying Michael Powell’s career.  Though considered a masterpiece today,  the controversial subject matter, violence and sexual imagery, all of which seem tame now, plagued it with a murderous disapproval from critics that essentially extradited Powell from film.

The Bad:

  • “Horror” – Younger audiences may not be impressed by the “horror” element, as many have been desensitized by the over-produced gore of more modern films.  Despite legitimate suspense, the method of killing did strike me as a bit too simple to be fully convincing.

Peeping Tom trivia:

Alfred Hitchcock is said to have foregone a press screening for Psycho, seeking to avoid the negative publicity directed at Peeping Tom, especially since both films deal with mild-mannered serial killers with a Freudian relationship to their parents.  Having worked as a still photographer for Hitchcock during the silent film era, Powell and Hitchcock were actually friends for much of their lives.  Martin Scorsese is a huge admirer of this film, sponsoring revivals and restorations during the 1970’s.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

Yes, Peeping Tom takes a hard look at the psychological implications of its protagonist, but it doesn’t go much deeper than this with it’s supporting characters.  Mrs. Stephens held strong potential, as she represented a bold and realistic suspicion of Mark.  Unfortunately, her blindness limits her ability to create a more direct confrontation.  Much of this movie’s “greatness” seems to come from its backstory; the line between a great film and a film with a great “backstory” seems blurred.  A good film, nonetheless, Peeping Tom offers a solid visceral and psychological experience.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you consider Peeping Tom to be Good, Bad, or Great?

Next Week’s Film: The Terrorist