'Peeping Tom' Was the Film That Made Me Crush On a Serial Killer

Who cares if Michael Powell's anti-hero killed women with a massive spike?

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21 August 2014, 6:00am

Still via Wiki Commons

Let's preface this with something that shouldn't need stating: Violence (especially against women) is neither sexy nor alluring. In real life, I find it a total turn-off. On the screen, however, it's a different matter. Think Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, Martin Sheen in Badlands (multiple homicide never looked so sexy) or even Nicolas Cage in Wild at Heart (OK, maybe it was just that jacket). You wouldn't want to date them, but on film they look glamorous.

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom was released in 1960, the same year as Hitchcock's Psycho – another film about a troubled man who kills women due to psychosexual issues with his parents. The critical reception to the two films varied wildly, however – after an initial wave of disapproval, Hitchcock went back to being a national treasure, albeit one with a frankly problematic relationship with women IRL.

Powell's film was also greeted with shock and dismay, but this shock and dismay continued unabated for decades. The actresses involved distanced themselves from the project and refused to speak to Powell again. Powell's film career – after the astonishing run of films he made with Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death) – was pulverised. He fled to Australia, struggled to find work and was slowly forgotten.

Basically, it was all a bit shit for him, until Powell and Pressburger mega-fan Martin Scorsese came along in the late 1970s. He rediscovered the film and, struck by its blend of Freud and psychopathy, vocally championed it back from oblivion. (In his words: "Peeping Tom and  say everything that can be said about film-making.") Film critics, by then slightly more forward-thinking than their 1960s' peers, reappraised the film as a masterpiece.

Scorsese on "Peeping Tom"

But what was it that so appalled people in the first place? The answer is probably its leading man, Karlheinz Böhm – all chiselled features and boyish good looks. He had only a few years previously played Prince Charming in Sissi, the mawkish, melodramatic trilogy about the Austrian "tragic empress". Peeping Tom was a drastic career change for him – the modern equivalent might be Zac Efron being pissed on by Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy after the Shiny Happy People act he'd kept up previously.

In the film, Böhm plays Mark Lewis – a focus-puller on film sets who makes private movies in his spare time, as well as a bit of naughty photography above a seedy shop in Soho (best line of the film: "You don't get that in Sight & Sound.") He has no trouble attracting girls, but when it gets to the interesting bit he whips out his camera and stabs them to death with a spike. Sure enough, he had a troubled childhood; we later find out that his father used to psychologically torture him by dropping lizards in his bed and filming him so that he could capture the look of fear on his son's face. What a wanker.

I could go on about how the film being shot from the protagonist's POV imbricates the viewer in the killer's culpability, or its eerily distinctive colour palette, or the links made between filmmaking and Mark's obsessive behaviour, or the discussion about how his scopophilia (or voyeurism) is linked to a wider malaise in society and the male gaze and blah, blah, blah. But here, I want instead to talk about how HOT Mark is, with his shiny blond hair and well-tailored mac.

To my teenage self he was the perfect man: kind, sensitive, handsome, conflicted, creative, interested in film – all the things people pretend to be on internet dating profiles. If only it weren't for all the woman-killing... he'd be a surefire 10 out of 10. But hey, it's just a film. And the fact that there is an explanation for his actions, if not exactly a justification, gave me a get-out-of-jail card for fancying him. At the end, there's also the possibility of Redemption Through the Love of a Good Woman, so he's not all bad. Forget his massive death-spike; he's just a damaged puppy.

Still via

Viewers are actively encouraged to like Mark, with his matinée idol looks, sympathetic past and his endearing but never-explained Austrian accent. This depiction of a deranged, dangerous murderer as someone not so different from the boy next door must have caused conflicting and not wholly pleasant feelings to flow through the hearts and underwear of viewers. Now that we are surrounded by anti-heroes and their 50 shades of moral greyness, this is no longer a problem: Ryan Gosling has made a career out of playing loveable criminals. It's a good life lesson to realise that people you are attracted to are not always perfect and shouldn't be idolised: They are just as troubled and complex as everyone else.

Watching the film again now, Mark isn't quite as handsome or as charming as I remembered, but the lure remains. You get the feeling that in different circumstances, with a different upbringing, he'd probably have been a nice guy. But if he had been, Peeping Tom would have been one hell of a boring movie.

@kathryn42

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