Movie critics in England didn't just pan Peeping Tom when it was released in 1960 - they eviscerated it. "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer," one critic blared, joining a chorus of voices calling it "sick," "nasty," and "beastly." The film was pulled from theaters in less than a week, and the foofaraw all but ended director Michael Powell's big-screen career, which was built on outsize - and much more polite - successes like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. It wasn't until the late '70s, when Martin Scorsese celebrated the film, that it began finding audiences again.
In most movie-business tales like this one, you can later look at the film in question and wonder what the fuss was all about. That's not the case here. Peeping Tom remains an intense, thoroughly disarming film about madness - not cackling, loony-bin madness, but the sort of insanity where the person is painfully aware of just what's cracked inside him. Psycho, to which this movie's often compared (they were released the same year) eventually reveals Norman Bates as utterly certifiable. That doesn't happen to Mark Lewis (a tremendous Carl Boehm), the handsome gent who spends his days as a focus puller at a film studio and his nights killing women - and filming the proceedings. Only until the very end is Lewis revealed as unsalvageable - until then, you're half rooting for the guy, and that's both the brilliance and the horror of the film.
Much of the tension in Peeping Tom comes from its constant scenes of people looking at things they shouldn't. Lewis spends part of his time shooting pin-up photos above a tobacco shop; in a subtle but riotous scene, one sweaty visitor to the shop works up the nerve to ask to see the dirty photos on sale, and the cool, mannered tone of the shopkeeper, Mr. Peters (Bartlett Mullins) gives the moment a subtle hilarity. But mostly the effect is creepy: Helen (Anna Massey), Mark's sweet and slightly mousy downstairs neighbor, invades his dark lair of snuff films, and it's easy to sympathize with her eagerness to watch, even if what she's looking at is terrible.
And then, of course, there's Mark himself. In the film's most chilling scene, a film actress played by Moira Shearer is slowly enchanted by Mark, who postures as a budding director, until she's finally done in. Part of the creepiness comes from the fact that you, the viewer, are implicated in all this - you're watching people watching what they shouldn't watch, and you can't resist their inability to resist. It's not an accident that the de facto heroine of the film, Helen's mother (Maxine Audley), is blind.
With its knives in the tripod and its somewhat overcooked psychology, the film could easily have degenerated into cut-rate Hitchcock or a B-movie. But it turns out to be the best sort of horror film. Most scary movies rely on the quick jump-cut, where a pleasant moment is whacked by something awful. In Peeping Tom, there's a constantly gorgeous surface - a handsome hero, lots of bright Technicolor - and a constant moral rot at play underneath. The whole damn thing is a jump-cut scare.