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the Complete Review
the complete review - film

Peeping Tom

Leo Marks

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To purchase Peeping Tom

Title: Peeping Tom
Author: Leo Marks
Genre: Screenplay
Written: (1960)
Length: 200 pages
Availability: Peeping Tom - US
Peeping Tom - UK
Peeping Tom - Canada
DVD: Peeping Tom - US
Peeping Tom - UK
  • Peeping Tom was made into a film in 1960, directed by Michael Powell and starring Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, and Anna Massey
  • With an Introduction: 'Leo Marks interviewed by Chris Rodley, 1998'

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Our Assessment:

B+ : tight, dark -- but obviously dependent on the visual element

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 2/12/2010 Michael Wood
The NY Times . 14/10/1979 Vincent Canby
The Spectator . 15/4/1960 Isabel Quigly
Sunday Times . 10/4/1960 Dilys Powell
The Times . 8/4/1960
Variety . 31/12/1959 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The film itself looks alternately stiff and stylish. People speak posh and actorly, the way they did in British movies before the 1960s took hold. (...) Peeping Tom is not an easy movie. It troubles us not just because its main character is troubled and murderous, or because we spend so much time looking at the world through his eyes and through his lens, and not even because we’re all voyeurs in the dark, in the nosy cinema or in front of the prying TV -- although we surely are that. What’s most deeply troubling about the film is its combination of fear as entertainment, of pleasure from the sight of fear in others, and the sheer lure of the machinery of moviemaking, the whirr of the camera wherever Böhm takes it, the glittering lights in the studio, the ladders, the scaffolding, the crews, the sealed-off rooms, the repeated takes, the elaborate sets, the impatient director, the incompetent star." - Michael Wood, London Review of Books

  • "Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks, may be one of the limper suspense movies you've ever seen. (...) As interested as I am in films, the properties of the movie camera are not, for me, a subject of endless fascination. The movie camera is not magical. It's a tool, like a typewriter. I find it difficult to become morally outraged by Peeping Tom and even more difficult to see this movie as anything more than an excruciatingly schematic, very solemn melodrama, quite badly acted by everyone." - Vincent Canby, The New York Times

  • "(W)ith all this -- a certain panache and skill in the making, and obviously deliberate intentions -- it turns out to be the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing. (...) (A)ll sorts of talented people have been used to hideous effect." - Isabel Quigly, The Spectator

  • "Perhaps one would not be so disagreeably affected by this exercise in the lower regions of the psychopathic were it handled in a more bluntly debased fashion. (...) [Michael Powell] did not write Peeping Tom; but he cannot wash his hands of responsibility for thise essentially vicious film." - Dilys Powell, Sunday Times

  • "Mr. Powell is a director who knows where he is going; if he makes a thriller, it will thrill. That this does so only intermittently is due to a clinical interest in the hero's psychopathology, which plants a good deal of text-book evidence for the obvious and gives us ample time to inspect it. There is, too, a fair amount of parochial humour about the film industry" - The Times

  • "This mixed-up young man is played rather stolidly by Karl Boehm. It is more the fault of the screenplay than the actor himself that one gets only a very superficial glimpse into the workings of his mind.(...) Powell has directed with imagination but he might well have tightened up the story line. The standout feature of Peeping Tom is some fascinating photography by Otto Heller, particularly in the film studio sequences. His use of color and shadow is most effective. Heller does much to give Peeping Tom a veneer which the story by Leo Marks does not entirely deserve." - Variety

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The 1960 film Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks and directed by Michael Powell, is notorious: "the film that destroyed Michael Powell's career", the back cover copy of the Faber edition of the screenplay repeats the popular impression. It certainly did not fare well upon its initial release, but has now come to be seen as a classic. Its (eventual) critical success certainly is in no small part due to Powell's direction and, especially, director of photography Otto Heller's camerawork, but Marks' original screenplay stands quite well on its own.
       A Q & A by Chris Rodley with Marks is included in the Faber edition of the screenplay, providing some background into the fascinating Marks -- son of the co-owner of the famous 84 Charing Cross Road bookshop, fascinated with codes from an early age, and a leading figure in the Special Operations Executive organisation during World War II. After the war, he had some filmscripts in mind, got an agent, and she somehow arranged a meeting with Michael Powell:

I had the whole shootings script of Peeping Tom in my mind. You have to think visually if you're interested in codes. So I told it to him, shot by shot.
       Not getting a reaction from Powell, Marks proceeded to do the same for two more ideas he had and, still getting no reaction, was set to leave when Powell told him he wanted all three ..... (The three-film deal didn't get beyond Peeping Tom, but Marks' movie career wasn't quite over after that, either: he didn't write the screenplay, but his story was the basis for the Dirk Bogarde/Susannah York codebreaker film Sebastian (1968) that also starred Lilli Palmer and John Gielgud, while he wrote both the story and the screenplay for the Peter Sellers vehicle, Undercovers Hero (1974), among others.)
       The screenplay of Peeping Tom quickly became an obviously 'hot' property, with even Alfred Hitchcock expressing interest in it and Laurence Harvey -- fresh off his brilliant turn in Room at the Top -- eager to play the lead. However, the difficult Powell apparently quarreled with most of his potential backers and wound up with a very limited budget; Marks does not seem to have been thrilled -- or ultimately won over -- by the choice to have then-unknown Karlheinz Böhm (using the Anglicized screen name of Carl Boehm) play the lead, Mark Lewis.
       The story is a simple one. The main character, Mark Lewis, is a film-camera-toting obsessive. He works as a focus puller at a prominent film studio, with dreams of eventually directing, and he moonlights as a photographer of pornography for the local newsagent; his photographs are in high demand -- he has an eye -- but the newsagent does sometimes have to remind him of what kind of pictures he's supposed to be providing: "no more of this fancy stuff", the newsagent tells him, as pictures of just faces won't do ("if people want the Mona Lisa they go to the National Gallery"). If obviously a voyeur fascinated by the female, Mark also clearly doesn't simply get a charge out of something as basic as nudity .....
       Mark inherited the house he lives in from his father, and has several renters, including blind Mrs. Stephens, whose room is right under his, and her librarian daughter Helen, who just turns twenty-one when the story opens.
       Mark's father was a famous biologist -- and his son was a constant test-subject:
He wanted a record of a growing child ... complete in every detail -- as if such a thing were possible -- and he tried to make it possible by training a camera on me ... at all times ...

I never knew ... the whole of my childhood ... one moment's privacy ...
       Mark has films that his father took (Powell himself played the role of the father -- and cast his own son to play the Young Mark ...), and wasn't just a passive observer: he wanted to capture the child's reactions to various situations. This marked (and obviously damaged, deeply) Mark, and was character-(de)forming, making him a voyeur, always behind the camera -- with great ambitions: "I want ... to photograph ... the impossible ...". Pressed to go into more detail, he admits:
I want ... to photograph a murder ... while it's being committed --
I want ... to frighten ... someone ... to death ... and photograph ... their expression of fear ...
       The opening sequence of the film is one of murder, the gentle "whirring purring noise ... nothing to be alarmed about" (as the stage directions have it) of a camera the accompanying noise as a woman allows the killer to approach, only realizing too late what he has in mind ......
       The shy, calm, quiet Mark seems like an unlikely figure behind such brutal murder; so also his next victim banters happily with him until almost the final instant. But there is a creepiness to him as he watches -- so also in his home, when he passes by the rooms Helen and her mother live in .....
       Mark is invited to join Helen's birthday party -- although they live in the same house they've apparently never so much as said hello, and Helen took him for just another tenant, not the landlord -- and while he declines she later comes up to give him some birthday cake. While she has a beau, she's apparently attracted to Mark -- and he is taken by her as well. He remains reserved, but does ask her out; she accepts.
       Helen draws Mark out: he can emotionlessly take erotic photographs, or get caught up in his filming fantasy -- leading him to murder a young actress on the film set -- but he genuinely feels something for Helen, an apparently novel situation that he cautiously tries to navigate.
       There's a sense of fatalism about Mark, from the beginning: formed into who he is by his father's abuse, he can see no escape. He reaches out at one point, asking for professional advice, but hearing how long any course of treatment would be he realizes it is hopeless: "This afternoon -- after work -- may be my last chance --", he realizes as the noose tightens around him. (The police are investigating the workplace murder, and Mark is pretty sure it's only matter of time before they have him figured out.)
       Helen confronts him in the final scenes, insisting that he reveal all his secrets. The tension is nicely done here, as we know what Mark is capable of -- and as he repeatedly tries to get Helen to remove herself from the scene, before he loses control, begging her not to let him see her fear:
You'll be safe -- as long as I can't see you frightened -- so stand in the shadows, Helen ... please ...
       Tragedy is, of course inevitable -- though the big reveal, and the final death, are very much visual scenes (the not-quite ideal still included in the book can't nearly do it justice). The final exchanges, however -- recorded words that are played -- do make, even just in print, a very effective and haunting finish.
       Marks' screenplay is quite sharp, and very tight, with Mark a figure of controlled calm that is nevertheless near-bursting with his secret: the films he shows Helen when she first comes up to his rooms are terribly revealing, and even around the police, when they investigate the murder at the film studio, he practically wears his proclivities on his sleeve. An exchange with Mrs Stephens, who has more than just her suspicions, is particularly strong -- including when she asks what film he's showing in front of her (since she can't see it, being blind):

     Why don't you lie to me ? I'd never know ...


     You'd know at once --
       Peeping Tom cuts quickly to the essence. There are no long explanations, no grand philosophizing; Marks shows cause and effect -- and the consequences, but even in the revealing scenes cuts away as soon as the point has been made. Mark is proceeding -- so terribly calmly -- to his fate, which has accelerated here, the only complicating factor this new-found interest of Helen's, which throws him, the suggestion of a possible escape from his demons, but one that comes fatally too late .....
       Peeping Tom isn't psychologically deep -- there's simply too little space for that -- but this essence still gets to a lot. It's good drama, with tension and suspense artfully teased out; in Mark it has a fascinating central character, and if Helen is just a bit too simply drawn -- there's some explanation of her sudden interest in the man upstairs, but it's hard to believe there wasn't any interaction between them previously -- her unexpected actions and reactions do strengthen the story.
       The dialogue, and the hints of the tone, are very strong, but the screenplay alone is hard-pressed to compete with the visuals of the actual film (though interestingly, the sounds -- especially the whirr of the camera -- are effectively conveyed). Marks' rich, terrible vision needs to be seen on the screen to be fully appreciated -- but it's a solid written work, too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 June 2019

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Peeping Tom - the film: Reviews: Leo Marks: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Leo Marks lived 1920 to 2001.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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