Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Great Movies: "Peeping Tom"

Peeping Tom
Michael Powell, 1960.

When this nominal thriller about a cameraman serial killer was initially released, it was apparently widely panned by critics and quickly withdrawn from theaters. It has latterly achieved some degree of stature on the strength of Martin Scorsese's enthusiasm for it, along with that of Ebert and other critics. Those guys know a lot about movies, so I'm assuming there is some form of technical excellence hidden in there that is of, well, technical interest. That aside, there is very little to recommend in Peeping Tom. Plot, character, and situation are of no particular interest, and as is the case with so many "psychological thrillers," the psychological aspect of things is spoiled by the failure of the characters, or in this case even the actors, to act in a natural human fashion. Powell was apparently aiming for "excruciating suspense," but ended up with "leaden pacing."

Well, it's Ebert's list, so he gets to pick 'em. But Peeping Tom is among the handful of films on the list that we can say, without qualms, simply should not be on a list of Great Movies. It is not terrible, by any means, but neither is it at all interesting or remarkable. It isn't a good movie, let alone a Great one.

Plot: Emotionally disturbed man kills a few women. We hope that he doesn't kill the sympathetic female character.

Visuals: Colorful and lurid, when there is any color at all. Lots of scenes take place in the dark, with one or more characters watching a movie. Several scenes are simply shots of people's faces as they watch movies. Ebert is excited about how this "implicates us in the act of watching," but this is sophomore seminar stuff. Truth is, it is not interesting to watch someone watching a movie. This is why, at a theater, we tend to focus on the bright screen in front of us instead of the people around us.

Dialog: Stilted. Ebert claims that casting a man with an Austrian accent for the lead role was somehow inspired; in fact, it raises the question of "where is he supposed to be from anyway" and then never resolves it. The leading woman, Moira Shearer, puts in a strong performance as the neighbor girl who is inexplicably attracted to the block of wood who lives next door; she makes the best she can of a weak screenplay. The musical score behind everything, incidentally, is strangely inappropriate piano exercises.

Prognosis: Life is short. The only reason to spend your time on this movie is if you are a serious scholar of the evolution of serial killer flicks, or if you are a Martin Scorsese fanboy. In which case, more power to you.


Elizabeth said...

Michael5000 - throwing himself on the grenade of bad movies to save us all since 2007.

sister jen said...

Clearly Eborsese like this one for the poster!!

I've never seen this, but now I want to. (Probably not what you were going for.) Might Ebert's comment about the viewer being implicated in the watching not have made its way into sophomore seminars yet in 1960? Could the ambiguity of the character's nationality be inspired for that very reason? Could he be an "anyone"? (With apologies to e.e. cummings.)

I can't help myself. I DO want to know what the most frightening thing in the world is . . .

Elaine Corwin said...

Actually, Michael the film is quite good if, as your starting point you use it's reference in Infinite Jest. Then, it becomes fascinating and a whole different viewing experience (which is how I came to it). I put it on the same level as Carol Reed's stuff though, which doesn't put it in the top 100, but fascinating all the same.
(BTW I'm Meaghan Corwin's mom)