"Imagine...someone coming towards you...who wants to kill you...regardless of the consequences."
As I noted in my review of The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me was an ahead-of-its-time thriller which may have an entry on this blog were it not for the fact that its star and then-novice director, Clint Eastwood, hadn't already become a world-famous actor. But Misty was overshadowed in its year of release by a more famous but equally potent thriller, Dirty Harry. The irony here, of course, is that Eastwood also starred in that film, which remains, arguably, his most famous. Nonetheless, the fact that he starred in two thrillers and a period piece which stretched his acting muscles and fulfilled his lifelong dream of directing all in the same year ensured that westerns were just one genre Clint excelled at.
In his book Clint: A Retrospective, Richard Schickel notes in his review of Misty that, in the years since the film's release, audiences just kept rediscovering it, especially when the overrated Fatal Attraction (1987) lifted elements from it.
However, that would not be the case for Peeping Tom, a film which, like Misty, was ahead of its time and overshadowed by another thriller in its year of release. In this case, the 'other' thriller was Psycho. Both films were quite controversial upon their releases, with Tom being released three months before the Hitchcock film. One major difference, though, is that Hitchcock was already world famous by the time he made Psycho. Hence, all the controversy which surrounded his film ended up simply enhancing his career and made Psycho the template by which all movies involving psychopaths-and even some that don't, such as Jaws (1975)-have since been judged. Tom, however, was directed by one Michael Powell, who, while having a few strong films, such as The Red Shoes (1948), under his belt by 1960, didn't have the name recognition of Hitchcock. As a result, his movie was all but lost and, while Clint would go on to win two Oscars for directing, Powell would have great difficulty finding work for some time after Tom's release.
The title character is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a photographer and aspiring filmmaker. His specialty is photographing lovely women, which, as the film progresses, becomes a dangerous obsession when he begins murdering his subjects with a knife on one of the tripod legs of his camera. Like Norman Bates, Lewis is a shy man who befriends a kind woman. In Lewis's case, it's his neighbor Helen (Anna Massey). Lewis reveals to Helen that, as a child, his father (a renowned psychologist) would subject him to experiments designed to test the human nervous system, while his father recorded the reactions. Lewis also tells her that he's making a documentary and, eventually, she sees his handiwork on film, which details the murders he's commited. However, Helen's more fortunate than the other women Lewis has come across when the police arrive just as she's about to become the latest victim. Lewis then commits suicide with his own tripod knife and the camera running on him.
Other connections to Hitchcock in this film include the film's title sequence, which is reminiscent of the one in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). In a way, Hitchcock returned the favor when, upon seeing the controversial reaction to Tom, elected not to have a press screening for Psycho.
Roger Ebert probably said it best in his review of this film when he noted that the film makes us voyeurs in that we sit and watch their lives unfold, making Tom similar to Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Powell takes it in a different direction here, though, by having the director of Lewis's films, Lewis himself, actually killing the people in his films and recording their reactions, which is what horror directors basically do, although their 'victims' are assured a return trip.
While this disturbing film never got the acclaim Psycho did, it was saved from obscurity in 1978 when Martin Scorsese agreed to put up the money to give the film a wider release. Interestingly, when Powell died in 1990, he was married to Thelma Schoonmaker, who is known for her wonderful film editing of many of Scorsese's films.