Peeping Tom: The Film they Hated (Then Loved in the End)

On the release of Peeping Tom in 1960, Star Karlheinz Böhm and Director Michael Powell were panned by critics and shunned by audiences. To coincide with the 50th anniversary re-release, Böhm talks about his initial shock and how the film gained redemption.
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On the release of Peeping Tom in 1960, Star Karlheinz Böhm and Director Michael Powell were panned by critics and shunned by audiences. To coincide with the 50th anniversary re-release, Böhm talks about his initial shock and how the film gained redemption.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Peeping Tom is back in cinemas from November 19th. The film that ruined the career of director Michael Powell in the UK, it was one of the first movies teeter on the edge of Soho’s sex scene of the fifties and question the whole nature of voyeurism and thus film, especially horror. The story follows Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) who works as a focus puller in a British film studio and preys on female sex workers; killing them then filming their dying moments with his movie camera. Written by WW2 cryptographer Leo Marks, the film still stands up today. Filmed on location in London’s Fitzrovia it also provides a fascinating peak at the past, but was universally loathed at the time.

“After having read the script for the first time, I was very sceptical and not very much interested in playing the part of a 'serial killer', explains star Bohm from his home in Ethiopia where he runs a charitable foundation, “I was absolutely not aware what playing this part would mean to me - in that phase of my professional development - and was only convinced to sign the contract after the discussions with Michael Powell and by the psychologically differentiated way in which he approached the character of Mark Lewis. The movie Peeping Tom I consider to be an absolutely ingenious piece of art made by Michael Powell, which gave me the chance to develop new dimensions of my performance as an actor."

The story follows Mark Lewis, who works as a focus puller in a British film studio and preys on female sex workers; killing them then filming their dying moments with his movie camera.

Of course at its premier the film died a death leaving the actor a little bemused. “The film was first shown in the Plaza cinema in early April 1960 in the presence of people from the media, the film business and members of the royalty, recalls the actor.  “At the end of the performance, Michael Powell and I lined up outside the showroom. We were excited and curious to see the reactions of the audience. We were absolutely puzzled, when they all left the theatre in silence, ignoring us completely.” Indeed, the critics were somewhat more vocal in their disapproval. The Observer's C.A. Lejeune complained, "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom.

“The first comments of the critics were indeed devastating in a way that none of us had expected and I must admit that I was actually shocked by those harsh and negative reactions," testifies Bohm. “In the 1970's Michael Powell and in particular "Peeping Tom" were rediscovered by the film industry and directors like Martin Scorsese. As a consequence the movie was then presented to and appreciated by a wider audience at film festivals, such as the New York Film Festival in 1979. Critics even listed it among the top ten movies of all time and I am deeply happy that - even though it took a long time - people eventually understood and acknowledged this brilliant piece of art created by Michael Powell.”

As Michael Powell said in his autobiography, ‘I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it,’ while Martin Scorsese, eagerly stated.“ Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it [film making], how the camera violates. From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films."

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