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Contemporary Review
Peeping Tom (1960)
De Linie (NL), January 1961
Translated into some form of English by Wim Jansen

Peeping Tom, crime from mental illness
By D. Ouwendijk in De Linie, January 1961

The thriller, originated in the past from the detective story, is no longer a pure detective story. That story originally put human cunning against crime. The crime could involve brutality, although it did not always. The detective story has brought us as many tragic crimes as evil ones.

It is understandable that in movie-storytelling the tension of the drama had to come to the foreground more than the cunning. This has resulted in an increase of the evil of crime, which in turn increased the consequent vengeance which resulted in the well-known chase and escape scenes.

A very interesting area of tension is the one brought about by the crime from mental illness. A lot of cunning does not amount to much here, compassion however does. The compassion has to come from the filmmaker; he should acknowledge that crime from mental illness requires a very different approach than crime for financial gain. The dramatic tension should not be sought in the preparation and execution of the crime and the ensuing ending, but in a an understanding representation of the wrung mental process. In Hitchcock's Psycho it is told at the end of the film that the committed crimes are due to mental illness. The focus of the film is still oriented to a thriller-effect induced by looking at acts, that unmistakenly takes us on the road to brutality.

In the film Peeping Tom of the, also British, director Powell, we also encounter crime from mental illness. Powell tries, unlike Hitchcock, to sketch an image of mental illness instead of one of committed crimes, although he doesn't dismiss the tension of the thrilling expectation. The spectator knows however what it is all about: He therefore subjects to the action, even though it's an act of crime. In this case it is a doubly tragic and unescapable event, unescapable for the victim and unescapable for the mentally ill person who is a tortured soul and not an evil one.

The mentally ill person is a young photographer, working for a film production company. The boy is the son of a biologist, who was well-known during his life and who was mainly interested in the causes of fear. The interest was of a disturbing nature and the biologist used his son as a guinea pig. He brought the boy at random into states of fear and filmed him. The boy, constantly being subjected to peeping, developed in himself an uncontrollable urge to peep with a camera. The young photographer adds to the enormous amount of reels with spied fear (and desire!) that his father has left him. He imagines that he can free himself of his insane urge, of which he is conscious, when he can picture and record the ultimate of fear. The ultimate of fear can only emerge in his sick fantasy when he catches a person on the exact moment of seeing the arrival of its own violent death. Under the influence of his illness he only wants to use female guinea pigs; he kills three of them, before he meets his own (equally violent) death.

The film is well-made, although one could point to a few peculiarities which are, seen from a strictly technical viewpoint, not acceptable; especially the way in which the photographer sometimes uses his spying camera, or to put it more correctly the shots that are made with the spying camera. What is important though is the psychological structure of the entire product and that is certainly interesting. The film offers a nice representation of the boundaries between utter madness and normal life. When the boy is normal, he suffers agony by the memories of what he did in these powerless moments of mental illness and maybe even more by the fear of what he will do in these moments. On the other hand there is the determination to carry on. It is a pity that Powell has not succeeded in keeping his film entirely free of melodramatic effects, especially towards the end. The end gives one the suspicion that there was no effort put in to find another solution than the usual one, namely the complete overpowering of the protagonist, who by dying gives the film a reason to just stop. The end has probably turned out the way it has, because the concentration on the mental illness has not been entirely convincing. That is shown sometimes in the course of the film, because it then slumps to the level of an usual thriller which gives suspense through crime. Despite these weaknesses and mistakes the film succeeds in presenting the main issue of pain through mental illness. And doing that Peeping Tom distances itself a long way from the average exciting thriller.

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