Over the years there has been the strange phenomenon of two movies with a very similar subject matter released within a few months of each other. The most famous example probably happened in 1964 when both Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe were released in the same year. Both films dealt with nuclear warfare, but where as Stanley Kubrick’s Strangelove was a dark comedy, Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe was a deadly serious melodrama. Both films performed well, though Strangelove was the bigger hit and has gone down in history as the masterpiece of the two.
Other examples include the year 1996 when we had two movies about aliens trying to annihilate the human race – Independence Day and Mars Attacks. The former was the biggest hit of the year. The latter tanked at box office. In 1998 the young Dreamworks studio went head to head with Disney on two major releases. In the summer Dreamworks released their meteor-about-to-hit-the-earth disaster epic Deep Impact while Disney released their meteor-about-to-hit-the-earth disaster epic a short while later. That fall the two studios had a similar grudge match with Antz and A Bug’s Life, two CG animated tales about colonies of ants that are saved by their misfit members. In each case there was enough love to go around, though also in each case the Disney films were much bigger hits.
In 1960 Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho was released in the U.S. and became the biggest hit of the year and has gone down in history as one of the definitive works in the history of cinema. Two months earlier, Peeping Tom was released in the U.K. The Michael Powell thriller had some undeniable similarities with Psycho. Both films had a sexually frustrated psychopath for a protagonist with deep mental scars caused by overbearing parents. Peeping Tom received scathing reviews and was a box office disaster. It took two years for the film to find a U.S. distributor who tried marketing it as an exploitation film, only to fail all over again. Yet as the years have gone on, Peeping Tom has long since developed a cult following and is now considered one of the true masterworks of post-war British cinema.
Michael Powell actually used to work for Hitchock as a still photographer in the late twenties. The two remained friends for the rest of Hitchcocks life. Later, Powell began a legendary collaboration with fellow director Emeric Pressburger. Together they directed the classics The 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman. All of these films were known for their spectacular use of color (or colour, as it’s spelled in Britain) and the intense passion of the characters. While most of their films were considered to be escapism, most centered on people with dark obsession.
Powell and Pressburger went their separate ways after the war and with Peeping Tom Powell was free to let the dark undercurrents of his previous work explode onto the surface. The film centers on Mark Lewis (Austrian actor Carl Boehm), a solitary young Londoner who works as a camera assistant at a film studio. He also derives his income from photographing nude models for the owner of a local newsstand and renting out the flats in the townhouse he inherited from his father. With him always is a 16mm Bolex camera, which he carries with him for the “documentary” he’s making. At night he prowls the streets of London picking up ladies of the night. He takes them back to his flat where he impales them on a spike he has mounted on the leg of his tripod, all the while running his camera and photographing their death.
A young woman who rents one of the flats (Anna Massey) takes a shine to the lonely Carl. Her blind mother, with whom she lives, does not approve. She suspects that there’s something wrong about Carl and at one point confronts him. He assures the concerned parent that he will never “film” her daughter.
This was pretty macabre stuff for 1960, as well as pretty racy. Supposedly Peeping Tom was the first commercial movie in Britain to feature female nudity. More than anything though, Peeping Tom gets under ones skin. If Psycho was more scary and suspenseful, Peeping Tom was downright disturbing, especially when we learn about Carl’s father and the “experiments” he performed on him as a boy. Today, Peeping Tom is recognized as a unique and powerful work on it’s own merits and has many fans. Martin Scorsese, who’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker was once married to Powell, has said that Peeping Tom and Fellini’s 8 1/2 say everything that can be said about filmmaking. “8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates”. Violates, and disturbs us to the very core of our being.