Reasessing the Critical Response to PEEPING TOM (1960)

When you mention PEEPING TOM (’60) to classic film fans the response is typically “That’s the movie that ended Michael Powell’s career!” and a quick Google search will unearth countless critics and film historians repeating a similar refrain. While it is true that PEEPING TOM received a brutal lashing from the British critical establishment that deeply affected Powell, the facts surrounding the film’s distribution, reputation and impact on the director’s career are much more nuanced and complex.

Contrary to what you might have heard, Powell’s career did not come to a screeching halt after he made PEEPING TOM. In fact, Powell went on to make five more films including a magnificent production of Béla Balázs’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, released as HERZOG BLAUBARTS BURG (’63), and the very successful Australian comedy AGE OF CONSENT (’69). He also went on to direct episodes of popular television shows such as THE DEFENDERS (’61-’65) and produced one of my favorite spy spoofs (SEBASTIAN [’68]) but the British film world was drastically changing in the 1960s. The Technicolor fantasies conjured up by Powell and his creative partner Emeric Pressburger in the 1940s were being replaced by gritty kitchen sink dramas. Film audiences that had once sought out escapist entertainment from the horrors of WWII were now eager to watch films that spoke to the very real problems they were facing at home. Powell, who prided himself on his imaginative set pieces and baroque vision, had no desire to make films in the kitchen sink mold. This disengagement with popular taste and trends undoubtedly made the director, who was nearly 60-years-old when PEEPING TOM was released, somewhat out of step with the times.

The first film Powell made after PEEPING TOM was THE QUEEN’S GUARDS (’61). I haven’t seen it myself but as critic Kim Newman pointedly observed in a recent review,

The story goes that Michael Powell was run out of the business after the controversy of Peeping Tom… but the film he made immediately after that hot potato was this eminently respectable picture, with a relatively high budget and tons of cooperation from the sort of Establishment bodies (including the army and, implicitly, the Royals) who wouldn’t have liked Peeping Tom.

Unfortunately, THE QUEEN’S GUARDS was a box office and critical flop. Powell himself referred to it as the worst film he ever made so it’s likely that its failure to win public approval had just as much of a negative impact on Powell’s career as PEEPING TOM did.

It’s worth noting that Powell had plenty of previous problems getting his films made before he added PEEPING TOM to his oeuvre. He often went over budget in an effort to bring his fanciful ideas to the screen and butted heads with producers on more than one occasion. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (’43) faced criticism from the British government with Winston Churchill leading the charge against its favorable depiction of Germans during wartime. And THE RED SHOES (’48) underwent extreme scrutiny from producers who couldn’t appreciate the film’s subject matter and didn’t know how to market it while critics complained it was “too long” and the characters “clichéd.” But there is no escaping the nasty tone of the reviews Powell received after making PEEPING TOM.

British critics were particularly appalled by the film, which was part of what film historian David Pirie has dubbed Anglo-Amalgamated’s “Sadian trilogy.” The two other films that make up the trilogy include Arthur Crabtree’s HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (’59) and Sidney Hayers’s CIRCUS OF HORROR (’60). Together with PEEPING TOM, this trinity of exceptional thrillers became some of the most reviled and influential horror pictures produced in Britain.

The so-called “Sadian trilogy” share many similarities including sympathetic madmen that meet gruesome ends. They also encourage audience participation with an abundance of POV shots that demand viewers to experience the terrors they unleash through the eyes of victims and villains. And last but certainly not least, the films combine inventive modern set pieces with striking Eastman Color photography. Blood reds, putrid greens, and pulsating purples swirl and shudder across the screen creating a fantastic miasma of horrors that left spectators, accustomed to monochrome thrillers aimed at a much younger audience, dazed and reeling. PEEPING TOM is the most admired and celebrated of the three but all of these Anglo-Amalgamated productions combine violence with surprisingly adult themes into a potent cinematic cocktail that shocked and stunned audiences at the time.

To get a sense of what critics had to say about PEEPING TOM when it was unleashed into British theaters in the summer of 1960 I’ve compiled excerpts from a few of the angriest reviews:

I have carted my travel-stained carcass to (among other places) some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But nothing, nothing, nothing – neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta – has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week while sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom. (Daily Express, 1960)

Obviously, Michael Powell made Peeping Tom in order to shock. In one sense he has succeeded. I was shocked to the core to find a director of his standing befouling the screen with such perverted nonsense. (Daily Worker, 1960)

The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain. (The Tribune, 1960)

Today these incensed responses appear isolated and extreme, but they were typical of British critics in the late 1950s and early 1960s who regularly attacked horror films and relished the opportunity to denounce them. The early color films produced by Hammer studios were similarly condemned such as Terence Fisher’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (’57), which The Tribune called “Depressing and degrading for anyone who loves the cinema.” And HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, the first film in Anglo-Amalgamated’s “Sadian trilogy,” barely got past censors who responded to the script with “Throw it out and let there be no mercy!”

The critical beating PEEPING TOM received in Britain has led many to believe that it had a limited release and was never shown outside of the country but nothing could be further from the truth. Powell’s film was actually considered a modest commercial success in the United Kingdom according to film historian and author Kevin Heffernan (Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business 1953-1968), which was largely due to its inclusion of a topless scene with the popular pin-up model Pamela Green.

In France, Powell’s film found a receptive audience that appreciated the director’s surrealist tendencies and mature subject matter (I.Q. Hunter, British Trash Cinema). And when the film finally reached American theaters in 1962 it was accompanied by an extensive ad campaign and greeted with cautious applause by critics in Ohio, Alabama and Pennsylvania who repeatedly singled out Carl Boehm’s (aka Karlheinz Böhm) performance calling it “brilliant” and “superb.” They also described the film in glowing terms as “An exciting new drama” and “One of the most unusual psychological thrillers in years” (Standard-Speaker, ‘62).

Despite plenty of evidence suggesting that PEEPING TOM wasn’t exactly the critical disaster it has often been depicted as there’s no doubt that Michael Powell was deeply wounded by the negative reviews he received. Critics in Britain went after him with self-righteous abandon, asserting their moral superiority as if they were personally being attacked by the film and maybe they were? PEEPING TOM is unabashedly vicious and extremely critical of our shared voyeuristic tendencies. It asks the audience to question their own motives and examine their participation as passive spectators. This must have rocked journalists to their core in 1960 and they responded by lashing out instead of looking inward and asking tough questions of themselves and the cinema.

In the years since its release PEEPING TOM has become a critical darling and a favorite among academics and film scholars. It is one of a handful of nontraditional horror films or thrillers (pick your poison) along with Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (’60) that is universally praised and singled out for its brilliant direction, provocative ideas and analytical depiction of filmmaking. So, did PEEPING TOM destroy Michael Powell’s career? I think that assertion is highly questionable but it definitely helped cement Powell’s reputation as one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers.

by Kimberly LIndbergs

Note: originally published in 2018 on