Released on 16 May 1960, Peeping Tom found British director Michael Powell moving into dangerous new territory. The second film he’d made following his run of 1940s and 50s classics collaborating with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, its release would leave Powell’s career in tatters after a vitriolic reception from critics who were revulsed by its subject matter and implications.
Powell’s film is very much about filmmaking, but the camera is in the hands of a macabre voyeur. Peeping Tom follows Mark (Carl Boehm), a disturbed camera technician who films his own murders of women. Bearing the psychological scars of his father’s clinical experiments, Mark’s compulsions manifest through the eye of his trusty Bolex, his sexuality disturbingly replaced by violence.
He slowly becomes enamoured with Helen (Anna Massey), a fellow tenant in the large house he owns. But how long will he resist before he turns the deadly gaze of his camera towards her?
Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, released that same year, Peeping Tom has since become recognised as a watershed in genre cinema, its themes of voyeurism and psychopathy proving hugely influential on the evolution of the slasher movie. Viewed 60 years on, it’s also a gripping, vital document of a seedy 1960s London that is now mostly lost.
Here’s how four of its key locations look today.
The first murder
London feels dream-like at times in Peeping Tom, partly because Powell used a mixture of real locations and stylised sets. Its opening scene, shot from first-person perspective, of the killing of a sex worker called Dora (Brenda Bruce) is a good example of the film’s rich yet fabricated colours. Powell brings it back to reality after the murder when Mark revisits the scene of the crime, filming the police response. The scene is shot on Rathbone Street in Fitzrovia, and the pub seen in the shot, The Newman Arms, is still there.
The alleyway where Dora’s flat resides is Newman Passage, which runs alongside the pub and is close to how it was then, albeit with added graffiti. We see the real alley in the daytime as the body of the victim is taken away.
Powell didn’t go far from those first locations to film the corner shop where Mark works, sneaking upstairs to take illicit photos to be sold under the counter. The shop is just a little further down Rathbone Street. Its rich display of brand items and magazines has today been replaced by a minimalist high-end chocolatier, but the shape of the building is unchanged.
Much later in the film, Mark stalks Helen. It’s one of the few moments in the film to show the changing architecture of the era, with the vast majority of its locations seeming gothic and almost Dickensian in style and atmosphere. Mark’s journey takes him to his furthest location outside of central London, to Brent Cross. The flats he stands by were the newly built Clare Point on Claremont Road. When I visited, the building was under renovation. It was adorned with new cladding, but is essentially the same as when Powell filmed there.
Mark stands by the building so he can spy on Helen as she visits a public library. The library is now the car park of the Whitefield School, and it’s clear that Powell used the real geography in this scene. Though the fence has been shifted and moved back, both the tree and the different paving that marked the original entrance can still be seen today.
The house that Mark owns is central to the film. Yet, although it is acknowledged as 5 Melbury Road in Holland Park, a number of shots show that Powell used a composite of different angles on the same road, including his very own house at number 8. Number 5 was sadly demolished to make way for a block of flats some time ago.
Later in the film, we see Mark arrive back at the house. Unusually, Powell films this from the perspective of the houses that sat opposite his own at number 8 rather than at number 5. Today the houses have been redeveloped, but Powell’s house remains on the other side and can be made out in the shot due to its unusually ornate design above the doorway.
Before the police finally arrive at the house, they drive down Abbotsbury Road towards Melbury Road. The main building seen in the shot has vanished, though the tall wall and the curved room of the neighbouring house remains.
Adding further ambiguity to the location of Mark’s house, Powell filmed the police arriving on the opposite side to his own house, cutting sharply before we get to see fully where they run to. The view is down Melbury Road, marked in particular by the evocative turret of The Tower House, the Grade I-listed building that is now the home of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
Ultimately, the London that featured in Peeping Tom was deeply personal for Powell. The fact that he used his own house for some of the filming shows how much he cared about the project. He even used his own garden at 8 Melbury Road for some of the fake home-movies seen in the film. A blue plaque now hangs on the building to mark his presence there, his name far outlasting the critics who lambasted this classic London film.
Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).
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