Film director Michael Powell was immediately charmed by Carl Boehm when they met at a party in London. Boehm was handsome, blue-eyed, sensitive and modest, despite being the son of one of the most celebrated classical conductors of the 20th century and an established film star and romantic lead in European movies.
Powell, who always viewed the world rather differently from most people, reckoned Boehm would be perfect casting in his new film, Peeping Tom – playing the role of a perverted sex killer.
Boehm himself took some persuading to play a man who films his victims’ terror as he stabs them to death with a blade attached to one of the legs on his camera tripod.
The critics of the time were beyond persuading and the film was widely condemned as disgusting and depraved when it first screened in 1960. “It turns out to be the sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing,” wrote Isobel Quigley in The Spectator. “Atrocious cruelty put on the screen for fun.” Another critic suggested it should be dumped in the nearest sewer.
Powell, who had previously made the Scottish island romance I Know Where I’m Going and the ballet film The Red Shoes, fled to Australia to escape the furore and ended his career working for the Children’s Film Foundation.
But Peeping Tom is now widely regarded as a masterpiece, safely installed in the British Film Institute’s pantheon of the 100 Greatest British Films Ever Made.
And Boehm’s performance has been a vital element in its favourable critical reassessment.
While the response to the film virtually ended Powell’s career, it seemed to have little effect on Boehm’s fortunes and he went on to star in MGM’s big-budget The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, he played Beethoven in Disney’s The Magnificent Rebel and he made four films with the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the 1970s, before giving up acting to concentrate on charity work in Africa.
Boehm was born Karlheinz Böhm, in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1928 – his name was anglicised on the Peeping Tom credits. His father was the conductor Karl Böhm, his mother the soprano Thea Linhard. Using fake papers he managed to get out of Nazi Germany in 1939 and attended boarding school in Switzerland. After the Second World War, he and his parents moved to Graz in Austria.
His intention was to become a pianist before he settled on an acting career. He began appearing in films in the late 1940s and made a considerable impact on European audiences as Emperor Franz Josef I in the 1955 period romantic drama Sissi, with Romy Schneider as the future empress. There were two sequels.
Laurence Harvey had been lined up for Peeping Tom before Powell met Boehm. He was seemingly playing against type as a killer. But the film does not simply present the character as a monster; it tries to explain what made him the way he is, revealing that his father used him as a guinea pig in his experiments on the psychology of fear.
Boehm was uncertain about how audiences would react to the film, which Powell made after splitting from his long-time collaborator Emeric Pressburger, but he was shocked by just how intensely the critics hated it.
In an interview a few years ago, he recalled: “The film was first shown in the Plaza cinema (in London) in early April 1960 in the presence of people from the media, the film business and members of the royalty.
“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.
“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.”
The fact that Boehm was so good looking and seemed so sensitive, and that the film was so determined to see events from his perspective, actually fuelled the ire of critics. Peeping Tom appeared just a few weeks before Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which had a similarly kinky killer and also took a hammering from the critics.
But, thanks in part to Hitchcock’s marketing skills and showmanship, went on to become a big hit from the outset. Both films benefitted from later critical reassessment.
Powell was lionised by a new generation of critics and film-makers, including Martin Scorsese. He lived to see Peeping Tom “secure in his place in the movie hall of fame” and he lauded Boehm in his memoirs, both as an actor and a man.
“Laurence Harvey would never have touched the level of his intuition,” he wrote, “which is not to say that Larry wouldn’t have been good… But Karl-Heinz was more than good, he was great, he reached the heights.”
Boehm gave up acting in the late 1970s and founded Menschen für Menschen (Humans for Humans), a charity working in Ethiopia, where he was granted honorary citizenship in 2003. He was married four times and had seven children.