Directed by Michael Powell (1960)
by Evan Popplestone
What’s it about?
Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, a movie cameraman by day who moonlights as an erotic photographer working above a rather sleazy newsagent in London. He fills up the rest of his time with another use of his photographic skills: utilising a portable camera to film women’s fearful expressions as they die on the end of a sharp knife concealed in one of the feet of his tripod. When a prostitute becomes his latest victim he also starts filming the resultant police investigations.
He lives in a tenement house inherited from his father and rents out his rooms to several people, amongst them Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) and her blind mother (Maxine Audley), while he lives upstairs amongst his collection of film equipment rewatching the footage of the various murders he commits. When Helen has a birthday party she decides to go up and give him a piece of her cake. Her curiosity is then piqued by this rather odd man and his unusual preoccupation with film, so she asks if she can see one of his reels. Mark, understandably not wanting to show footage of his nefarious activities, decides instead to show her some of his childhood filmed by his father as a piece of psychological research. Helen is rather disturbed by some of the content, including the father waking up the young Mark by putting a lizard on his bed.
However, despite the strange film, and her mother’s own misgivings, she remains curious about her landlord - who now has his sights on filming Viv (Moira Shearer), a dancer working on the movie he is helping to shoot.
Why is it significant?
From the WWII years to the 1950s, Michael Powell was one of the most well-regarded British directors, in particular for his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). However his 1960 film Peeping Tom was immensely controversial at the time and received with such outright hostility by critics that it was pulled from cinemas just five days after its release. Powell was effectively cast out of the British film industry and had to find work abroad ever since.
At the time the BBFC had cut around seven minutes’ worth of footage, much of which has been restored for the film’s more recent DVD and Blu Ray releases. However in modern times, even in the recent releases it’s hard to see what all of the fuss was about. The two most explicit moments barely warrant the film’s current UK 15 rating - a very brief, tasteful shot of a naked woman lying on a bed, and a slightly graphic death scene near the end with a small amount of visible blood. However, the sex-and-violence orientated subject matter along with the study of a murderous personality disorder were considered unacceptable at the time. While Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from the same year ran into similar controversies, it at least distanced its titular character from the audience by rendering him as a de facto monster. Peeping Tom on the other hand turns Mark Lewis into an audience identification figure who gains our sympathies.
In more recent years however Peeping Tom has been reevaluated and is now widely considered to be a classic. Part of the reason for this was that longtime fan Martin Scorsese managed to get hold of an old print and screen it at the 1979 New York Film Festival. The resultant renewed attention had caused it to be reassessed in an era when films such as Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver (which owed a lot to Peeping Tom’s visual style and identification with a character prone to extreme violence) were being celebrated. It is included on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
How does it hold up?
While its power to shock has diminished somewhat, the themes presented in Peeping Tom are as relevant as they ever were. Mark Lewis is a man who has been brought up under the gaze of the camera, an unwilling subject of another’s (in this case his father’s) curiosity (in this case related to his reactions of fear). As an upshot, he has become someone who can only relate to people through the medium of the camera. In a way he’s continuing his father’s work by capturing the fear on the faces of others. However, he goes further than his father by capturing the emotion when it results from the acknowledgement of their own imminent death.
On another level, his shy, damaged character can’t relate through physical contact with women. He can only relate through voyeurism - by being a “Peeping Tom." In many ways his tripod knife is a substitute penis, his way of physically penetrating women while still using his portable camera as an observational device. His inability to form close relationships means that female surface features are everything to him. During an early scene he displays a particular fascination for a nude model who turns out to have a facial disfigurement. Like him, she is walking damaged goods, as he on the inside and she on the outside.
While this theme was important back in the days when cinema and TV were the major recorders of human behaviour, it is by some magnitude even more relevant now that we have the likes of reality television and YouTube parading real, ordinary people in front of the camera for our own entertainment. Like it or not, we are increasingly becoming a society focussed on observing the behaviours and reactions of others through the filter of a camera, rather than one engaging with them at a close level. Peeping Tom also contributes heavily to the nature vs. nurture debate. In many ways it tips towards the latter side as it’s clear that Mark is carrying out a variant on the behaviour he was subjected to during his childhood. On the other hand during the filmed footage from his younger days we see him as a boy watching a snogging couple in a park, suggesting there may be an additional genetic aspect that predisposes him towards voyeurism.
In addition to its thematic richness, Peeping Tom is an outstanding piece of cinema. Firstly, from an audiovisual standpoint the film’s camera-eye POV shots, rich colours, atmospheric use of light and shade and its effective deployment of musical cues manifest in some outstanding set pieces. The first murder, shot entirely from the camera’s POV in a manner that has inspired Mario Bava and Dario Argento through many films, and the second, where menace gives way to a dance number that lulls the audience into a false sense of security, stand up amongst the most inventive of such scenes in the history of film. In lieu of graphic detail we get a lot of clever suggestion in the imagery. The prostitute at the start solicits in front of a boutique window bedecked with naked blue busts, slyly implying the body she is herself offering for sale. The second murder culminates in a zoom in on a red stage light, pushing the impact of the blade into the victim’s throat out of the frame but filling the screen with an object that’s not-so-coincidentally blood-coloured.
The slyness extends to the film’s considerable wit. When Mark is seen filming the police carrying away the resultant corpse from the first murder, he is asked which paper he is reporting for. He responds “The Observer." During the film-within-a-film the lead actress plays a character trying to pick the right colour of suitcase in a department store. While blocking out the scene, when she gets to the blue suitcase she faints on the sight of a corpse inside. Later on, a moment of sick humour occurs involving the scene being played out again with different colours of hats. Maxine Audley as Helen’s blind mother gets the lion’s share of the film’s best lines; when her daughter mentions that she wants to visit Mark, she gives the following innuendo-laden response: “We both have the key of the door. Mine needs oiling, yours needs exercise.”
The acting is great throughout. Again, I felt Maxine Audley stood out with her steadfastly dry delivery and utterly convincing “blind” performance. However, Carl Boehm’s work, laden with heavy-shouldered self-pity and anxiety in lieu of the usual sadistic glee and bloated arrogance that characterises too many screen psychopaths, deserves a lot of credit. Anna Massey is also excellent, conveying a sort of sad-mouthed sympathy towards Mark but also a stubborn intelligence that convinces the viewer that’s she’s falling for him out of some quest to understand his nature rather than some sexist portrayal of female naivety in the face of male monsters. Moira Shearer (who had previously worked with Powell in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann) has a smaller role, but one that makes fine use of her abilities.
While Peeping Tom is often classified as a horror film that term is debatable. It’s dark and disturbing, but more as a psychological character study and reflection of the age of visual media than it is as a vehicle for shocks and unpleasantness. It fully deserves its hard-fought place in the annals of classic cinema.