Peeping Tom is a frightening experience. It’s also a thrilling one because it gets close, very close, to the heart of the impulse of filmmaking” – Martin Scorsese

As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film” – Frank Capra

All this filming isn’t healthy.” – Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley) from Peeping Tom

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Peeping Tom

by Justin Waters

If there is one subject the movie industry loves making movies about it is the movie industry. Normally the focus is more on the industry side of things; vapid stars, soulless producers, all powerful moguls. Rarely do the films focus on the difficult internal struggle required to create something of personal meaning– there are some; documentaries such as Burden of Dreams, Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Lost in La Mancha, narrative films like 8 ½ as well as with genre fare Inception. Even rarer is the film that stares deep into the abyss of creating personal work for others enjoyment. Michael Powell’s 1960 masterpiece Peeping Tom was so reviled upon release it essentially blackballed Powell from making movies in the UK, was barely released, and was nearly lost to obscurity. Today we look at a masterpiece turned Frankenstein that killed its maker and set the stage for countless horror, slasher, and giallo films to come. A movie for those who choose to mainline our cinema and the ugliness of becoming one with the camera.

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    “By day, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) works as a focus puller in a film studio, supplementing his income by shooting glamour photographs for a seedy Soho newsagent. By night he seeks victims for his gruesome obsession with filming the look of pure, unadulterated fear – the legacy of his father’s sadistic experiments on him as a child.” – back of the box synopsis

Peeping Tom begins with an oft used and powerfully symbolic image of an eye. The meaning is two fold. First, Mark, the owner of said eye is a peeping tom, a voyeur. Second, Powell is letting us know right from the start that what we are about to watch is a subjective experience. We will be seeing the world through Mark’s eyes. Scorsese uses the same visual metaphor at the beginning of Taxi Driver, Orson Welles envisioned opening his never made, all POV, Heart of Darkness with an eye as well. With the eye Powell is making the movie theater his character’s brain with the audience viewing through the sockets. The point Powell makes–and what probably cost him his career–is that movie going is a voyeuristic experience. We are the peeping toms. We are here for the gory and the sexy. What we pay in money and time to see these characters suffer makes us complicit in the suffering.

This camera/audience as Mark/voyeur carries over into the murders themselves. How does Mark stalk and kill? With his camera. POV murders are standard in slashers (Black Christmas/Friday the 13th) and giallos (Blood and Black Lace/Deep Red); though Peeping Tom is not the first to use this device (IMDb claims killer POV’s were first used in a pair of movies from the 40s directed by John Brahm) it is certainly one of the best. Mark wants to be a director so when filming his murders he takes special care with framing and movement. It is a wonderful relief from the intentionally poorly framed wobbling camera that prowls the woods looking for horny teens. The real difference between Peeping Tom’s POV and most other horror movies POV though goes beyond aesthetic and into the issue of audience identification. POV puts us in that character’s head, it makes us one with them. Most horror movies never comment on this and use the POV primarily to add some tension during cat-and-mouse chase sequences and/or to mask their killers identity. The reason they never comment on it is to do so would be to openly admit that they are asking the audience to enjoy the vicarious thrill of murdering innocent people. Now this may be exactly why these films exist in the first place, but to confront the audience with this is to condemn them and movies that condemn their audiences normally do not do well at the box office.

3Mark works as a studio cameraman and dreams of being a fully realized film director. He shoots nude pics on the side for a mild mannered shop owner–“Girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls.” Making Mark a wannabe film director allows Powell to comment on the all consuming desire to make movies. Of course Mark’s main filmic sideline is murder; sex and blood; the foundations of filmdom in general. Mark refers to his past in film phrases calling one particularly disturbing childhood moment as the “previous sequence”– sometimes it is safer behind the camera.

A moment has always stuck with me. A psychiatrist asks what Mark does. Mark tells him he’s a focus puller, “so am I in a way,” replies the psychiatrist. Film as a Freudian tool, an investigation into the inner life. Powell as auteur and painfully aware of the damage one can do to oneself with all that rummaging in one’s own attic.

As if to confirm his deep connection to the piece Powell inserts himself into the movie in the most disturbing way. Mark shares his past to Helen via old footage his father shot of him. According to Mark, his dad filmed constantly as a case study on fear in children. Fear created by Mark’s own father. This past is given out as the reason for Mark’s current filming/killing obsession. Here’s the thing, young Mark in these home videos is portrayed by Michael Powell’s own son. And who plays the father? Why none other than Powell himself. Now remember, Mark is played by Carl Boehm, a German with a German accent which he does nothing to hide and no explanation is ever given in the movie. Powell is British and speaks with his normal British accent. It is completely incongruous for Powell to play the father and yet he does. The personal connection and underlying message were more important to Powell than literal story sense. Here is someone who is willing to rummage their own attic for all the world to see.

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Now remember, this movie was released in 1960. What else was released in 1960? A little movie named Psycho and, like Peeping Tom, it was met with calls of sadism and horror at the violence being performed on screen. Unlike Peeping Tom, Psycho was heralded on its release and added to the already growing legend of it’s director Alfred Hitchcock. The reason Peeping Tom was such a scandal and Psycho a sensation is audience complicity. In Psycho we are on Norman Bates’ side for most of the movie but he tricks us just as he tricks everyone else, even himself. Once we find out he is the killer Hitch lets us off the hook by showing Norman as pure evil with an overlain skull to boot. It is never Norman as killer side we are on, only Norman the victim of an overbearing mother. With Mark in Peeping Tom we are told from the get go that he is the killer and Powell still keeps us sympathetic. He doesn’t stop there. He makes us complicit in the murder as well. This is what we paid money for and Mark as the director is giving it to us in spades. Mark may be a peeping Tom, but so are we–all of us after images of beautiful murdered women. David Lynch would make the same point about voyeurism in Blue Velvet and Michael Haneke would hit the nail on the head with Funny Games but Powell did it in 1960 and being too ahead for your time can cost you dearly.

Michael Powell would eke out a few more films–mostly working in Australia which is kind of poetic since Australia once served as Britain’s prison island. His body of work, including Peeping Tom, would be restored and brought back to the public by superfan Martin Scorsese who would invite Powell to the first retrospective of his career. During that trip Powell met Scorsese’s longtime editor and collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. They fell in love and were wed in 1984, staying together until Powell’s death from cancer in 1990. Along with his partner and co-screenwriter Emeric Pressburger he would make some of the greatest movies of all time. His powerful use of color, inventiveness with the camera, and gentle touch with characterizations would be evident in masterpieces like The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Scorsese tells how Powell still talked about the films he was planning to make right up until his death even though he hadn’t directed in over a decade and everybody knew that he was never going to get a chance to direct again–his career in ruins, his craft taken from him, all he could think about was getting one more movie in the can. When film grabs you, it never really lets you go.5

 

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