Waking Up to PEEPING TOM

January 24, 2024 - 11:17am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on Peeping Tom were written by Josh Martin, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Peeping Tom will screen on Friday, January 26 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. Admission is free!

By Josh Martin

Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) sits in the dimmed private screening room of cameraman Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), watching anxiously as the young, unsettling gentleman shows her horrifying and inexplicable home movies. She pleads for answers with a telling line: “I like to understand what I’m shown.” One can imagine a viewer encountering Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960 and feeling quite similarly to Helen, begging for explanations as they experience a work of unprecedented sexual frankness and violent desire. That the film only burrows further into its world of depravity and perversion, without compromising its vision of our participation in dysfunctional practices of viewing, is a testament to its disturbing power.

The production and reception history of Powell’s film is now the stuff of legend. Prior to the film’s release, Powell was best known for his partnership with Hungarian-British director Emeric Pressburger. Paired as The Archers, working a stable of collaborators including cinematographer Jack Cardiff and stars Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, Powell and Pressburger produced Technicolor confections that help to expand and refine the possibilities of the cinematic medium, including classics such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1949). Following the conclusion of the Archers’ partnership in the late 1950s, Powell turned his attention to Peeping Tom.

The film follows Mark Lewis, an amateur “documentary” filmmaker who is also a fanatical serial killer. Unlike the equally psychologically damaged Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a frequent point of comparison in critical studies of Powell’s film, there is never any mystery about Mark’s murderous habits. Peeping Tom begins in a heightened version of the streets of London, where young Mark, camera in hand, solicits and begins following a streetwalking sex worker. Anticipating later killer POV sequences in films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), the opening scene progresses from the merciless point-of-view of Mark’s camera – which, as Helen correctly identifies later in the film, is essentially an “extra limb,” inseparable from our protagonist. 

As we approach the young lady’s apartment, she becomes aware of the apparatus filming her, frightened by the bright lights as Mark and his camera close in for the kill. She lets out a terrified scream, culminating in a sudden cut to Mark as a spectator in his screening room, rewatching the film of the murder. In just a few short minutes, Powell’s film establishes its economy of motifs and devices: the ever-watchful eye of Mark, the unrelenting gaze of the camera, and the emphasis on spectatorship, on the act of cinematic viewing itself.

With decades of pictures influenced by (and often imitating) Powell’s violence and style, the opening scene may not feel as scandalous now as it did in 1960. Yet at the time, the film was vilified and lambasted, labeled as degenerate filth and “perverted nonsense” (Nina Hibbins, The Daily Worker). It is commonly understood to be the film that destroyed Powell’s career in the United Kingdom for good. As noted by Elliott Stein in Film Comment, the director once observed that, “The reception of the film was a disaster for me… This film ruined me. After Peeping Tom, it was impossible for me to get backing for other projects.” The response of the British tabloids is perhaps unsurprising, but more shocking is the lack of support from more cine-literate publications: Stein notes that even the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma “panned it unmercifully.”

Of course, the film is now properly regarded as an essential work. Critic Dave Kehr, writing upon its initial release in Chicago in 1979, called it “a shattering experience – it wakes us up from the movie-dream… and leaves us face-to-face with our own dark motives for movie-going.” Laura Mulvey, the landmark film theorist who initially posited the psychoanalytic theory of the “male gaze” in cinema, notes that Peeping Tom “[foregrounds] its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female).” Indeed, psychoanalysis, even in its most basic, pop Freudian form, is essential to an understanding of Peeping Tom. The film positions Mark’s “scopophilia” – which is defined by a psychologist late in the film as a sexually-driven “morbid urge to gaze” – as a hereditary perversity engendered by childhood trauma. The film reveals that Mark’s biologist father experimented on him, filming his studies of “fear and the nervous system” on the young boy. More importantly, the elder Lewis gifted his son his first camera, providing his outlet for engaging with the world and establishing his psychological and sexual malaise.

However, a refresher on the finer points of Lacan or Sigmund Freud is not required for Powell’s film to be vivid and involving. The film’s world is lurid and sensational, but it approaches these matters with a harsh, critical lens. Perversity is almost inescapable in the film. The line between Mark’s snuff films and the gaggle of tabloid journalists who feverishly photograph his murder scenes is portrayed as extraordinarily thin. A seemingly docile British gentleman grows quiet and sheepish as he asks for the pornographic images illegally sold at a neighborhood newsstand; “he won’t be doing the crossword tonight,” quips the shop owner. These transactions of commodified and objectified sexuality are direct and open in the film, a sharp contrast to the excruciating repression that eats away at Mark.

In the end, it all comes back to the camera itself. “It’s only a camera!” exclaims a policeman during the film’s climax, dodging the device thrown at him by a frantic Mark. The policeman’s partner responds: “Only?” A camera is never just a camera in the world of Peeping Tom: it does not take a perverted mind to see the clear symbolism in the apparatus, which Mark strokes, caresses, and grips with an orgasmic fervor. Yet far more than just a phallic substitute for our stunted killer, Powell’s film takes seriously the camera’s ability to observe the ineffable – or perhaps even nightmarish things that should remain hidden. Mark’s goal is to capture the human face at the moment of death – and to turn that image in on itself, forcing his victims to watch themselves as they die. “Other movies let us enjoy voyeurism,” noted Roger Ebert in his essay on the film, but “this one exacts a price… it doesn’t let us off the hook.” Ultimately, Kehr, Ebert, and Mulvey each identify this disruption of voyeurism as a central cause for the explosive controversy over the film. Much as Mark forces his viewers to watch their own reactions, Powell turns the camera back onto us, presenting viewers with a distorted mirror of spectatorship. Gazing upon the twisted faces of death, we see faces that reflect our own horror at what Powell’s film reveals.