Voyeurism and the movies go hand in hand. After all what is looking at movies other than peeping into the lives of other people. The subject has been explored in many films, “The Conversation”, “Sliver”, “Blow-Up”, and more so with directors like Brian DePalma in “Hi Mom!”, and “Blow Out” and Alfred Hitchcock in “Rear Window” and “Psycho.” More recently films like “Disturbia”, “Alone with Her” and “Vacancy’ have explored the topic. However, no film connects voyeurism and film more than Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom.”
Powell is best known as one-half of “The Archers”, the other half being Emeric Pressburger. Powell and Pressburger , produced, directed and wrote or any combination thereof some of the classiest British films of the 1940’s and 1950’s including “49th Parallel”, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp”, “Black Narcissus”, “The Tales of Hoffman” and “The Red Shoes.” Therefore, when this ‘nasty’ psychological thriller called “Peeping Tom” was released it came as a shock to both the critics and the public that this film was directed by Michael Powell. Reaction from the media and the public was so hostile, (the London Tribune said “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of ‘Peeping Tom’ would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the sewer, even then the stench would remain”), that the film was pulled from theaters in Britain quickly. When the film was released in the U.S. in May of 1962, it was a sliced and diced aborted version that did little business and died a quick death. Powell’s career was all but ruined. He managed to make a few more films, which included “Age of Consent” with a young Helen Mirren, but for all intent Powell’s career was pretty much over.
In the late 1970’s “Peeping Tom” was rediscovered, mainly due to Powell-Pressburger fan, Martin Scorsese. In 1979, the film was shown as part of the New York Film Festival and afterward given a commercial release, again thanks to Scorsese. Critics now praised what they once condemned, at least most did. Vincent Canby writing in the New York Times was not one of the converted, “Peeping Tom’s rediscovery, I fear, tells us more about fads in criticism than it does about art. Only someone obsessed with being the first to hail a new auteur, which is always a nice way of calling attention to yourself, could spend the time needed, to find genius in the erratic work of Michael Powell…..” That said, most critics reevaluation was favorable.
The film makes the viewer complicit right from the beginning, we see the protagonist Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) view through his 16MM movie camera a prostitute looking at a storefront window. The camera approaches her, she turns toward the camera and informs Mark (us) that “it’ll be two quid.” The camera follows as she walks to her apartment where once inside she begins to undress. Suddenly a light shines on her and the camera begins to move in closer toward her. She becomes frighten then terrified, screaming as she realized what is about to happen. There is a quick cut to a close-up of a movie projector running the developed film we just witnessed as the movie credits roll. For the rest of the film, we the audience, are never let off the hook. We are never allowed to sit on the sidelines of the movie. Powell makes us, the audience, a partner in crime, if for no other reason than we, as moviegoers, like to watch, just like Mark. This is a significant difference from how we relate to the Norman Bates character in “Psycho”, which “Peeping Tom” is always compared too, where we can stand on the sideline and separate ourselves from what is happening on screen.
Mark Lewis is a focus puller at a British film studio. A quiet shy young man (is there any other in this kind of movie), who has an unusually close attachment to his camera which he carries everywhere he goes. His private life is luring woman to a clandestine location where he films them, and reveals a hidden knife in one of the legs of the tripod with which he kills them as the camera rolls capturing their fear and screams on film for him to watch over and over as part of a ‘documentary’ he is making.
One woman, who is different, is Helen (Anna Massey) who lives in the same rooming house and befriends Mark showing an interest in his work. He lets her see his apartment and shows Helen some movies his father took years ago of him as small child. His father, a well known psychologist, used the boy for his own experiments in fear. One film shows his father ( played by Powell) waking the boy up in the middle of the night as his tosses a live lizard on to his bed, the boy screaming in fear. Another film we see Mark next to the deceased body of his mother and within six weeks of his mother’s death still another film with his dad’s new wife. At the wedding his father gives Mark a camera, which becomes his lifelong obsession. The father also had every room in the house wired so he could record conversations and screams of the frightened boy. For a short period, Helen gives Mark a taste of a normal life when they go out on a date. She even gets him to leave the camera at home.
There is one scene, where Powell plays an insider joke on the audience involving Moira Shearer, the star of his magnificent film, “The Red Shoes.” Mark convinces Vivian (Shearer), a bit player, to stay late at the studio and dance for him as he films her convincing her she could use the film as an audition reel. Vivian dances gleefully for Mark as his camera gazes’ on her when suddenly he plunges the knife like sharp tripod leg into her throat. Vivian is found the next morning inside a trunk. As the police investigate, Mark is seen out of view from everyone filming the entire event.
The films ending (spoiler alert – go to next paragraph) is still horrific even after forty-eight years. When Helen sees the film of Mark killing the actress he loses control and finds himself fighting his urge to kill her, however the police have been closing in and have reached Mark’s rooming house. Knowing this is his demise he turns the camera on himself and commits suicide on film, just like his victims.
Screenwriter Leo Marks and Powell created a dark portrait of a sadistic obsessive mass murderer haunted by a torturous childhood whose only outlet is filming the fear of his victims as they succumb to death on celluloid. The real heavy, of course, is Mark’s father whose abusive psychological experiments he forced on his son are the source for his mental disorder. Interestingly and perhaps even perversely, the ‘family movies’, Mark shows to Helen, Powell used himself to portray the father and his own son as young Mark.
Over the years comparisons have been made to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.” Both films were released within months of each other. Both deal with voyeurism, and both characters had strong fixated emotionally attached relationships with their parents. Mark with his father and Norman Bates with his mother. Despite the similarities, there were differences; in “Peeping Tom”, the focus of the story is always on Mark. The victims are non-entities that we never know anything about. In “Psycho”, we get to know and identify with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Also, “Psycho” was a huge financial hit with the audience with lines around the block while “Peeping Tom” died a quick death at the box-office. Perhaps this had to do with the reputation of the filmmakers. Audiences expected the macabre from Hitchcock but from Powell, this kind of film was totally unexpected, though, I do not believe the general movie going public were as familiar with Powell’s name as with Hitchcock. Certainly, though the critics were.
As mentioned, Martin Scorsese was influenced by and influential in rediscovering “Peeping Tom.” In the book, “Scorsese on Scorsese” edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie, he talks about the first time he heard of “Peeping Tom” in the early 1960’s when it played at a small theater in an dangerous area of Manhattan. In 1970, Scorsese saw the film for the first time complete and in color. Scorsese states “I have always felt that “Peeping Tom” and “8 1/2” say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. “8 1/2” captures the glamour and enjoyment of filmmaking, while “Peeping Tom” shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates. These are two films that deal with the philosophy and the danger of film-making.”
German actor Karl Boehm was selected after Laurence Harvey turned the part down. According to the TCM website, Harvey had just gained great success with his performance in “Room at the Top” and he quickly accepted roles in major Hollywood productions like “The Alamo” and “Butterfield 8.” Boehm gives a creepy, chilling performance as the shy repressed Mark Lewis expressing a certain vulnerability that I believe would have been lost if Harvey had taken the role. However, as Vincent Canby mentioned in his 1979 review, traces of a German accent are certainly noticeable with Boehm. A young Anna Massey in only her second film is very good as Helen the neighbor who befriends Mark and is both repelled and attracted to his strange world. British pinup Queen Pamela Green portrays a model Mark photographs in sexy lingerie. Powell filmed a semi nude scene of Green topless posing on a bed. This was the first nude in a British film; however, the scene was quickly deleted after early protest. In 1979, the original complete version was restored for commercial release.
“Peeping Tom” is a disturbingly dark, intense film that contains no let up. Unlike “Psycho”, there is no explanatory babble at the end. The ending in Psycho probably helped audiences of the day distance themselves from what they just saw on the screen. In “Peeping Tom”, Mark kills himself as sadistically and as cold as he did his victims then the film quickly comes to an end giving us no relief.