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!, “Blow Out,” “Body Double” and with Alfred Hitchcock in “Rear Window” and “Psycho.” More recently films like “Disturbia”, “Alone with Her” and “Vacancy’ have explored the topi c. 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”), the film was pulled from movie 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, in Australia, which included “Age of Consent” with James Mason and a young Helen Mirren, but for all intent Powell’s career was ruined and pretty much over.
In the late 1970’s “Peeping Tom” was rediscovered, mainly due to Powell-Pressburger fan, Martin Scorsese (1). In 1979, the film was included as part of the New York Film Festival and afterward given a commercial release, again thanks to Scorsese (It played at the Quad Cinema in New York). 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 re-evaluation was favorable.
What makes “Peeping Tom” so unsettling is how it renders the viewer complicit in everything that happens on screen. Powell tears down the cinematic wall, the safety net, between filmmaker and audience putting us sharply into the protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), shoes. From his point of view, looking through the lens’ of his 16MM movie camera, we see a young prostitute gazing at a storefront window. The camera approaches her, she turns toward the camera and informs Mark, and 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 directly toward her. She becomes frighten, terrified, screaming as she realizes what is about to happen. We quickly cut to a close-up of a movie projector running the developed film of what we just witnessed as the movie credits begin to 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 as innocent viewers of a movie. Unlike in “Psycho,” the Alfred Hitchcock film which “Peeping Tom” is always compared too, we can stand aside, separate ourselves from what is happening on screen. No matter how intimate or violent the scenes that Hitchcock makes us share, we know, we’re only watching a movie. Powell gives no such assurance, we are all partners in crime, if for no other reason than as moviegoers, we like to watch…just like Mark.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a focus puller for 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 consist of luring young women to clandestine locations where he films them, and then revealing a hidden knife in one of the legs of the tripod, he kills them as the camera continues to roll capturing their final fears, screams and ultimately their death on film, captured for him to watch over and over as part of a ‘documentary’ he is making.
One woman, who is different, is Helen (Anna Massey). She lives in the same rooming house and befriends Mark showing an interest in his work, unaware that it involves killing young women. 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, but in need of mental help himself, used the boy for his own experiments in fear and terror. One clip shows Mark’s father, played by Powell, waking the boy up in the middle of the night by tossing a live lizard on to the boy’s bed, the boy screaming in fear. In another film clip we see Mark next to the deceased body of his mother, and in still another with his dad’s new wife who he married only six weeks after the boy’s mother’s death . It is at the wedding of the second wife his father gives Mark a gift, a movie camera, which becomes his lifelong obsession. The father also had every room in the house wired to record conversations and screams of the frightened boy. For a short period, Helen manages to give Mark a taste of a normal life, they go out on a date. She even gets him to leave the camera at home. But it doesn’t last. Mark’s obsession are too powerful.
There is one scene where Powell plays an insider joke on the audience. It involves actress Moira Shearer, the star of his magnificent film, “The Red Shoes.” Mark persuades Vivian (Shearer), a bit player where Mark works , to stay late at the studio one evening and dance 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 directly into her throat. Vivian is found the next morning inside a trunk. As the police investigate, we see Mark, out of view from everyone on screen, filming the entire event.
The films ending is still horrific even after more than fifty years. When Helen watches the filmed scenes of Mark killing the bit player, he loses control and finds himself fighting a strong inner urge to kill her. The police however, have been closing in and have reached Mark’s rooming house. Realizing this is his demise, Mark turns the camera on himself and commits suicide on film, using the killer tripod, just like he did on his victims. This last recording becomes Mark’s most personal work and completes the making of his unsettling masterpiece.
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 strange and obsessive behavior. 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 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 we never learn much about. In “Psycho”, we get to know, identify and sympathize with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). Also, “Psycho” was a huge popular and financial hit while “Peeping Tom” died a quick death at the box-office both in England and here. 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, at least in America, 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” back in the early 1960’s when it played at a small theater in an dangerous area of Manhattan (most likely 42nd Street). 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 decided to begin accepting roles in major Hollywood productions like “The Alamo” and “Butterfield 8.” Boehm gives a creepy, chilling performance as the shy repressed, film obsessed, Mark Lewis managing to express 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 in Boehm’s performance. 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 has been noted as being the first nude scene in a British film however, the scene was quickly deleted after some early protest. In 1979, a restored complete version of “Peeping Tom” was presented at the New York Film Festival and soon after re-released.
“Peeping Tom” is a disturbingly dark, obsessively intense film with no let up. It’s a shattering experience sucking us into a world of perverse intimacy, even more so today with every phone and camera having the ability to “film” what we see. We. like Mark, film everything we see for our own personal pleasure, unknowing private moments of lives we see on the street or elsewhere, we have been both filmmaker and audience.
(1) It was through Martin Scorsese, his long time film editor, Thelma Schoomaker met Michael Powell. They married in 1984 and remained so until Powell’s death in 1990.
This review is part of the CLASSIC FILM AND TV CAFE’s “A TRIBUTE TO THE ARCHERS: A POWELL/PRESSBURGER BLOGATHON. The blogathon runs from March 25th through March 28th. Below is the complete schedule…
Sunday, March 25th
Michael Powell and Me – Classic Film & TV Cafe
The Red Shoes – Classic Becky’s Brain Food
One of Our Aircraft Is Missing – Classic Film Boy
A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) – 1001 Movies
Monday, March 26th
Tuesday, March 27th
The Red Shoes – Silver Screen Modiste
A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven) – Garbo Laughs
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp – Portraits by Jenni
A Canterbury Tale – Viv and Larry
Wednesday, March 28th
The Small Back Room – Distant Voices and Flickering Shadows