Filmmakers and photographers have one obsession in common. Well, they actually have more than one. However, the one obsession I ‘d like to point out here, and I have spoken about this before, is they like to watch! Just like the audience, everyone in the audience, no exceptions, they like to look, they are voyeurs. Come on, let’s face it, we all like watch and the safest way to watch others is by watching a movie or looking at a photograph.
We have seen voyeurism in many films as diverse as Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” and Brian DePalma’s early black comedy “Greetings.” Taken to the extreme, voyeurism leads to invasion of privacy and even worst, murder as it does in Michael Powell’s 1960 film “Peeping Tom.”
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a focus puller at one of the Britain’s film studios. A reclusive loner, Mark spends his off hours photographing so-called “glamour” shots of busty women for a sleazy magazine. Models like Milly (Pamela Green) who consistently ridicules Mark about his virility. Mark also has another little hobby. With a 16mm camera in hand he goes out looking for prostitutes. He follows and films them. After they agree on a payment, he escorts the women back to their apartment where he continues to film them. Then with a specially built mono-pod, it has a concealed sharp pointy blade, Mark begins to stab them while continuing to shoot their now horrified faces and eventual death with his camera. In a review of “Peeping Tom” I did a while back I described the opening scene as follows…
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 filmwe, the audience, are never let off the hook. We are never allowed to sit on the sidelines as innocent viewers of a movie.
Using this subjective point of view, Powell makes not only Mark Lewis but we the audience complicit in the killings. We are one and the same, partners in crime. So what made young Mark this perverted killer? Simply, it was dear old dad, a noted psychologist who used his young son as a guinea pig for his experiments and research. Good ol’ dad put his son through various “tests.” He kept him under surveillance throughout each room in their home. He recorded the boy’s reaction to his mother’s death. He placed bugs in the boy’s bed unexpectedly; noting his reactions to each episode. Dad’s research did wonders for his career and ruined his son’s life. (1)
Released the same year, within months of each other, as Hitchcock’s ”Psycho,” “Peeping Tom” was met with disgust in Great Britain. It almost singled handedly ruined Michael Powell’s career and was a flop in both Britain and the U.S. where it only played in a few theaters.
In the 1970’s though, the film began to gain a small cult status with savvy film lovers. One of those who saw it at that time was a young Martin Scorsese. Again, here is what I wrote in my original review…
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.” It was 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.”
Mark is as creepy and murderous as his better known counterpart, Norman Bates. Yet just as with Norman, the filmmakers made each a sympathetic figure. Both men were victims of parental abuse, Norman his mother, and for Mark, it was his father.
On a side note, one of Mark’s victims is portrayed by Moira Shearer who starred in Powell’s brilliant film about the struggles and choices made in being a creative artist, the brilliant film, “The Red Shoes.”
- In this flashback, Michael Powell portrayed the father and his real life son played young Mark.
This article is my contribution to THE GREAT VILLAIN BLOGATHON hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Statin and Silver Screenings. You can find a whole list of contributors by clicking on “The Great Villain Blogathon” image on the sidebar.