Peeping Tom: The Cinema Of The Complicit

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Has ever a film had more of a 360 degree critical turnaround than Michael Powell’s 1960 psychodrama, Peeping Tom? Possibly Heaven’s Gate, although at least Powell wasn’t blamed for the perceived ruin of a whole studio. Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times described Peeping Tom as “essentially vicious”. It seemed the director was wilfully flaunting a daring approach, horror as complicit voyeurism, pushing boundaries that this previously feted critics darling wasn’t to be allowed to cross.

Powell and his previous production partner (under the unofficial aegis of  The Archers) Emeric Pressburger had made fifteen successful films together, including The life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and A Matter Of Life And Death, before going their separate ways in 1956.  In 1960, Powell perversely changed tac with a pitched screenplay from Leo Marks about a young man who kills with a concealed blade in his camera tripod, recording his victims death agonies while forcing them to watch themselves in an attached mirror. The protagonist / antagonist suffers from scoptophilia – the urge to gaze. Powell would turn this on its head by making the audience question its relation to the horrific acts on screen, an idea ahead of its time – see the remake of Maniac, mostly seen through the killer’s POV, his face only glimpsed in mirrors.

When Powell suggested Peeping Tom as the title, Marks said “Won’t that get all the wrong people in?” Powell replied, “Well, lets get all the wrong people in as well as the right ones…”

Mark lewis (Carl Boehm) is a murderous peeping tom killing Soho prostitutes while filming the act, all the while frustrated by not getting the perfect shot. By day he is a focus puller, by night he shoots tacky porno films. In between he makes his own snuff movies. The daring opening sequence shows Mark picking up a prostitute, filming the transaction with his concealed camera, following her back to her dingy room, past a sneering old woman (encouraging us to feel shame). In her room she looks directly into the camera at us, announcing the going rate for her favours. As she starts to undress, the camera angles down and is obscured, before a bright light comes on. The camera (and our POV) advances menacingly close on the woman’s face, and she screams. Powell then cuts to a whirring film projector – Mark is now in his room, watching back the film of the murder. like us, he is the audience. The vivid, almost lurid colour of the film further highlights the tawdry setting and draws the eye to the deeds of the killer.

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Lewis is a monster, but he is also a victim, whose psychiatrist father looked upon him as his own lab rat, in his experiments on the causes and effects of fear. We see home footage of a young Mark being awakened in the night, his father placing lizards in his bed. He is never allowed a moments privacy, constantly tormented. And what is his father’s later birthday present to him? A movie camera. What makes these scenes more disturbing is not only does Powell play the father, his own nine year old son Columba plays the young Mark, further drawing film-maker and audience into a shared, guilty fascination. Powell didn’t endear himself with critics and audiences any further by casting Moira Shearer, heroine of The Red Shoes, as a bit part actress murdered by Mark and bundled into a trunk. If there was a deeply black vein of humour in the film (Mark later entertains while the body is still hidden) it passed audiences by. Alfred Hitchcock saw Peeping Tom before his own Psycho was released in the same year. He adroitly filmed a droll trailer with him guiding the audience on a tour around Bates Motel – “The blood – don’t go in there, it’s just terrible.”

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Mark is pursued by his lodger Helen (Anna Massey); this fledgling relationship between a forward woman and shy, snuff killer is echoed later in Michael Mann’s Manhunter; as  Helen interrupts Marks viewing to get closer, so Reba (who is blind) snuggles up to Francis Dollarhyde / The Toothfairy as he watches home movies of his intended victims.

As stated earlier, critical drubbing upon release was harsh. Derek Hill of The Tribune famously said “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer.” The film was pulled from many cinemas and quietly buried by the distributor. Although it has been widely claimed the film ruined Powell’s career, he went on to make several more films, though none very successful. He gave Helen Mirren her screen debut in 1969’s Age Of Consent. Powell has always denied he was ashamed of Peeping Tom, although he  only give four sparse mentions of it in his autobiography – perhaps it was too painful to talk about it.

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Powell’s (and The Archers) critical reappraisal came about largely thanks to super fan Martin Scorsese, who led for efforts to have it re-released and digitally restored. He said “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and [Fellin’s] 8 1/2 say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the proces of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it, and the confusion between the two. Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates.”

Dilys Powell recanted her original view and embraced the film. She said “If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise.”


Originally posted 2013-05-05 13:49:38. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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