It’s not every day that the word scoptophilia, or the pleasure derived from the act of looking, pops up in a commercial release, but then Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is no ordinary film.More relevant now than it was in 1960, when it was eclipsed by Alfred Hitchcock’s far more popular Psycho, Peeping Tom is the chilling story of the multitasking Mark, a focus puller working at a movie studio, a part-time photographer for girlie magazines, and a serial killer. Mark films his victims in their dying moments, especially focusing on the moment when fear causes the women’s eyes to dilate and blank out, and watches his loot in the privacy of his apartment. The movie opens on a close-up of a feverish eye, soon followed by a woman being looked at through a camera lens. She is a prostitute operating in one of London’s seedy neighbourhoods, and she doesn’t blink when she sees her customer with a camera. Yet another stuffed shirt with a kink in his armour, says her expression. But as she undresses, Mark flashes a bright light on her, and the horror begins.
Mark is no Jack the Ripper or twisted fetishist. He is in search of the perfect death on camera – something is always not right in his home-made films – and he is not being ironic when he says, “I hope to be a director very soon.” He has all the makings of one.
Mark’s murder run is interrupted by a kindly tenant who lives in the building that he owns. It is to the transparent and guileless Helen (Anna Massey) that Mark reveals the source of his behaviour – his merciless scientist father (played by Powell), who constantly filmed the terrorised expressions of the young Mark (Powell’s son Columba) in an attempt to understand fear. The movie’s writer, Leo Marks, was perhaps anticipating the rise of the personal documentary, in which cameras lay bare deeply private and often uncomfortable aspects of human behaviour.
In a film that is all about the act of seeing, it is fitting that one of the most memorable characters is blind. Helen’s mother (Maxine Audley) does not trust Mark – “He walks stealthily” – she simply says, and is the only one who understands his sickness. The sequence in which Helen’s mother discovers the extent of Mark’s depravity is bathed in the sensitivity that Powell brings to potentially tawdry material. She caresses the screen on which one of Mark’s victims is pictured, and then tenderly feels Mark’s face to read him better. Otto Heller’s Expressionist camerawork, with its vivid colours, dramatic close-ups and daring framing, is best realised in this shocking and yet deeply tragic sequence.
Like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), about a doctor who becomes the target of a poison pen, and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971), a study of violence and social conditioning, Peeping Tom was savaged in its time. A movie about a camera that serves as a medium of expression of a sick mind and is a recorder as well as a weapon (the tripod conceals a blade) shocked critics and resulted in a backlash that severely damaged Powell’s reputation. One half of the Powell-Pressburger team that produced such classics in the 1940s and ’50s as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, Powell had exposed one of cinema’s worst-kept secrets – its ability to encourage voyeurism. Few movies have acknowledged the exploitative aspects of the camera and of cinema itself as well as Peeping Tom, and few have attempted to understand the sickening thrill of watching somebody die on the screen. Peeping Tom anticipated the slasher movie genre, the blood-letting of Quentin Tarantino, and the destruction porn of every third tentpole production. The device featured in Kathryn Bigelow’s fascinating Strange Days (1995), which plays back images pulled out of a person’s cerebral cortex and recreates the sensations and emotions present in these images, might have had Mark’s approval.
Played with the right mix of creepiness and torment by German actor Carl Boehm, Mark is forever peering through windows and hovering on the edges of social propriety. Shy and petrified of female contact, Mark is humanised by Helen’s presence. In her own wide-eyed way, Helen forces Mark to confront his unacceptable urges, thereby unwittingly setting off the denouement. In a movie filled with a commentary on what is seen and being seen, the climax is a fitting coup de grace – and it does not go unrecorded.