Director: Michael Powell
Screenwriter: Leo Marks
By Roderick Heath
The tale of Peeping Tom’s rejection upon release, and the way it doomed Michael Powell’s directorial career, is today inseparable from its mystique. After twenty years spent as one of Britain’s most respected and high-profile filmmakers, Powell ended his “The Archers” production partnership with Emeric Pressburger following Ill Met By Moonlight (1958) and carried on alone, even the signature Archers logo sequence featuring an arrow hitting a bullseye now amended for a solo act. Tired of trying to subsist in the increasingly mundane mood of late ‘50s British film, Powell seems to have seen a way out as horror films and thrillers regained popularity: fierce thrills awaited. Powell had never really worked in Horror before, although his early quickie The Phantom Light (1936) had offered a playful lampoon of genre canards. Having worked early in his career as still photographer under Alfred Hitchcock, Powell went to the same well the Master of Suspense was about to have his biggest hit in drawing from, with Psycho. It’s generally forgotten now that as Psycho opened in cinemas many critics and cinema figures wondered if Hitchcock had gone too far. Hitchcock might have taken some warning from Peeping Tom’s fate, as he bypassed critics at first, letting the audience set the pace. The film’s colossal success essentially forced an entire culture to roll with it. No such restraint was offered Powell.
Whereas Hitchcock was strictly associated with his niche genre and knew how to playfully mediate his persona so that even his darkest provocations could be made to seem mischievous rather than malign, and the gore and provocation of the Hammer Films product was veiled relatively in a relatively benign and stylised historical setting, Powell situated his in the immediate, full-colour present. Not that he was alone in that, either: the likes of Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) offered studies in tabloid cruelty not that dissimilar. But no one expected better of such movies. Powell however seen as a fallen angel of prestige film turning to a debased genre by the British press, which would maintain its punitive view of horror films through to the “Video Nasties” debate of the 1980s. Powell’s oeuvre was ransacked for evidence he’d always been a pervert. Plenty of evidence was available, from the hothouse eroticism and maniacal assaults of Black Narcissus (1946), the consuming down-home passions of Gone To Earth (1950), the erotically useful statue coming to murderous life in The Thief of Baghdad (1940), the glue-wielding small-town enforcer of A Canterbury Tale (1944), and the sadomasochistic view of artistry in The Red Shoes (1948).
Such analysis was perfectly correct. Powell and Pressburger had made their names offering their unique cinema in an age of grim and intractable facts, ironically countering with narratives celebrating an almost obstinate perversity in individualism and applying a psychologically aware, layered texture taking inspiration from fairy tales and theatrical fantasias to otherwise grounded stories. Powell and Pressburger’s partnership, and the films they made in the 1940s, exemplified a strange variety of idealism fired by the war and its immediate aftermath, a desire to express the human urge at all extremes, even the irrational and disturbing. Powell noted later that The Red Shoes’ success seemed rooted in the way it gave permission for people, after years of being told to go out and die for democracy, to now go out and die for art, whilst The Archers’ written manifesto had the quality of a crusade in just that fashion. But the swooning cinematic fervour of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘40s heyday had been slowly corroded by forces without, as audience tastes changed, and also within. The very lightly satirical frothiness of Oh Rosalinda! (1955) felt forced, and the darkness crowding at the edges of The Red Shoes, Gone To Earth and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) betrayed a desire to dig deeper into the nightmarish and neurotic, held in check by a love of colourful style that threatened to become mere artifice. Powell and Pressburger’s last two works in official partnership, The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight, had seen their eccentric art turned upon the reminiscences of the war, fine works that were nonetheless products of creative wills entrapped by the rest of the culture’s inability to look forward.
Peeping Tom saw the black beast suddenly bust out of its chrysalis, but it paid the price. Later Powell would note with acidic acuity that a film no-one wanted to see in 1960 became, thirty years later, the film everyone liked. The funny thing about Peeping Tom is that it’s a thriller without thrills. Psycho kept the mystery of Norman Bates in the shadow until the end, psychology offered at the end by way of explanation as also as source of sour, sceptical humour, betraying Hitchcock’s ultimate unwillingness to betray the mystery and insidious will of the killer to mere jargon, whilst also allowing him to sustain the basic precepts of a mystery, uncertain as to where threat will resolve and in what form. Peeping Tom is even more dubious about the science of psychology, but is also more straightforward on that level. It tells us in precise and insistent terms why its antiheroic killer Mark Lewis (Karlheinz ‘Carl’ Boehm) is what he is, and presents his situation more as a pathetic character study, anticipating later works like Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1987) in offering the killer not just as roving embodiment of the audience’s hunger for violent thrills but as active antihero, a perspective you’d rather not share but are forced to identify with. We’re left alone with a madman, and obliged to cringe when justice comes close and grit teeth as someone violates his private world. Powell doesn’t really try to create any traditional sense of suspense, but rather a queasy certainty, a grim patience.
Peeping Tom inspires an almost desperate empathy for Mark, who’s working through a psychosis he has no control over and all but begs for someone to intervene, only to be foiled by good English traits like politeness and neighbourly respect for privacy, plus a more general incapacity to read the screeching eyes of the quiet, polite, good-looking young man. But Peeping Tom manages to grope its way to the far side of the bright light to find the shadows again, in the way it offers an active assault on the very drive to make and watch cinema. Peeping Tom offered a ripe fetish object for cineastes for the way it puts the act of seeing and filming front and centre as a pathological act. Peeping Tom’s time was in the future, when the desire to both experience and capture experience, to see and be seen all at once, became all-consuming and technologically enabled. The opening sequence inevitably offers a point-of-view shot through Mark’s movie camera, hidden under his trenchcoat, as he approaches a blasé prostitute, Dora (Brenda Bruce), follows her up to her room, and then assaults her. Her screaming, makeup-emblazoned face becomes a hallucinatory vision of femininity and fear.
At the climax, the hidden facet of Mark’s modus operandi is revealed, a polished lighting parabola that reflects back the image of the victim’s own screaming face at them, turning the act of murder into an inescapable, infinite, yet depthless succession of seeing and being seen. But the reflection is distorted, a Picasso mask, a grotesque revision grafted onto the face of the killer. Mark seeks to document the perfect and absolute moment of terror that’s also transcendence, where object is image, the dying person with no future or past, only the terrible eternity of death/recording. The very first shot of the film, however, is a carefully aestheticized glimpse of a seedy London backstreet, the light of the streetlamps pooling red on the cobbles. As a shot it clearly refers back to a passage in the central ballet sequence of The Red Shoes, where the bewitched heroine finished up exiled in similarly nightmarish spaces, grazing against women of the night twisting like gargoyles. The darkest corner of that film’s conjured psychic landscape here has become the entire world, and the film stumbles into a hall of mirrors it can’t escape until the very end when Mark treads a gauntlet of cameras mimicking those mirrors, entrapping his image from every vantage.
The credits sequence, unfurling after the preamble of Dora’s murder, essentially repeat the sequence, except now in black and white, without sound, projected upon a screen in Mark’s flat: the act of watching Powell’s movie is directly connected with the act of Mark watching his own. Powell’s regular composer, the great Brian Easdale, offers a single, relentlessly neurotic piano thrumming away in mimicry of a silent movie accompanist as Mark watches his personal cinema of cruelty with its little flourishes of artisanal signature, as when Mark shoots the discarded box of his film reel as he dumps it in a bin. Peeping Tom’s script was written by Leo Marks, a former cryptographer and son of a bookstore proprietor who packed the film with characters he recalled from his youth observing the types coming in and out of the store. The film is then deeply rooted in a sense of suburban London as a place of property and exchange. Mark has turned his father’s large and potentially lucrative building into a boarding house but his obsessions lead him to scarcely pay attention to it, not even the money he makes from it, in a manner opposed to the film studio boss (Michael Goodliffe) and the corner newsagent (Bartlett Mullins), both of whom employ Mark and are out to make money in part through retailing desirable imagery.
Powell’s perspective amplifies all this in making Peeping Tom as an infinitely sarcastic panorama of British society from the specific viewpoint of a filmmaker. The commoditised sex of the streetwalker represents the lowest, and yet least falsified stratum. Next is Mark’s job shooting nudie pictures of a pair of models, Milly (Pamela Green) and Lorraine (Susan Travers), bound to be sold under the counter to respectable pervs like the elderly customer (Miles Malleson) who comes to the newsagent on recommendation, and walks away with a folio of them bundled with the label “Educational Books.” Quite. The highest level is the movie studio where Mark works during the day as a focus puller, engaged on a shoot of a bright and chintzy romantic comedy set in a department story, replete with consumerist pleasures. The shoot pits the increasingly infuriated director Arthur Baden (Carl Esmond) against his unpliable and amateurish starlet Diane Ashley (Shirley Anne Field), who just won’t faint the way he wants. Like Norman Bates, Mark is blessed with counterintuitive purity in his indifference to money or other material interests not relating to his specific mania, seeming rather a romantic ideal of a shy, unworldly yet good-looking young man.
His tenant, the librarian and budding author Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who lives downstairs with her blind mother (Maxine Audley), is intrigued precisely by Mark’s fleeting, toey presence. Coming up to bring him a piece of her birthday cake, leaving behind her flat full of her birthday party guests, Helen talks Mark into showing her some of his films as a present. Mark obliges, in a gesture laced with urges towards both sadistically discomforting Helen and revealing his own pain to a confessor, shows her footage of a young boy filmed by his father: it becomes clear that the boy is Mark and the film was taken by his father, an experimental psychologist who used his son as a guinea pig for his experiments, particularly his obsession with recording fear. This is recorded all too vividly in shots of the elder Lewis waking his son in the night with torches shining in his eyes and a lizard tossed onto his bed, and even his grieving beside his mother’s body as she readied for burial. Helen is understandably disturbed by such a privilege, but it also deepens her fascination with Mark and his intense, seemingly self-sufficient private world and mode of mystic transport, to the point where she seems to transmute it for a children’s book she writes about a magic camera.
It’s tempting to read this facet of Mark relationship with Helen’s as a metaphor for Powell’s with Pressburger, Powell noting his release from Pressburger’s magic-realist lilt and elegiac sensibility, stuck pondering how to isolate his own, more carnivorous instincts. The way Peeping Tom foregrounds the theme of scopophilia and the receptivity to it of cineastes perhaps invites a touch of scepticism in itself, lest it totally displace other aspects. Suffice to say Peeping Tom is also a cold lampoon of forms of childrearing that insists on imposing rational adult concerns upon the frail, fantastical, protean nature of childhood, and a dissection of repression in sexual terms and also cultural. The film offers a rare feel for a London caught between the immediate pall of exhaustion in victory that defined the post-war period and the glitter of the Swinging London age. Powell’s acidic caricature of the kind of anodyne, brightly-coloured moviemaking popular in the late ‘50s ties in with the general portrait of a grubby and rundown era, filled with people cut off from all sources of authentic passion save what simulacra they can by under the counter or glean from a movie screen. Mark inverts the proposition by trying to make movies out of the stuff of reality, manufacturing his scenes directly where Baden tries to bellow them into being. Life provides him with all the apparatus of a good movie. Life, death, danger, mystery, beauty, savagery.
The ironies of image-mongering are highlighted early on as Mark photographs the two porn models, making Milly pose on a bogus set representing a fantasy of Parisian sleaze, and discovering to his mesmerised fascination that Lorraine has a scarred and twisted lip. “He said you needn’t photograph my face,” Lorraine snaps, only for Mark to take up his cinecamera and approach with almost loving coos as the attraction of broken beauty accords with his mania. Providing Helen with a blind mother, left out of the roundelay of image-making and smashing, was a borderline excessive idea in thematic underlining. But the film nonetheless employs her for enriching dramatic ends, as she becomes disturbed by her daughter’s interest in Mark and eventually gropes her way around Mark’s workspace, having entered it and lingered in the dark until he got a shock switching on a light to find her waiting. “The blind always live in the rooms they live under,” Mrs Stephens comments. Mrs Stephens is imbued with qualities close to the sagacious, not simply keener to sound and motion but able to sense, like her daughter, Mark’s glaring presence through her rooms’ ground floor window. When she feels his face to learn his features, Mark comments, “Taking my photograph?” She carries a cane that resembles Mark’s own weapon of choice, a metal spike on the end wielded as a device to ward off danger.
“Instinct’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it Mark? A pity it can’t be photographed,” she tells Mark, sensing the obsessive and fetid nature of his experimentation, some code of the malignant transmitted through his footfalls, and then delivers the film’s watchword: “All this filming isn’t healthy.” Despite having her at bay, frightened and unsure, Mark can’t kill Mrs Stephens in his usual method, because of its futility for his ends: she can’t offer the endless mirror of self-seen death. Peeping Tom has a requisite dose of Freudian symbolism, particularly the inevitably phallic device of the key: Helen receiving a large cardboard card in the shape of one for her 21st signals her coming of age but Mark has no keys: he tells her his father never allowed him to have any and it’s become so habitual he leaves all his own rooms unlocked, his manhood stunted and impotent, and his lack of urgency in amending the fact suggests on some level he invites invasion and discovery. Late in the film it’s revealed Mark’s father rigged the entire house for sound, the reels containing all the shrieks and moans of Mark’s fear from years of being systematically terrorised still all available at the flick of a switch, a perverted family album: Mark has the rare privilege and nightmare of having his childhood available in instantaneous recall, without expurgation or pleasant vagary. Plus he has the talk of his tenants, chattering away in all their mundane states: even their transgressions and clandestine kinks retain the tinny ring of the predictable, the measly; Mark has a mission, however mad.
Hitchcock had always kept his fascination for the act of looking as a form of voyeurism enclosed within the logic of his stories, allowing it to nudge the surface of Rear Window (1954), so Powell was going one better on the master by turning it into the essence of his psycho-thriller venture. Mark’s weapon, a leg of his clockwork camera’s tripod with a knife hidden within, brought to bear for murder, seems like a device an assassin might use in some vintage pulp novel. But Powell manages to make it an unnerving device, keeping the feature of real terror, the mirroring lamp, hidden until Mark confronts Helen with it, her face reflected back to her in a distorted travesty. Powell seems to obviously implicate himself in the study of cinema’s dark side by casting himself, in blurry cameo, as the late Dr A.N. Lewis, glimpsed in footage shot by his young second wife, stands with his son and gives him a fateful present – his first movie camera. Powell, whose messy private life saw him constantly falling in and out love of the women in front of his camera, knew well how enticing and diaphanous the object of obsession was: the protagonist of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) projects an elusive ideal onto successive performers. Mark’s desire to arrest the ideal image, to reduce it to the pure and unchanging state, gives sarcastic flesh to Powell’s self-accosting concept of the male movie director as perpetually frustrated fetishist.
Peeping Tom seems on the surface of things antipathetic to The Red Shoes’ epic and free-flowing sense of creative passion, but both essentially chase after the event horizon where art and act, deed and performance, become unified, and the project of alchemising weak flesh and the pathos of life into a perfect totem can only end with the complete annihilation of self. Mark combines young romantic and twisted puppeteer as embodied separately by Craster and Lermontov in The Red Shoes; like Vicki Page, Mark ultimately destroys himself in perfect dedication to his art, or perhaps rather in ultimate obedience to a project imposed upon him. Powell twists the knife of likeness by featuring the star of The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer, as Mark’s second victim Vivian. Vivian works as a stand-in on the film Mark’s also working on, with its trenchant title The Walls Are Closing In. Vivian and Mark sneak back onto the sound stage, as Mark has asked Vivian to participate in a filming project he’s making. Vivian is easily seduced into Mark’s plot, through the hope of gratified yearning for stardom and glimmerings of romantic promise. Vivian limbers up by dancing to a jazz number on her tape recorder whilst Mark arranges the studio to facilitate the perfect visual record of his bloodthirsty art. Powell’s prowling camera and the loud colours of the set turn this sequence into a musical, more Stanley Donen than Powell’s usual look, however. Vivian’s cheerful, vibrantly physical presence couldn’t seem more alien to Mark’s boding purpose, spinning around the stage and leaping onto a camera, inverting the gaze, so Mark films her in return, “photographing you, photographing me.”
The vignettes of Baden trying to make The Walls Are Closing In do more than show Mark at work and poke fun at bland cinema product, but offer a blackly comic echo of Mark’s real work, the snapping despotic male director and the blasé female star. Where Baden snaps in response to Ashley’s complaint that “I don’t feel it,” with “Just do it!” by way of sensitive direction, Mark’s more immersive method gets just the right performance out of his subject, but his technical execution proves off, provoking howls of anguish from Mark as he screens his footage of Vivian’s death. But he does get to make a covert record of the discovery of her body, hidden in a trunk to be used in an asinine gag sequence on the movie, Ashley screaming in shock as she discovers the body enclosed in the candy-coloured coffin, Mark’s (and Powell’s) incidental guerrilla assault on cutesy mainstream cinema, a turd on a wedding cake. Another nod to Hitchcock, the body hidden in plain sight in Rope (1948). “The silly bitch’s fainted in the wrong scene!” Baden bellows. Vivian’s murder brings the police to the studio, Chief Inspector Gregg (Jack Watson) and Det. Sgt. Miller (Nigel Davenport) taking the lead in a perplexed enquiry, neither dolts nor supermen but canny investigators faced with a pair of murders with no apparent connection, only a modus operandi as individual as a thumbprint. Mark hovers in the rafters, filming the investigators. The spillage of gleaming red pencils from his pocket seemingly dooms him, and yet he still eludes detection.
Along with Psycho, Peeping Tom announced the arrival of a new, truly modern variety of horror film, refusing veils of the folkloric and psychologically symbolic, if in a way that draws mythological parallels into a hard and technocratic likeness – Mark’s camera becomes a version of the gorgon, the look that annihilates, his invention as torturous as Procrustes’ beds, his entrapped state of yearning labour echoing Tantalus and Sisyphus. But Powell’s model was harder to assimilate: Psycho’s narrative, dank and incestuous as its evocation are, nonetheless echoes outwards into the world, encompassing the collapse of an old system of morality in the glare of modernity, whereas Peeping Tom twists inwards into infinite self-reference, the camera, a signature device of modernity, allowing only a descent into death-dream, a place where hallucinations of people live on forever.
Yet as Peeping Tom emerged from the dustbin of initial appraisal to become a cult object and then well-regarded classic, filmmakers latched onto it as a lodestone, a fittingly extreme portrait of their own obsession, a self-flagellating self-diagnosis. Brian De Palma would take the duel of watcher and watched as the basis for his entire career and deliver particular tribute with Raising Cain (1992). Martin Scorsese’s fascination with the film would permeate works like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) with their focus on monomaniacs in search of fellowship and glory. Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1987) would pay it heed in shifting attention onto its serial killer finding momentary rapport and potential rescue in a blind but otherwise entirely ordinary girl. David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) would offer a variation with a female protagonist with a similarly exploited childhood who becomes not a maker of images but a ruthless manipulator of them. And of course Peeping Tom’s vision found its revelation in the stage-managed triumphs and cruelties of reality television and the self-obsessed gazing of social media.
The film’s second-last line of dialogue is a recording, the elder Lewis’ haughty declaration, “Don’t be a silly boy, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” despite dedicating his life to giving his son things to be afraid of, seems nonetheless only like a particularly hyperbolic brand of very familiar tough-love patriarchy, delivering wounds with the purpose of strengthening against taking more. Casting the German actor Boehm was an odd touch, with his accent muted but still apparent in playing a character who’s supposed to be entirely English, but his smooth-faced, golden-haired visage and his speech imbue Mark with an aspect of alien allure, distinct in his environment, even as he tries to edit himself out of that setting, to become a mere mediating eye. His casting stirs associations with Powell’s familiar obsessions, a fairytale prince out of a Grimm tale raised by an evil alchemist, a broken Coppelia trying to reassemble itself, a child of the fascist age imploding like the lad at the end of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1946). When Mark encounters the psychiatric advisor Gregg brings to the film set to study the denizens, Dr. Rosan (Martin Miller), Rosan recalls not just Mark’s father and his work but also notes that “He has his father’s eyes,” incidentally confirming the way Mark is entrapped by both genetics and inherited obsession, the killing gaze. “Goodnight Daddy, hold my hand,” is the actual last line from the recording, echoing off into the dark, a whispered prayer for safety and understanding never answered.
The bleak comedy of the movie shoot, once it recommences, sees Ashley unable to make it through a recast version of the would-be funny scene she was filming when she beheld Vivian’s corpse, her lines dissolving in hysterical moans: before she couldn’t feel the scene where she had to faint, and now can feel nothing else. Waggish cops hanging about quote cartoons (“I tawt I thaw a puddy tat!”) whilst the murderer lurks in the shadows. The depth of sardonicism apparent in Peeping Tom feels close to shocking considering the warmly humanistic lilt of Powell’s work with Pressburger, and yet it’s just as keen to flashes of warmth, the proofs of community, the displays of human wit and feeling, inherent in Helen’s approaches to Mark, in Vivian’s dancing, in Gregg’s attentive and unstereotyped policing and his love of a beer whilst watching the football on TV, and Mrs Stephens’ keen and confrontational obedience to her ways of knowing that necessarily bypass appearances. Powell’s refusal to be entirely rational and realisitc, an aspect that always manifested in his work and informed its perpetual distinction from the fussier, more strictly earthbound, empirical tenor of British dramatic art, cuts through the texture of careful realism and precisely observed psychology, like the preternatural awareness Helen and her mother have for Mark’s presence at their window.
Significantly, Dr Lewis’s attempts to create an entirely rational and thus fearless son are a terrible failure: facing his own blade, Mark comments “I’m afraid, and I’m glad I’m afraid.” The rejection of reality is a necessary gift for the artist, but one that can easily be maladapted to incapacity to actually share it. Mark’s failed attempt to understand himself by speaking to Rosan instead helps Gregg finally grasp the truth, who has Mark tailed. Mark however is indifferent to capture or punishment, having already written the script for his end, and he blithely ascends to the makeshift apartment where Milly waits for him for another photo session: Milly, prostrate on a bed, breasts bared (a first in a mainstream British film, although clipped out of many prints), is the pornographic priestess invading a thousand masturbatory dreams but Mark can only cut apart like a clumsy editor. Meanwhile Helen, delivering her manuscript to Mark’s rooms with pride, can’t resist switching on his projector to see what he’s been filming.
The horror is abyssal, but not bottomless. Helen forces Mark to explain how he killed his victims to deliver her from eternal fear, which proves to be the one grace Mark can offer anyone. Mark’s march of death, recorded for posterity, finishes up with him skewered upon his own weapon, collapsing dead with Helen fainted on top of him. It’s a familiar motif of horror cinema, the tortured monster seeking release in death and the woman who loves him even in knowing his darkness, not that far from The Wolf Man (1941). But in staging, we’re far from any traditional ending of a horror film, at once inhabiting a place closer to grand opera as a spectacle of death and love, but also caged by a dank room and the cold regard of Mark’s camera array, rhapsodic exultation plucked from the click of shutters and the frigidity of the lens. Even as Gregg and his men arrive, the old recordings of Mark’s fear and longing still play, but at least he’s delivered from them. Powell, in making the film, might well have dynamited his familiar career, but he was also freed, in a fashion. Eventually he’d wash up on an Australian beach, dreaming of nymphets and suntanned barbarian-visionaries.