Tuesday, July 5, 2011

'Peeping Tom' (Michael Powell, 1960) and Cinematic Voyeurism

Michael Powell's extraordinary 1960 film, Peeping Tom, received such devastating reviews on its initial release that it took the better part of thirty years for the film to be recognised as one of British cinema's most interesting films and, more generally, as one of the greatest films about cinema itself. Martin Scorsese has named it as one of his favourite films, and Powell as one of his most inspirational directors. The critical reception of Peeping Tom contributed to the collapse of director Michael Powell's career at the time, a career that included acclaimed classics such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). The initial reactions were directed predominantly at the controversial subject matter which shined an uncomfortable light on the reality of the film experience in relation to the audience's typical role as the voyeur.

The central character of Peeping Tom is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a shy, reclusive young cameraman who works as a member of a film crew and aspires to be a filmmaker himself. He works part time photographing erotic pictures of women and lives in his fathers house, leasing part of it, but posing as a tenant. The secret life of this mentally disturbed young voyeur and fetishist is quite horrific. He films the faces of his female victims with the sole intention of capturing their fear at the moment before they are killed. He later relives their murders in the darkness and loneliness of his apartment room, which he has transformed into a personal cinema. When their bodies are eventually discovered, he likes to be there to film that too.

Following a misguided childhood relationship with his father, who relentlessly studied his reactions to various stimuli for psychological experiments about fear and the nervous system, Mark becomes obsessed with turning his camera onto others. He repeatedly films not only his victims, but also the people that he interacts with daily on the set. This story of voyeuristic perversion is set within the film industry and the cinema itself, foregrounding its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female). From Laura Mulvey, "looking, itself, is a source of pleasure, just as there is pleasure in being looked at." In Peeping Tom, it is revealed that the look has a much darker side. The cinema spectator's own voyeurism is boldly made obvious, and the spectator is even forced to identify with the perverted protagonist. We are involuntarily forced to confront the relationship between watching and participating. In 1960, this was a confronting realisation.

This fact is especially evident in the now-famous opening sequence, which is captured exclusively through Mark's covertly hidden camera. We identify with a killer, watching a murder through his eyes. The crosshairs, which mark the prostitute for death as soon as she enters the frame, also indicates that there is a lens separating us from the action and acts as a reminder that we are indeed watching a film. Peeping Tom critiques the 'pleasure of viewing' in the scene where Mark shows Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), the sweet-natured girl from the floor below who befriends him, his father's footage taken of him as a child. Helen occupies the position of the audience, and though her initial viewing pleasure turns to displeasure, her attention is unbroken and her curiosity ("I like to understand what I am seeing") remains. Essentially, Mark films real-life horror/snuff films and watches it with the same fascination as an audience would watch a horror film in the cinema. We sit in the dark and watch other people's lives projected onto the screen. As much as the film is about voyeuristic sadism, it is also about filmmaking. We come to learn so much about Mark by his strange fetishes with the camera, and what he chooses to capture. We can draw similar knowledge about an auteur from examining their films.

Perhaps we feel a relief that these events are not happening to us. Do we feel safer about our existence and the unlikelihood of these events occurring to us if we witness a fictional atrocity, such as Mark's murder of the film extra, and dismiss it as merely that...fiction? Why do many of us feel compelled to allow ourselves to be receptive to the violence presented in extremely unsettling films like Irreversible or Antichrist? For what reason do we find a voyeuristic pleasure in watching people experience pain, or be the victims of violence and objectification?


  1. I keep hearing about this film and I heard it's been seen all over again as part of Martin Scorsese's work to restore the Powell/Pressburger films. Does this mean that a newly-restored Criterion DVD is coming? I want to see it.

  2. Yeah, Scorsese has played a big part in resurfacing Powell's work. It's a very good film. I thought there was a Criterion DVD already, but I could be wrong!

  3. Criterion did have the film, but I think it is out of print now.

    You bring up some pretty good points about Peeping Tom though. There are kind of horror elements to it, but what I found most surprising about the film was it played out as a morbid love story of sorts (this is how I would describe it anyway), between Mark and Helen.

    (Spoiler for anyone reading other than Andy). Even knowing that Mark did what he did to all those women, Helen still said she loved him no matter what, and the ending was like Romeo and Juliet style, or a 'before West Side Story happened' moment.

  4. Two directors stand out for me as great filmmakers who really were never appreciated especially in the horror genre.

    I thought you might enjoy reading what I had to say...


  5. I believe a review of a film based on voyeurism will be up tomorrow.

    Good article Andy.

  6. @ Cherokee - The key part of the film that I contest is the plausibility of the relationship between Mark and Helen. He was clearly peculiar, but she was committed to loving him. I didn't really buy her strong desire for him, even following his confession. But, yeah it was a tragic/morbid love story, which added another interesting layer to the film. Thanks for the comment!

    @ Juanne-Pierre - Thanks for the link man, I'll give it a look! Powell, from my experience with his films (only The Red Shoes) is a master. It's sad his career was ended by this bold endeavour.

    @ Sam - Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Vertigo and Rear Window, dude. Thanks!