Bright Lights Film Journal

Michael Powell’s <em>Peeping Tom:</em> An Introduction

Take your seats for a “dark-hearted, midnight fantasia of ecstatic sadism, voyeurism and psychosis”!

The progenitor of similarly controversial reflexive works of cinema such as Haneke's Funny Games (1997) and Belvaux's Man Bites Dog (1992), Michael Powell's horror film Peeping Tom (1960) was met with critical outrage and box office failure upon its initial release. However, the film has subsequently been embraced by modern audiences as a dark-hearted, midnight fantasia of ecstatic sadism, voyeurism, and psychosis.

Eschewing the documentary-style realism of British cinema popular in the early 1960s in favour of garish Technicolor, Peeping Tom centres on filmmaker Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a quiet, unassuming young man who, when not crewing as a focus puller at a nearby movie studio, obsessively works to complete his own nightmarish project: a documentary film composed of the reactions of women as he murders them. Powell's film (written by former WWII cryptographer Leo Marks) is a complicated web of filmic reflexivity whose central idea of exploring fear and death through the creation and viewing of images is reflected in Mark's elaborate choice of weapon — the spiked leg of a tripod attached to his 16mm camera, upon which he has also mounted a mirror so that his victims are forced to watch their own contorted faces as they expire. This reflexivity is highlighted in the very first sequence as Powell quickly seeks to implicate the audience in Mark's crimes by innovatively using a subjective camera to establish identification with a voyeuristic killer. As Mark meets a prostitute and is led into her apartment, we are encouraged to share in his anticipation and his excitement.

Another undoubted reason for the shocked response to the film was its daring to present a perverse murderer as a character worthy of an audience's empathy. Mark's life is shown to be, quite literally, a study in sadism, and his murderous endeavours a consequence and extension of the fear experiments that his psychologist father had performed on him as a child — in doing so creating a kind of Frankenstein's monster for the era of psychoanalysis. Again, the film plays reflexive games with the viewer by having Powell himself cameo as Mark's father and his own son, Columba Powell, as Young Mark. The director's boldly transgressive intent is plain to see in scenes such as when Mark, bored with his part-time job as a "glamour" photographer, discovers that one of his models has a large scar across her face, causing him to become feverishly aroused. The scene is at once fearlessly unsettling and humorously playful. Unlike the comparable character of Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), who starts out sympathetic and is slowly de-familiarized to the audience, Mark Lewis becomes ever more humanised, sympathetic even, as Peeping Tom unfolds. Powell's unwillingness to morally condemn Mark could explain why Peeping Tom struggled to find significant distribution while Psycho, which was released only a few months after Powell's film and is a much more explicit film in terms of its violence and its bloody aftermath, was a massive box office success.

The film's detrimental effect on the career of its director has been well documented. Falls from grace are seldom gradual, and while only a few years earlier Powell was one half of Britain's most revered filmmaking partnership alongside Emeric Pressburger (together they created a run of classics including A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)), Peeping Tom was only Powell's second film after the partnership ended, and its disastrous reception meant that work became scarce — his remaining directorial career amounting to three unremarkable features and some work for television. It is tempting to speculate whether the critical opprobrium directed at Peeping Tom led to a loss of confidence at a vulnerable time for Powell. After all, why run the risk of exposing something personal in a sincere effort to locate and push the boundaries of cinema, only to be almost universally scorned for it? With Peeping Tom, Powell attempted to openly discuss unacknowledged and disturbing aspects of cinema, but neither critics nor audiences were willing to accept shared responsibility. It is this raw, confessional aspect that makes Peeping Tom all the more disturbing and why, even though today the film can seem creaky and dated in certain respects, it has attained status as a classic of British horror cinema.

Peeping Tom is a seamless melding of art and exploitation; the sexually perverted sibling of Fellini's (1963). I will conclude with the famously vituperative words of critic Derek Hill from his original 1960 review of the film, "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." There can surely be no better recommendation to see Powell's savagely beautiful film.