Director: Michael Powell
Producer: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Stars: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley
It’s safe to say that we all have something in common with Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm): we photograph. We take SnapChats of our craft beers, Instagram our pregnant bellies and college acceptance letters, and update Facebook with family photos on holidays. Mark, for his part, like so many professional photographers, photographs the beautiful. Then, he kills them. Viewers are never once privy to the pictures that Mark takes—no doubt the filmmakers’ way of shielding viewers from what would be a bloody sight indeed—but we can assume that they are somewhat more hideous than your average selfie.
PEEPING TOM (1960) opens with a kill, Mark’s first of the film. A beautiful blonde prostitute perishes and, soon afterward, Mark heads home to his apartment. There, festivities rage as the good-natured redhead downstairs, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), turns twenty-one. In spite of Mark’s apparent eccentricity—not only does he keep stolidly to himself, fail to tell anyone that he is the son of the landlord, and carry a hulking mid-century camera with him everywhere, but he peeks into the Stephens’ living room through the picture window on a regular basis—Helen seems infatuated with him, first eagerly inviting him to her party and then, following his polite refusal, delivering a piece of birthday cake to him. When she begs Mark to show her the films he screens in his apartment, she has no idea that she is in for a disturbing viewing experience.
As are we—at least, to an extent. In its day, PEEPING TOM appalled audiences and effectively ended director Michael Powell’s career. Roger Ebert thought it was widely reviled “because it didn’t allow the audience to lurk anonymously in the dark, but implicated us in the voyeurism of the title character.” Laura Mulvey attributed its poor reception to its implication of the film industry in wreaking damage with the male gaze. All considered it a frank—too frank by far—portrait of depravity and sexual obsession.
I’ll admit it: the shock factor was underwhelming for me. Granted, nearly sixty years have elapsed since its release (nearly forty since Martin Scorsese brought a print to the New York Film Festival, spurring a popular re-release) and, since then, terms like “exploitation cinema” and “torture porn” have been added to the vocabulary of the genre filmmaker. Horror films of the seventies and eighties featuring graphic rape scenes and bloody mutilation and excruciating torture scenes have left the horror of understated flicks like PEEPING TOM in the dust. However, luckily for viewers, time has in no way dampened the genius of PEEPING TOM, a fascinating allegory for horror filmmaking and a visually stunning film, dense with symbolism.
There is little to be said about the representation of filmmaking that is PEEPING TOM that has not already been said. (“Did You Get the Point?” one IMDb user review is sardonically titled.) Mark, perhaps to the dismay of British filmmakers of the 1960s, is nothing if not a filmmaker. His day job (you know, besides his night job of producing independent snuff films) is a gig as cinematographer for a film eerily titled “The Walls Are Closing In.” There, he records the manufactured fright of a lead actress who struggles to produce a convincing scream, a vivid contrast to the women he terrifies by night. Furthermore, like every filmmaker, he is at heart a voyeur, not just a literal “peeping Tom” peering in at Helen Stephens and her mother (Maxine Audley, a blind woman, to really hammer the point home), but a maniac who derives pleasure from watching women, shielded by the apparatus of his camera and inflicting symbolically with the male gaze what later turns literal.
To dismiss PEEPING TOM for its simplicity, however, would be to miss out on a rich, stunning movie. Created in the tradition of Albert Hitchcock’s VERTIGO (1958) and PSYCHO (1960)—and several others that similarly focus on voyeurism—PEEPING TOM is designed to stimulate and intrigue, not just unabashedly exhibiting the controversial, but offering a question in every disparate scene. Why so much red? What do those signs say? Where, in fact, can we locate Mark—the seedy, hidden corners, or the mainstream? Every viewer will have a theory, and many, many have been explored. To discover your own, take a long look . . . through the eye of the film’s creators, Marks lens, and your own television screen.