WATCH OUT!: Peeping Tom (1960)

peepingtom

Poor Michael Powell. One of the most influential British directors of all time—cited as a big inspiration by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola—releases his most daring film, and the controversy was so intense that it virtually ended his career at the time. Meanwhile, Alfred Hitchcock released a movie with a similar subject matter only three months later and became such a hit that it's now considered one of the greatest horror movies of all time. That movie was Psycho, and you know what? It has nothing on Peeping Tom.

Austrian actor Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, a film studio crew and filmmaker hopeful whose cryptic emergence from his dark room almost suggests he manifests from it. He's not unlike Norman Bates in his tender demeanor, chilling isolation and unhealthy secret obsessions. In terms of their physical crimes, they are comparably identical—they both murder while wrestling with a dead parent's values. What pushed Peeping Tom over the edge of tolerable for 1960 audiences, I think, is the insinuation it makes of the audience's participation in the crimes.

Peeping Tom is a sharp and complex dissection of the slasher movie mechanics even before slashers gain footing as a genre: it draws attention to the uncomfortable connection between a movie audience and a voyeur, a peeping tom, in the way we observe people's lives (fictional or otherwise) to learn more about them and be gratified by what happens to them. This point is particularly strong in the pre-credits opening of the movie, shot from the POV of Mark's camera as he kills a hooker, and then the first scene breaking away from it is Mark sitting in a dark room watching the footage—watching the exact same thing we just did.

It is this fetishization of murder that rankles us, more so than explicit violence. It equates his dark vice with our titillation, suggesting that blood splashes just as red on this side, but Powell is not so much using Mark's fetish to cast judgment on us as he is using ours to give Mark the serial killer a relatable entry point.

Don't forget, though, that Mark is not just a voyeur, because he directly participates in what happens to his subjects; he's the one who makes sure the victims fulfill their roles as the stimuli of his desires. In this regard, he is a film director, forcing his will on people to capture the perfect image. Martin Scorsese said it best in the book Scorsese on Scorsese:

"I have always felt that Peeping Tom and say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates."

In the film, Mark's troubling outset is shown to have been the product of a similarly disturbed father, who would use Mark's childhood to experiment with the extents of fear, capturing it all on camera. It's important to note that Michael Powell himself plays Mark's father in a cameo, suggesting that as the director of Peeping Tom, he and Mark's father are one in the same for having "created" both Mark and his mania.

Norman Bates just stabs people with a knife. Mark Lewis films the whole thing and leaves corpses with looks of unbridled terror. It's the film's most fascinating mystery. What did Lewis show the victims moments before their deaths that could be so terrifying, and what does it have to do with voyeurism? The answer doesn't disappoint.

Peeping Tom was released by the Criterion Collection in 1999 and the DVD is still available today, although it is going to be Out of Print very soon. The reason for this is that Criterion's losing their license of a number of films, Peeping Tom included. Lionsgate, the new US distributor, has put up the film on YouTube, so you can watch it in its entirety there (with ads).

Watch Out! is a feature on JustPressPlay where Arya Ponto showcases lesser-known, lesser-appreciated and often bizarre small films that are cool and deserve to get some attention. Venture here to see all previous entries.

Feb
17
2010
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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