Peeping Tom (film)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom, would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." --Derek Hill, "Cheap Thrills," Tribune (London: April 29, 1960), 11.
Peeping Tom is a 1960 psychological thriller film by the British film director Michael Powell. The title derives from 'peeping Tom', a slang expression for a voyeur. The film is an horrific tale of voyeurism, serial murder and child abuse. The story revolves around a young man who murders women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions of terror. The film was written by the World War II cryptographer and polymath Leo Marks.
The protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), meets a prostitute, covertly filming her with a camera hidden under his coat. Shown from the point-of-view of the camera viewfinder, tension builds as he follows the girl into her house, murders her and later watches the film in his den as the credits roll on the screen.
Lewis is a member of a film crew who aspires to become a film-maker himself. He works part-time photographing lurid pictures of women. He is a shy, reclusive young man who hardly ever socializes outside of his workplace. He lives in his father's house, leasing part of it and acting as the landlord, while pretending to be just another tenant. Mark is fascinated by the boisterous family living downstairs and especially by Helen (Anna Massey), a vivacious sweet-natured girl who pities him. A friendship deepens into a serious relationship between them.
Mark reveals to Helen through home movies taken by his father (played by director Powell in a cameo) that, as a child, he was used as a guinea pig for his father's psychological experiments. Mark's father would study his son's reaction to various stimuli, such as lizards he put on his bed and would film the boy in all sorts of situations, even going as far as recording his son's reactions as he sat with his mother on her deathbed. The father, whose studies made him a respected psychologist, was interested in studying fear and the nervous system. He kept his son under constant watch and even wired all his rooms so that he could spy on him.
Mark arranges with Vivian (a stand-in at the studio) to make a film after the set is closed. He kills her and stuffs her into a prop trunk. The body is discovered later by the horrified film crew. The police link the two murders and notice that each victim died with a look of utter terror on her face. They interview everyone on the set and become suspicious of Mark, who has his camera always running, always recording and who claims that he's making a documentary.
A psychiatrist, called to the set to console the upset star of the movie, chats with Mark and tells him that he is familiar with his father's work. The psychiatrist relates the details of the conversation to the police, noting that Mark had 'his father's eyes.'
Mark is then tailed by the police who follow him to the building where he takes photographs. He kills his subject and heads home.
Helen, who is curious about Mark's films, finally runs one of them. She becomes visibly upset and frightened when he catches her. Mark reveals that he makes the movies so that he can capture the fear of his victims. He has mounted a round mirror atop his camera, so that he can capture the reactions of his victims as they see their impending deaths.
The police arrive and Mark realizes that he's finished. As he had planned from the very beginning, he impales himself with a knife attached to one of the camera's tripod legs, killing himself the same way he dispatched his victims, and with the camera running, becomes the final part of his own documentary.
Peeping Tom has been praised for its psychological complexity.
On the surface, the film is about the Freudian relationship between the protagonist and his father and the protagonist and his victims. However, several critics argue that the film is as much about the voyeurism of the audience as they watch the protagonist's actions. For example, Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, states that "The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people's lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it."
If this reading is accepted, Lewis is an allegory of the director of a horror film. In horror movies, the directors kill victims, often innocents, to provoke responses from the audiences and to manipulate their responses. Lewis records the deaths of his victims with his camera and by using the mirror and showing each of his victims their last moments, provokes their own fear even as he kills them. Martin Scorsese, who has long been an admirer of Powell's works, has stated that this film, along with Federico Fellini's 8½, contains all that can be said about directing.
Peeping Tom was an immensely controversial film on initial release and the critical backlash heaped on the film all but finished Powell's career. However, the film earned a cult following and over the last thirty years has received a critical reappraisal that not only salvaged Powell's reputation but also earned the film a re-evaluation. He noted ruefully in his autobiography, 'I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.'
Today, the film is considered a masterpiece and one of the best British horror films: in 2004, the magazine Total Film named Peeping Tom the 24th greatest British movie of all time, and in 2005, the same magazine listed it as the 18th greatest horror film of all time. It was included in a BFI poll for the best British films of all time. The film was listed at #38 on Bravo Channel's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
Roger Ebert has included it in his 'Great Movies' column.
Relationship with Hitchcock's films
The themes of voyeurism in Peeping Tom are also explored in several films by Alfred Hitchcock. In his book on Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo, Charles Barr points out that Vertigo's title sequence and several shots seem to have inspired moments in Powell's film.
Chris Rodley's documentary A Very British Psycho (1997) draws comparisons between Peeping Tom and Hitchcock's Psycho; the latter film was released in June 1960, only three months after Peeping Tom's premiere. Both films feature atypically mild-mannered serial killer protagonists who are emotionally obsessed with their parents. However, despite containing similarly disturbing material to Peeping Tom, Psycho became a box-office success and only increased the popularity and fame of its director. One reason suggested in the documentary is that Hitchcock, seeing the negative press reaction to Peeping Tom, decided to release Psycho without a press screening.
It should be noted that Powell in his early career worked as a stills photographer and in other positions on Hitchcock's films and the two were friends throughout their careers.
Comparisons have been made between Peeping Tom and other significant films in this genre such as: Psycho and 8MM.