In the early 1940s an avant-garde collaborative duo emerged in British cinema whose later, more opulent films would set themselves apart from the cultural milieu with their fantastical, otherworldly qualities. “The Archers” consisted of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and while their films were usually met with reasonable success upon release, they would receive near unanimous acclaim upon critical re-evaluation. After the amicable dissolution of their partnership in 1957 Powell continued to direct, though the tone and general reception of his work pivoted. His career nearly came to a crashing halt following the release of a brutal and enlightened film about a sadistic maniac and the audience that chooses to watch him.
The movie begins with a single blue eye snapping open in extreme close, awakened not from slumber but from non-existence, as the viewer will learn nothing of his past that is not directly filmed. The eye initiates its gaze as we do, conflating the “look” of the audience and that of the protagonist. Just two shots later this notion is crystallized by a point of view shot of the camera being subtly wielded by this eye’s possessor as he wordlessly follows a prostitute to her quarters. She is dressed in stark blue and red, liberally adorned with makeup, drawing the eye of both spectator and subject.
Powell denied that “Peeping Tom” was merely a horror movie, making the bold and factual claim that it is “a film about the cinema from 1900 to 1960.” As such, its stylistic choices are begging to be critiqued on this ambitious scale. The aforementioned camera utilizes, in this and many more shots to come, a viewfinder, to frame its subject with ease. Its usage is thereby imbued with a thematically clever but wholly depraved (albeit accurate) connotation. This “viewfinder” mocks its audience: we line seats to voyeuristically peer into the lives of perverse murderers and scantily clad women. We seek these things out not in spite of such tropes but because of them and so we are righteously mirrored by the main character, serial killer Mark Lewis.
He searches for spectacle, arriving at the scene of his recent crime, but nearly anonymous amongst a crowd of onlookers who are similarly driven. He photographs nearly nude women for a proprietor of a magazine shop, the economy for which needn’t even advertise its product. And it is precisely this comparison, between the obviously morally reprehensible and the arguably merely curious, that drew such derision. Much like its spiritual predecessor six years prior, “Rear Window,” the protagonist and the audience are inextricably linked, but here the viewer is not paired with such an affable star as Jimmy Stewart, whose most celebrated films largely place him in an overtly non-threatening context. Instead, the audience is forced to identify with a deranged scopophiliac. This particular neurosis places the cinemagoer in a rather delicate position, depending on what level of credence one places in the application of psychoanalytic theory to film. One can choose to ignore the notion that he as an audience member is engaging in a largely narcissistic and voyeuristic action, “peeping” into a diegetic world and deriving visual pleasure from distantly gazing upon characters that are entirely detached from his self. However, in doing so he could run the risk of dismissing Powell’s work as trifling, crass, and filthy. And yet if the actions of the viewer and those of the psychotic killer are conflated, offense may likely be taken at such bold an inference. But it is precisely this comparison that elevates “Peeping Tom.” It is not just a movie about the history of movies, but an artistic expression on cinematic philosophy.
But even detached from these analytics, the film remains prescient for another sociological observation. The character of Mark Lewis was tormented as a child through the ubiquity of his father’s observation and psychological torment. He was filmed constantly throughout his childhood while his academic father studied his reactions to fear and anxiety, often by dropping a sizable lizard into his bed while he slept. The constant threat of anxiety in his childhood shows an obvious link to his current mental instability and the circular nature of abuse. And while this notion may seem obvious to an audience today, it stands as rather remarkable territory to explore at the dawn of the 1960s.
But to its detriment, “Peeping Tom” arrived amidst the landscape of British realism. The “Free Cinema” movement began in the mid 1950s with directors beginning to make deeply convicted documentaries lamenting the state of British film. These same directors would become the leaders of Kitchen Sink Realism, which shifted cultural focus to working-class men. “Peeping Tom” was even markedly removed from the contemporaneous films within its genre. Powell’s work came on the heels of remakes of popular Universal films involving Dracula or The Mummy. Suffice is to say the mood was not set in 1960 for such an uncomfortable and deviant portrayal of sadism. As such, Michael Powell faced the worst criticism of his illustrious career, all but ending his notable tenure as one of England’s most fascinating filmmakers.
To say that the press was unkind to Powell’s work is an understatement. Nearly every major publication in England attacked the film, largely on moral grounds. London Tribune critic Derek Hill wrote, “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.” Len Mosley of the Daily Express wrote “nothing, nothing, nothing – neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta – has left with me such a feeling of nausea and depression as…‘Peeping Tom.’” And these are simply two among dozens. Some papers refused to run any criticism at all, worried that their vitriolic rants against perceived immorality would only add to the film’s audience.
And so, despite the trenchant stylistic choices of Powell and the unapproachable performance given by Karlheinz Böhm as Mark Lewis, who channels the most thoroughly unsettling characteristics of Peter Lorre at his best, the movie was forgotten for twenty years. The distribution throughout Britain was cancelled and the negative was sold. Powell was forced into television and eventually began making Australian feature comedies. But from the film’s rarity grew a cult reputation, eventually leading to the film being pieced back together in its entirety, and with it, the reputation of its director.
Mosley, Len. “The Killer Reviews.” Rev. of Peeping Tom. Daily Express [London] 8 Apr. 1960: n. pag.The Powell and Pressburger Pages. Steve Crook, Jan. 2006. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.
Mulvey, Laura. “Peeping Tom.” The Criterion Collection. The Criterion Collection, 15 Nov. 1999. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) – Laura Mulvey. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. Print.
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