Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
Famously released in the same year that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Michael Powell’s first film without Emeric Pressburger since the 1940’s divided critics and audiences for his subject matter and the treatment of it all. After Peeping Tom, Powell never been able to work again in England. He shocked audiences and his reputation got tarnished. However, with the help of many respected directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, for whom Powell worked at his Gulf+Western company, Powell regained his reputation and he is considered as one of the greatest filmmaker to have ever worked in Cinema.
Peeping Tom is the name of voyeurs taken from the legend of Lady Godiva where a man named Tom watched the lady during her nude ride and he was struck blind or dead. The voyeur in the movie here is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) a low voiced shy photograph and cameraman who never goes out of his home without his crosshair handheld movie camera. The film opens with the cameraman’s point of view of the encounter with a prostitute that quickly turns to the final moments of her life in front of the camera. We easily understand that Mark gets a kick out at filming the final moments of those poor women that he kills with the leg of his camera’s tripod obviously representing a phallic symbol in full erection. From Mark’s relationship with the downstairs neighbour Helen (Anna Massey), the only woman he cares for, we understand that Mark isn’t really experienced with women and that the murders are psychosexual symbols of the transfer of his sexual needs.
Powell’s filmmaking here isn’t the fact that he established the pattern of the serial killer films to come, it is the fact that, like Hitchcock, he puts the audience in the killer’s seat and he makes us “feel” or react to the horror of the crude images and the terror of the murdered women. In some way, the viewer or the voyeur enters in Mark’s mind and is represented in the idea that as the audience we always want to see more and be the witnesses of the most sensational images and Powell proves it right here. He analyzes our envy for the most realistic emotions captured on the big screen and to actually watch people live and die, in this case, in front of our eyes. The popularity of reality television proved Powell’s theory to be right. What probably shocked the most with Peeping Tom is the way the audience is involved and how the reactions of the women are presented. In the theatre with all are in the dark just like Mark and observing the screen with our complete attention to every detail and action displayed.
With Peeping Tom, Michael Powell forces us to reconsider our and undertake the implication of the images we encounter in our films. It translates our voyeuristic needs into a mass appeal of the visual medias. An essential film that might divide cinephiles but that will create reactions for sure.