Shoot To Kill

It's a thought well taken, but London critics were not amused: "I have carted my travel-stained carcass to some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But nothing, nothing, nothing—neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, nor the gutters of Calcutta—has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom." Did the reviewer even realize that Powell himself played Mark's father, using his own young son as the child Mark, and that the movie itself was largely shot in and around the house where they lived?

The most expensive picture produced by Anglo-Amalgamated (home of cheap thrillers and Carry On comedies), Peeping Tom received positive trade reviews and then opened to unanimous hostility. In part, reviewers were shocked because of Powell's reputation and in part, because Peeping Tom appeared amid the successful, critically despised Hammer horror films. But mainly, Peeping Tom was loathed because it was understood as an attack on the entire film-viewing machine. (The movie actually begins with an arrow striking a bull's-eye—a parody of the Archers rubric under which Powell made so many films.)

British critics were blindsided. "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer," one wrote. Imagine these pull quotes: "The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing"; "Wholly evil"; "Sick minds will be highly stimulated." Cut by 15 minutes for U.S. consumption, Peeping Tom opened in 1962 on a 42nd Street double bill. (There were no reviews.)

Putting the sin in cinephilia: Massey and Boehm in Peeping Tom
Film Forum / Rialto Pictures
Putting the sin in cinephilia: Massey and Boehm in Peeping Tom


Peeping Tom
Directed by Michael Powell
Written by Leo Marks
A Rialto Pictures release
At Film Forum
January 29 through February 11

Predictably, it remained for the French to appreciate Powell's film maudit—the equation between photography and physical assault, the suggestion that the subject was the screen for the photographer's rage. (Not only does the camera inflict hideous results on women and children but the actress in the movie-within-the-movie is being directed to faint while two of Mark's models are already bruised before their close-ups.) An early Positif review anticipates the Lacanian-feminist psychoanalytic criticism of the 1970s—although Powell and Marks anticipated it themselves by sticking a friendly shrink on the traumatized movie set.

Among self-reflexive movies, Peeping Tom is unique in implicating both the film viewer and the filmmaker. See it and the injunctions shoot, cut, and frame will never sound the same. Although the movie's French distributor naturally called the film Le Voyeur, Powell maintained that Le Cineaste would have been the more accurate title.

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