The sequence is subjective, shown through a 16mm viewfinder. The camera approaches a bored London tart, follows her upstairs, films her undressing, moves in for a close-up of her suddenly expressive face and… Cut to a noisy 16mm projector and the filmmaker-killer having his orgasm while watching the screen-filling image of the dead woman’s silent scream. Then the title. For those sleepy critics gathered in a London screening room one spring morning in 1960, Peeping Tom was an eye-opener.
Reviled and fetishized, Michael Powell’s undeniable—if unsavory—classic, which opens in an excellent new print for a run at Film Forum, was the original first-person horror film. Released in Britain barely a month before Psycho had its American premiere, Powell’s serial-killer saga is no less perverse and perhaps even more disturbing. If Powell lacks Hitchcock’s ruthless direction of the audience, he’s more luridly fanciful and blatantly self-reflexive in constructing his infernal machine. Peeping Tom exerts an awful fascination, as well it might. This is the movie that puts the sin in cinephilia.
Although subsequently championed by Martin Scorsese (presenting this revival as he did the showing at the 1980 New York Film Festival) and recycled by Brian De Palma (as Raising Cain), the story of a crazed amateur filmmaker who (literally) uses his camera to torture and murder the women he photographs, effectively ended Powell’s directorial career.
Powell’s collaborations with Emeric Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) were among the flashiest British films of the postwar period. For Peeping Tom, Powell had another partner in crime. The script was by Leo Marks—a brilliant wartime cryptographer. Marks’s first idea was a life of Freud, but when he and Powell got wind of John Huston’s biopic, they veered into something more personal. In his memoirs, Powell notes that the film’s deranged protagonist is called Mark.
Powell originally wanted Laurence Harvey for the lead but made do with a blankly handsome young German actor named Karlheinz Böhm, anglicized as Carl Boehm. His performance is astonishing—Mark’s persona is at once scarily focused and alarmingly unfixed. He oscillates between shy and seductive, swishy and controlling; his impulse control is tenuous. Boehm’s unmotivated accent gives Mark an additionally alienated quality—and intimations of Peter Lorre’s homicidal pedophile in Fritz Lang’s M. (Boehm capped his film career as part of Fassbinder’s stock company, beginning as the monstrously sadistic husband in Martha.)
Mark is always lugging his camera and stumbling across instances of public exhibitionism. On the one occasion when he’s had to stash his equipment, he wards off confusion by making a frame with his hands in the desperate way a vampire’s victim might cross their fingers. When unexpectedly kissed by his downstairs neighbor Helen (Anna Massey, who brings a pop-eyed avidity to her first screen role), he responds (belatedly) by kissing the lens. As a study in sexual pathology, Peeping Tom looks back at M and forward to Taxi Driver. Mark’s meet-cute with Helen is layered with creepiness. He catches her eye while spying on her 21st birthday party. She pursues him, carrying a slice of cake, to his mad-scientist studio—at once screening room, photo lab, and sex-atrocity museum. He’s about to show her his latest snuff film but, getting a grip, instead projects the home movies taken by his father, a behavioral psychologist obsessed with documenting the effects of fear on the nervous system.
Traumatized by and continuing his father’s work, Mark returns (and returns) to film the scene of the crime—both literally and figuratively. His ambition, he tells Helen, is to be a movie director (he already has the personalized chair) and he is employed as an assistant DP. The director of the movie-within-the-movie is, of course, a savage control freak—although he has nothing on Mark, who recruits an ambitious stand-in (Moira Shearer) as his most spectacular victim. They enact their own scenario after-hours and, as she lures him on with a mad mambo of narcissistic display, he observes the protocols of movie production. “I’ve put the red light on. They won’t dare to come in.”
The image rules. This is a world in which even the police quote Tweety and Sylvester cartoons and the cozy neighborhood newsstand is filled with nudie-cutie postcards. In one comic scene, the character actor who played the Caliph in Powell’s Thief of Bagdad buys under-the-counter porn while upstairs Mark shoots a nude model. (“Well, look who’s here,” she sneers, “Cecil Beaton.”) Later, Mark will turn away from her to film the street. “I’m just completing a documentary,” he explains. “You’re a documentary and a half,” she replies. Indeed.
Even before the spectacular, mixed-media finale, Mark’s mania is shown as but the worst symptom of a particular regime. Complicity abounds. Helen is inspired by the young shutterbug to write a children’s book about a magic camera. A psychoanalyst assigned to the movie set after a corpse is found stuffed in a trunk chats with Mark about scopophilia and, learning the focus-puller’s distinguished lineage, muses: “He has his father’s eyes.” The only character who sees through Mark is Helen’s blind mother, who sits slugging whiskey and listening to the projector whir upstairs: “All this filming isn’t healthy,” she mutters.
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.)
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.