Published January 1, 1999
Peeping Tom by Michael Powell first appeared in this country in 1960, and it is often compared with Psycho, the work of another British-born filmmaker from the same year. But where Psycho was widely regarded as its auteur’s masterpiece, Peeping Tom got such a critical slating that it all but ended Powell’s career prematurely. Nowadays (as one is not surprised to learn) that critical judgment is being reassessed, hence the re-release of the film under the auspices of Martin Scorsese. I myself am inclined to think that, as an exploration of criminal pathology, the film was hardly done an injustice by its contemporary critics, but I do understand the impulse, very much of today, to see it as a premature exercise in postmodernism.
For it is not really about the mind of the nutty voyeur and murderer, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), so much as it is about the philosophical involutions associated with the act of watching. At one point in the film, Lewis is watching the cops watching him while a nude model (the amazing Pamela Green) unwittingly awaits her death in front of his camera—and, back in his flat in another part of London, his innocent girlfriend, Helen (Anna Massey), is watching with mounting horror his collection of what we should nowadays call snuff films. When the duffel-coated monster returns, she desperately seeks his assurance that what she has seen is “just a film.” For its time, this really is impressively sophisticated.
But the years have also robbed it of some of its too self-conscious profundity. We have since seen rather too much of those mirrors, that multiplication of images, that slightly artificial excitement in the discovery that all is illusion. Yes, yes, so it is. Except when it’s not. In a way Powell can scarcely have imagined, his film has suffered the fate of all “revolutionary” or “ground-breaking” art and become far too familiar—and hardly worth the revival, it would seem, except as an historical document. Yet the picture does have its charms, including a witty script by Leo Marks. When Lewis reports to his part-time job as a photographer of “dirty pictures,” later sold at retail under the counter by a newsagent, the shopowner catechizes him as to what publications sell best: “Those with girls on the front cover and no front covers on the girls.”
Boehm’s version of the homicidal maniac is also oddly charming in a way that, for me anyway, Norman Bates never was. Norman’s supposed exoneration on the grounds of an obscurely horrible Oedipal relationship with his mother never seemed convincing to me. Nor, for that matter, would any attempt to excuse Mark Lewis on similar grounds. But Mark himself never makes any such claims, and I don’t think that that’s what Powell is up to here. Mark’s formative childhood experience was not with his mother, who died when he was a boy, but with his father (Powell himself makes a cameo appearance in the role), a famous psychologist whose professional interest was in the subject of fear. His son became an experimental guinea pig as his father deliberately frightened him and filmed the results.
Of course the simplistic therapeutic paradigm by which this experience is supposed to have “caused” his later-life murders is implicit, but Mark is oddly devoted to his father’s memory. Even proud of it. And he sees his stalking the streets with a deadly blade concealed in one foot of his tripod as in some sort a continuation of the old man’s experiments. It is only the aggressively normal Helen who acts as the insistent voice of modern “compassion” in wondering how a father could be so unspeakably cruel to his own son, and one always has the feeling about Helen that she is protesting too much. She herself lives with a mother who is both blind and alcoholic and towards whom her exaggerated affection seems to come from between gritted teeth. It is only after he is encouraged by her in a sense of grievance that Mark begins to show a sign or two of self-pity, observing that “I never had, in the whole of my childhood, one moment of privacy”—a statement pretty unlikely to be true.
Helen is also a bit of a voyeur herself, and she is writing a children’s book about a magic camera, on which she hopes to collaborate with Mark. Hence, perhaps, she is oddly eager to learn his secret. When she finds that he is turned on by the sight of fear but that he doesn’t want to hurt her, she seizes on her advantage to say: “Show me [i.e. what you did to these women] or I will remain frightened for the rest of my life.” Even Mark’s deadly tripod is no match for such a passive-aggressive little minx. As for the shrink in the movie, so far from having anything instructional to say, as Hitchcock’s does, he seems a strictly comic figure. When at the blind woman’s entreaty Mark asks him if he can be cured of his “scoptophilia,” the old man, who had known his father and speaks with a Viennese accent, airily answers: “A couple of years of analysis three times a week and it’s uprooted.” For just a moment it is possible to believe that Powell’s purpose is really to debunk the popular application of psychoanalysis to social pathology, but if so he does it too timidly and belatedly.