“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” (London Tribune). The critics never really liked Michael Powell. With Emeric Pressburger he had made quite simply the best British films ever in the 1940s, but critics had sniffed at the idea of fantastical melodrama carrying intellectual ideas and virtually to a man ignored them. Even today there are precious few articles which give any kind of in-depth critical analysis of these marvelous texts – the portrait of the paradoxical English condition in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), the capturing of a civilization under threat in A Canterbury Tale (1944), the metaphysical debate of A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the Freudian psychodrama that is Black Narcissus (1947) and the Jungian meditation on the creative artistic impulse that is The Red Shoes (1948). To be sure, apart from A Canterbury Tale these films had all proven very popular in Britain and critics perhaps were forced by the popular vote and propaganda considerations to hold back their venom’.
The Archers had broken up in 1957 after Ill Met by Moonlight, a film which had betrayed a paucity of ideas. Left alone Powell enlisted Leo Marks, the noted wartime code breaker who happened to be an expert on Sigmund Freud, to write a screenplay about the founder of psychoanalysis, but combining him with a self-portrait of the filmmaker. By twisting elements of Dziga Vertov’s great debate on objectivity/subjectivity Man with a Movie Camera (1928) and Fritz Lang’s ground-breaking serial killer movie M (1930) in which the killer is rendered touchingly sympathetic, the final result implies the audience is equally as voyeuristic and sadistic as the film’s childlike ‘innocent’ hero and brought down universal howls of derision. Powell pointed out how the establishment saw him as “pretentious…overtly continental…Expressionist…dangerously arty” and believed he and Pressburger were resented for “bringing music, singing and dancing into our films when the true Briton was enjoying, and I mean enjoying, currency control, food rationing, full austerity, the lot.” Now alone and responsible for another “dangerously arty” film, the critics “gleefully sawed off the limb and jumped up and down on the corpse…” in a vendetta which ensured Powell would never direct another film in Britain ever again. The Queens’ Guards (1962) was already in the pipeline, but it flopped disastrously sending him ‘down under’ to make his final films. Fortunately, people have stopped “jumping up and down” on Powell and these days Peeping Tom often appears on critics’ lists of Top 10 British films. Powell knew he would be vindicated: “A country’s films, like a country’s poets, are one of its greatest cultural assets…A great film can change the world in a flash of time…Films have a short life, do they? We shall see, my friends, we shall see.” Fortunately he lived to see his reputation rehabilitated and we have Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola to thank for rescuing him from penury (he had never been savvy with money) and providing him in his dotage with a roof over his head in L.A, a steady income and even a wife in Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longstanding editor in residence. He was given an office at Coppola’s Zoetrope studio where he wrote his memoirs, was referenced in Scorsese’s New York, New York (De Niro checks in to a hotel under Powell’s name) and even appears at a party in Life Lessons (Scorsese’s portion of the uneven New York Stories). The British old guard ought to be ashamed of not according Powell/Pressburger the same kind of respect. What follows contains spoilers.
Peeping Tom is fundamentally about two things – filmmaking and film viewing. It was Freud who saw artistic creation as a neurosis. One man’s nervous tick or stutter is an artist’s novel, play, painting or film. The neurosis most closely under the spotlight in this film is scopophilia (translated from Freud’s Schaunlust which means ‘pleasure in looking’). This voyeurism is defined as the morbid urge to stare at what other people are doing in their private lives. For the heterosexual male this would be the Rat Man’s “burning and tormenting curiosity to see the female body.” Most psychoanalysts see voyeurism as arising from an arrest in an infant’s psychosexual development. Freud declared the Oedipus complex the most important discovery in the whole of his life’s work. He claimed all males go through an infant stage when they develop a strong sexual desire for the mother and a hatred for the father born out of consequent jealousy of the father’s access to what he yearns for but is denied to him. The fear of what the father will do to him if he approaches the mother sexually Freud called castration anxiety. In the Sophocles play Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother and that is what all infant boys feel at some stage. According to Freud it is a natural feeling and when a normal boy grows up he learns to displace sexual desire for his mother onto other girls so coming to terms with his father through identifying with their shared manhood. Scopophilia arises when the boy cannot accept castration anxiety and so fails to identify with his father. Peeping Tom centers on a man whose psychosexual development has been arrested as an infant by a scientist father subjecting him to constant surveillance, filming and recording as he conducts experimentation into the subject of fear and the nervous system. The boy grows up to be a Peeping Tom, but one with the helpless compulsion to kill any woman who is sexually provocative and especially who shows fear. The son simultaneously hates his father and yearns to identify with him by continuing his father’s investigations into fear in others and finally in himself as he concludes the film his father started when he was born.
Of deep relevance to this film is a second strand of psychoanalytic thought which was provided by Jacques Lacan who by the 1950s had disseminated his ideas on the ‘mirror stage’ in an infant’s psychosexual development. Leo Marks no doubt knew about Lacan while writing Peeping Tom and it turns out with great prescience. Lacan’s idea was taken up by Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman in the 1970s who argued that a spectator’s pleasure at watching a film play out on the big screen recalls the mirror stage in infant psychosexual development and betrays him to be a natural voyeur. I simplify somewhat, but in essence Lacan argued that a child’s ego is formed by recognizing himself in a mirror before he has gained control of bodily co-ordination. This fragmentation threatens the infant who responds by identifying with the image and this ‘primary identification’ forms the ego. This moment of jubilation though quickly gives way to insecurity when the infant compares himself to the mother who is all-powerful. Mourning for the loss of this moment of jubilation leads to an unconscious life-long search for this ‘unity’ even though it can never be found. The Scopophilic drive arises from the polymorphous sexuality of the infant which may “become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” Mulvey posited that watching films is a way of carrying on the search for that moment of ‘primary identification’ in that so much visual pleasure is derived from the audience identifying with what they see on the screen. Watching a film then is in a way a sexual voyeuristic act and audiences are as implicit in what transpires on the screen as the characters we see and the director behind the scenes calling the shots.
To really ‘get’ Peeping Tom we must grasp we are watching four films at the same time. This takes off from what Dziga Vertov did in Man with a Movie Camera. Throughout all Powell’s work there is a dialectic between the new world of the ‘talkies’ and the old world of silent film and here it is no different. Vertov’s film is infuriatingly difficult to categorize, but it’s closest to being a documentary on the life of a Soviet city. In the film there is another audience watching a film in another cinema and a cameraman who wanders the city shooting this film, but also being shot by another camera. Films within films, points of view within points of view, the film breathtakingly announces everything as being simultaneously objective and subjective. There are four ‘directors’ in Peeping Tom and all of them are really Michael Powell. The main protagonist is named Mark Lewis (a word-play on ‘Leo Marks’) who is shooting a documentary which records fear, first of women who he kills and then himself who he also eventually kills. We see this film both being made (color footage with cross-hairs across the frame) and being projected in b/w onto Mark’s screen. Second is the documentary made by Mark’s father Dr. Lewis (played by Michael Powell himself) of Mark’s childhood which we see parts of and in which the young boy is played by Powell’s real life son Columba. Mark’s documentary is a continuation of his father’s documentary. Third is the film ‘The Walls are Closing In’ which Mark is working on at a studio as a focus puller. This film is directed by Arthur Baden (a play on ‘Baden-Powell’ the man who took care of children) and the title obviously refers on one level to Mark nearing the end of his life. Fourth of course is the film directed by Powell called Peeping Tom which frames everything we see, the three films within a film combined with a romance Mark almost has with his neighbor Helen. In addition to these four films there is also the way characters view each other (or don’t view each other) within the various narratives and the inquisitiveness of especially Helen and her blind mother to understand what they are shown or cannot see, to search unconsciously for Lacan’s ‘primary identification’ within themselves. This is underlined most of all by the movie Mark forces his victims to watch as they die – their own terrorized expression caught in a mirror attached to the end of Mark’s phallic tripod leg as the pointed end penetrates their body.
With Freud, Lacan and the various narratives within the main narrative in mind I will now go through the film. Any film about making or watching pictures is centered on the human eye and just as Man with a Movie Camera finishes with a shot of a human eye within a camera lens, Powell’s film opens with two eye-shots. The first is the familiar archery target logo of The Archers, but here is simply ‘A Michael Powell Production.’ The second is a close up of a human eye opening to the strange sound of a guitar ‘twang’. The eye turns out to belong to Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), though disconnected as it is from the following sequence it could just as well be Powell’s or even ours. We see a night street scene and a prostitute. Mark approaches her, but as he does so he turns on a camera which he hides under his duffel coat. The perspective changes from Powell’s third person to the camera’s first person as we follow the woman into a house and upstairs to her room. We stay in color, but the cross hairs and the sound of clichéd silent movie piano music foreground the artifice of cinematic presentation, bringing us closer to the events as Mark extends his phallic tripod leg and attached mirror (both are concealed from us at this point) and goes in for the kill, the victim’s petrified face filling the screen before Powell cuts to the next sequence which shows the camera has changed to a projector on which Mark plays the film he has just shot. The filmmaker becomes film spectator as he sits with his back to us looking at the screen, obviously a conduit for us sitting behind him and as we see the same street sequence this time in b/w the opening credits play with the piano music accentuated to dominate our senses. Michael Powell’s name appears over the projector as the woman’s dying screams are experienced by Mark as if to say that Powell is the one responsible for the attack on the woman, for the man executing it, for the man recording it on film, and for us sitting there in the darkened room with a serial killer watching it as if we are all somehow implicated in what has happened.
Conventional dark menace is cast aside as Powell introduces his killer with two jolly sequences designed to make him likable. Identified immediately by his camera, he stands outside the murdered prostitute’s house filming the police taking the corpse away. A healthy sense of humor runs through the film. A man asks what paper Mark works for – ‘The Observer’ of course! The second scene introduces Mark’s part time job of taking nude pictures in a studio above a newsagent. As he talks to the owner a middle aged man comes in looking for “some views.” After being interrupted by a schoolgirl buying candy the man takes the views forgetting the pretext he used at the beginning (two newspapers) wrapped up in a package labelled ‘Educational Books’ with the punchline delivered by the owner – “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!” Upstairs Mark sets up a shot of a model named Milly (Pamela Green) with her standing under a red light on a fake street corner in underwear which cribs on how the prostitute stood before the credits. It also looks forward to the red light above the studio door behind which Mark spikes his next victim. Mark’s sexual attachment to his camera is underlined by the way he caresses it and Milly saying, “What have you got under there, a girlfriend?” Then he is visibly excited by the scar on another model’s face as he approaches her with the same camera he used to shoot/commit the murder saying, “Don’t be shy, it’s my first time, too.” This tells us he is a virgin and he has only ever had ‘sex’ through assaulting women with his phallic camera. Mark’s weirdness is stressed, but so is his sensitivity, his timidity and his sexual innocence especially as he’s teased by Milly. We see his barely concealed murderous desire, but we sympathize with him rather than condemn him. Böhm’s performance is extraordinarily sensitive, Powell surely casting him because he has Peter Lorre’s innocent bug-eyes. Lorre was Lang’s softly spoken serial killer in M of course. Anyone familiar with the Powell/Pressburger penchant for portraying sympathetic Germans on screen from The Spy in Black (1939) through to Ill Met by Moonlight will recognize the element of parody here – a thoroughly nice decent man who happens to be a serial killer. Like Anton Walbrook, Böhm was Austrian.
The next two sequences are crucial for our understanding of the whole film and increase our sympathy for Mark. Powell cuts from coffee pouring in the newsagent studio to whisky pouring in an apartment as a 21st birthday party takes place. The whisky introduces Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley) who we actually don’t see in this scene, but who proves to be a key character later. The birthday girl is her daughter Helen (Anna Massey) who is given a huge key as a present. The key is a phallic symbol and as Helen is 21 she is now free to use any key in her ‘key-hole’ that she chooses. Later the mother says to Helen, “We both have the key to the door. Mine needs oiling. Yours needs exercising!” Mark of course has a problem with keys and none of the rooms in his house including his own (which is right above the Stephenses) have locks on the doors. Later when the newsagent instructs Mark to lock up Mark’s startled reaction shows us he is scared by the whole concept of locks and is awed by the responsibility. With the party in full swing Mark arrives home, his face peering voyeuristically through the window before he enters the building. Helen is a typical Powell red-head and sports a bright orange dress which signals availability. When she rushes outside to invite Mark to her party the offer is very obvious without being lewd. Mark is of course scared and scurries upstairs to ogle the footage he took that morning of the corpse. Helen eventually follows him up and enters Mark’s dark room where he both develops and watches films. We hear water dripping and the echoing makes us feel we are somehow inside Mark bang up against his primordial desires, his internal mechanism. Powell later said, “I felt very close to the hero, who is an absolute director…A technician of emotion…I am someone who is thrilled by technique, always mentally editing the scene in front of me or across the street.” There is no doubt that in this dark room (which was also Dr. Lewis’ laboratory) we are at the center of both Mark and Powell’s psyche. Helen insists on watching something and he shows her a documentary film shot of him by his father. In it we understand Mark’s psychosis. Just as Helen has just been presented with a key, this scene proves to be the key which unlocks the mysteries of this poor man’s mental illness, the mental ‘disease’ that produces all films, or as Freud would say, the central neurosis that begets (and actually is) art.
We watch the film from the same perspective as Helen and she expresses her curiosity just as we in the audience feel it, except that we know Mark is a killer and she doesn’t. First we see the infant Mark (Columba Powell remember) in bed awoken by his father shining a light in his eyes and dispassionately observing him cry. We recognize this as the same light shone in the face of Mark’s first victim and we later learn it’s caused by a mirror forcing the subject to look at his/her own terror. Then we see Mark sitting on a fence peeping at a couple kissing on a park bench, Mark’s father taking as much interest in the coupling as he does of Mark’s reaction to it. Voyeurism was bred into Mark from the beginning it seems. Then we go back to Mark in bed and more crying closely followed by a lizard dropped onto him to Helen’s great surprise. Helen’s scared reaction impulses Mark to photograph her watching the film which she resists. On the soundtrack we hear Daddy Powell’s voice comforting the boy: “That will do Mark. Dry your eyes and don’t be silly.” These words can’t be heard by Helen. They are given as recalled by Mark in the present. Helen demands an explanation (“I like to understand what I’m shown” – don’t we all?) as we see Mark standing by a woman’s corpse to very tender piano music. As Mark explains it’s “my mother” he lays a hand on Helen’s shoulder. This indicates Oedipal feelings towards his mother who he now identifies with Helen. Later we learn Helen now lives in his mother’s old bedroom and as Mark looks around that room there is the same tender music on the soundtrack. The hand on the shoulder signals a jolt in the music and a fast forward of the film as we are told Helen is shown his mother’s funeral and burial and then we see “her successor,” a buxom young thing spilling out of her skimpy bikini arising Venus-like out of the sea (Mark instructs his models to “Look to the sea” before he photographs them) who his father married just 6 weeks after his wife’s funeral. Clearly Mark hates his stepmother as we see Powell standing for a family portrait the morning of his departure on their honeymoon, the same morning he gives Mark his first movie camera. Powell shows Mark still keeps this camera in his projection room (actually it’s the first camera Powell ever owned). Clearly Mark blames his stepmother for his mother’s death (it’s possible the father may have killed his wife to possess her) and for supplanting the affection in his father’s heart which should rightfully have been his. The camera is this supplanted affection made visible (that’s why he’s always caressing it and treating it as if it were “a girlfriend”) and he uses it as a weapon to attack his stepmother who he sees in every attractive sexually active woman. Because he has failed to accept castration anxiety, failed to identify with his father and so failed to displace his sexual desire onto other girls beyond his mother, Mark identifies Helen with his mother while various attractive sexual women (prostitutes, models and actresses) are all identified with his evil stepmother as objects to be feared and despised. What should be natural sexual desire is transformed into a desire to kill, the death being the orgasm as opposed to the natural orgasm achieved through normal sex of which Mark is incapable.
We meet one such evil stepmother surrogate in the very next scene in the shape of Viv (Moira Shearer), the stand-in for the lead actress in the film Mark is working on at his studio. This sequence parodies real people – the producer Don Jarvis (Michael Goodliffe) is based on John Davis of the Rank Organization while the director Arthur Baden (Esmond Knight) sends up Powell himself with his tirades, sarcasm and tormenting of his lead actress who here he makes faint several times in a row to get the shot he needs. Powell didn’t initially want to use Shearer as he found her too glamorous, but guilt brought on by having sabotaged her stage career by using her in The Red Shoes (1948) and then in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) led him to give in to his better instinct (actually guilt may play a big part behind the whole film. Powell expressed regret that he deserted his wife and son while he gallivanted everywhere making films and having affairs with his actresses. Dr. Lewis is perhaps frighteningly close to reality). The whole scene of Mark and Viv alone in the studio is obviously built up especially for Shearer with dancing which perhaps parodies her prior work for Powell, but it is the one scene in the film which seems over-extended and labored, not relating to the gripping scenes that surround it. Our boredom mirrors Mark’s own as he patiently sets up a shot while Viv prances around to his obvious annoyance. Two things are important – first, we notice Viv’s red hair which links her with Helen, but in an aggressively sexual way which contrasts with Helen’s innocence, and second we are made aware of Mark’s knowing madness. Mark gets Viv “in the mood” by advancing on her with his phallic camera asking her to imagine someone about to kill her. “A madman?” Viv asks. “Yes, but he knows it. But just to kill you is not enough for him,” Mark says exposing the tripod spike which we see for the first time. Powell cuts to the first person of Mark’s camera as the familiar (but still unexplained) light plays on Viv’s face and she is pushed back into the box (her coffin) sitting wide open waiting for her as she screams.
In the next scene we meet the enigmatic Mrs. Stephens and Powell/Marks emphasize her significance as a blind seer, the Tiresias figure in their Oedipal story who sees and understands everything despite (perhaps because of) being blind. She already distrusts Mark (“I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.”) and is already linking him with the murder Helen has just read to her about in the newspaper. Helen rushes upstairs to meet Mark and an important connection is revealed. She works in a library but has written a children’s book which is about a magic camera owned by a little boy which sees grown-ups as they were when they were children. They agree to work together, Mark taking the pictures the publisher feels are impossible to take. The significance of this is revealed in the film’s final scene where after Mark has killed himself Powell shows a note written by Helen – “One magic camera who needs the help of another.” This refers to Helen’s text and Mark’s pictures, but it also clearly identifies Helen and Mark as human cameras both searching for that primary identification that Lacan posited.
The following scene takes us back to the studio and underlines Mark’s preparation for his own death which he directs and films. Mark’s camera catches the actress discovering Viv’s corpse (“the silly bitch has fainted in the wrong scene!” roars Baden comically) and also the various interrogations of witnesses by the police. He tells a colleague he is photographing an investigation, a documentary. “Suppose they catch you?” asks the man. “Oh, they will,” Mark answers. “Don’t you mind?” – “No,” – “Are you crazy?” – “Yes.” The two detectives we see are actors in Mark’s film and he has to find a way to direct them to him. He climbs up high to spy on them talking over the corpse and there’s a beautiful shot of pens falling out of his pocket which suggests the castration complex he has failed to acknowledge.
Before Mark’s investigative documentary can be completed however, there are two very important scenes between Mark and Helen’s mother. Helen invites him to meet her and in the manner of the revealing of a primal scene, he enters the room to a strange veil lifted off Powell’s camera. The mother senses Mark’s heartbeat which now dominates the soundtrack especially as she grips his hand and feels his pulse. As the couple head off for their dinner date (Helen forcing Mark to leave his camera behind and he missing the chance to capture a couple kissing on a street corner and a woman undressing in her room!) there is an enigmatic sequence of Mark’s laboratory in motion, of liquids bubbling, a clock ticking and something being processed. We think it must be something Mark has left cooking, but it could also be the very film we are watching or indeed what the mother is imagining because Mark returns to find her in the room. She tells Mark she visits this room every night (“the blind always visit the room they live under”) and says, “Take me to your cinema.” Mark shows the film of Viv’s murder which of course the mother can’t see or hear (she is blind and it is silent), but is disappointed. He pounds the screen crying, “The lights fade too soon!” “They always do. What do you think you’ve spoiled?” asks the mother. “An opportunity…now I have to find another one,” and Mark advances on her with his phallic tripod raised, but stops, the mother not fitting the evil stepmother type and his ‘erection’ subsiding and quickly sheathed up. What the mother says next is revealing: “You don’t trust yourself to take any more. Instinct is a wonderful thing. Pity it can’t be photographed. If I had listened to it years ago I might have kept my sight. I wouldn’t have let a man operate I had no faith in. So I’m listening to my instinct now. Listen. All this filming isn’t healthy. And you need help. Get it Mark. Get it quickly and until you do I don’t want you and Helen to see each other.” Clearly Mark and the mother are twinned spirits. They have both been maimed by past experience, Mark by his father and the mother by an unspecified source who may be a past lover, doctor or even parent. Mark has his tripod and the mother has her walking cane. Instead of spiking her with his tripod he returns her cane, both obviously paralleled with each other. More important is the search and failure to find and record ‘instinct’ which we take to mean both the exact origin of where fear comes from and that return to what was lost at the mirror stage of psychosexual development.
The rest of the film ‘documents’ the completion of Mark’s sad film and the end of his life. After a knowing encounter with a psychiatrist in the studio (“What do you do?” – “I’m a focus puller” – “That’s what I do!”) Mark realizes his voyeurism is hopeless and gets the inspiration from a nude photo shown by his colleague (“You won’t see that in Sight & Sound!”) to stage another murder (this time of Milly above the newsagent) knowing he has been followed which will lead the police eventually to his dark room. This final scene is notable for bringing all the film’s ideas together very satisfactorily. At first we see Helen leaving her book by Mark’s projector with her moving note. Her voyeurism being as intense as ours, she can’t resist the temptation to see the film in the projector. She sits in the director’s chair (with ‘Mark Lewis’ written on it) and Powell concentrates just as Mark earlier wanted to on her frightened reaction. Powell puts us in Mark’s position as the recorder of terror. When Mark enters he significantly instructs her not to look at him as her terror would activate the killer in him. He reveals the full extent of his father’s and his own voyeurism as he plays tapes of himself screaming and crying as an infant. He reveals all the whole house has been bugged and Helen asks him to switch it off when she hears her own possibly sexual encounter with a fellow tenant. He reveals the one thing Powell has been hiding all the film, that a mirror is attached to the end of his phallic tripod leg in order for victims to watch the most frightening thing of all – fear. As the police approach Mark breaks a window, photographs them (“It’s only a camera” – “Only!”) and then runs across the room to the sound of his own childhood screams and several flashing cameras he has set up (“Watch them say goodbye, one by one”) to impale himself on his own murder instrument with the words, “I’m afraid and I’m glad I’m afraid”. As the police break down the door and find a severely frightened Helen we hear Powell’s own voice – “Don’t be a silly boy. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” and Mark’s heart-breaking response “Goodnight Daddy. Hold my hand.” Finally, the film leaves us incredibly moved by Mark’s plight. He is very much the sad monster victim created by Mary Shelley’s insane scientist Frankenstein and this places Peeping Tom squarely in the horror genre. And yet we have been made so thoroughly complicit in Mark’s actions throughout both as filmmaker and film viewer from the opening eye to the final request to “hold my hand,” that really this film gloriously defies any conventional genre straightjacketing. I see it alongside Man with a Movie Camera and Fellini’s 8½ (1963) as one of the three greatest statements on the meaning of both making and watching films. All three are mandatory viewing.