Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960): Take Me to Your Cinema!
Part of The British Invasion Blogathon.
I first saw this peculiar film about ten years ago, sometime when I was still in grad school. I can’t remember why; I must have stumbled across it at the very fine Four Star Video Heaven, which is—somewhat miraculously—still in business. Neither am I sure why I liked it so much so immediately. It’s certainly unlike anything I had seen before. It might even have been the first of British director Michael Powell’s films I ever saw.
Plenty has been said about how “Peeping Tom” ruined Michael Powell’s career, which is essentially true. Martin Scorsese was instrumental in rehabilitating him starting in the 1970s, and Powell did make a few more pictures before he died in 1990. Thankfully, the scandal isn’t the most interesting thing about the film, so let’s skip over that. I’ve watched the film so many times now that it’s hard to narrow down what to talk about. So I’m warning you now, this may end up being another two-parter. Or just long-winded.
Michael Powell, with his long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, made some of the finest British films you can rest your peepers on: “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943), “Black Narcissus” (1947), “The Red Shoes” (1948), and “The Tales of Hoffmann” (1951). Powell made “Peeping Tom” after they went their separate ways, but it shares with those classic films a devotion to fabulous color (here, Eastmancolor) and a particularly British eccentricity.
Much of that eccentricity manifests in the characters. For example, Helen (Anna Massey), the love interest—maybe the first Last Girl in horror films—is writing a children’s book about a magic camera that sees adults as the children they were. One of the cops investigating the murders that take place starts snapping his fingers and bopping around in time to the music on a victim’s tape recorder discovered at a crime scene.
A British Serial Killer
The main character, the Peeping Tom of the title, is Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a focus-puller (assistant cameraman) at a British film studio. In his spare time, Mark takes unnecessarily artistic nudie photographs for the owner of a newsagents shop who peddles what his customers coyly refer to as “views.” But all of this is merely a cover for Mark’s real calling—documentarian, for he is the artistic child of a scientist. He documents the murders of women he commits using a dagger hidden in his camera’s tripod.
Like all good serial killers and superheroes, Mark has an origin story. Mark’s father, a scientist who studied fear in children, recorded as much of Mark’s childhood as he could—both on film and on tape. The scientist would dream up ways of terrifying his son in order to film his fear, record his screams and cries. Dad filmed the boy’s budding interest in sex—one of the movies we watch Mark and Helen watch is of Mark as a boy watching a couple (director Powell’s actual neighbors) necking on a park bench.
The cherry on top of this Freudian sundae might be the film of Mark “saying goodbye” to his dead mother. Later in his father’s film film, as we see Mark’s father give Mark his first camera. The adult Mark watching it refers to his mother’s death as “the previous sequence.” After all this, even Mark refers to himself as “mad.” (Also competing for cherry-on-top is the fact that Powell plays Mark’s father, and his son Columba plays the young Mark.)
But don’t panic. A short, crazy-haired psychiatrist shows up on the set of the film Mark is working on, called The Walls Are Closing In, naturally. After being introduced to Mark, the therapist muses that “he has his father’s eyes.”
The Accidental Murderer
The general plot—a serial killer who was traumatized as a child and now murders women using his camera—is reminiscent of some typically American horror movies about voyeurism and cameras: Brian De Palma’s “Body Double” (1984) and David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome” (1983) come to mind. But the American versions are crasser, more vulgar—and I actually don’t mean that in a bad way. Cronenberg’s earlier work is known, of course, for gooey action in which the boundaries of a character’s body are violated and merged with or taken over by what is often some sinister technology, as in the aforementioned “Videodrome,” “The Fly” (1986), “Naked Lunch” (1991), or “Existenz” (1999).
“Peeping Tom” has nothing so unseemly. It is an incredibly decorous film given that it’s about a serial killer. Tidy. The climactic violence at the end produces almost no blood. Some of this is due to when it was made, surely. But it’s also an indication of where the film’s real interests lie. It is a film in which the boundaries crossed are almost entirely psychological.
The physical violence is almost beside the point. What Mark wants, as a result of his particular trauma, is to record the terror, the fear the women experience on the threshold of death. Part of what is unique about Mark’s method is that he wants his victims to share his own experience of their death by watching themselves die. To this end, Mark has attached a distorting mirror to his camera, in which the women are forced to watch their own murders. Interestingly, almost no write-ups of the film mention this detail, though it seems essential to Mark’s story.
Mark and Mrs. Stevens
The film would have been a disaster without the right person playing Mark, and Karlheinz Böhm (also known as Carl Boem) is the Right Person. Powell initially wanted Laurence Harvey, and watching Peeping Tom, you can see why. The part requires the same sort of quiet woundedness Harvey did so well two years later in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Harvey also has a malicious edge, however, and I think this is at least partly why Böhm is the better choice.
Böhm does shy and damaged, but there is simply no aggression to him at all. His Austrian accent, which ought to not to work, since his character allegedly grew up in the London house he still occupies, is instead an asset. It softens the edges of his words, making them more tentative and fragile than they would otherwise be. Two of the women we see him murder know him well, and, unlike so many later horror/slasher films, it is utterly believable that neither of them sees Mark as a threat. Even as he murders, Böhm’s Mark is more determined—focused—than aggressive.
Another character, like Mark, whom we might be tempted to see as weak is Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley). Not only is she blind but also an alcoholic (Johnny Walker Red, thanks). But Mrs. Stevens is a more overtly aggressive character than Mark. She is a cranky drunk and immediately suspicious of him. She says to Helen:
I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.
Helen: He’s shy!
His footsteps aren’t. They’re stealthy.
Powell links Mark to the blind Mrs. Stevens. Both she and Mark are sharp, both have been wounded by someone who should have taken care of them. (Mrs. Stevens, we learn, has been blinded by an incompetent doctor.) And they both love Helen.
At the end of a scene of one of Mark’s nudie photo shoots, we see a model’s hand pouring tea. This cuts to Mrs. Steven’s hand pouring herself what is clearly another glass of scotch. Later, we cut from another closeup of Mrs. Stevens pouring herself another scotch, to Mark, pouring developing chemicals upstairs.
During Helen and Mark’s only date, Mrs. Stevens sneaks up to Mark’s apartment. While Mrs. Stevens cannot secretly watch others, she does listen. She has heard Mark in his darkroom, watching his films on a projector. And she has recognized in Mark a fellow addict. She confronts him there, after his date with Helen.
What are these films you can’t wait to see? Take me to your cinema!
Mrs. Stevens uses a cane to maneuver in the crowded space, and we see at the end of her cane a short blade. She holds the cane out in front of herself, defensively, mirroring Mark’s movement when he unsheathes his own knife from the tripod.
As an addict, Mrs. Stevens—also a damaged but functional mother figure—understands Mark better than Helen can. As she leaves his room, she tells him, “All this filming isn’t healthy. Get help—while you still can.” Of course, Mark knows only too well how unhealthy it is.
No one in the film respects the boundaries of others. Mark’s father uses him as a science experiment, invading every private moment Mark should have had as a child. Even Helen invites herself in to Mark’s apartment, and Mrs. Stevens breaks in. As a child Mark was never allowed to lock a door, and he says he can’t get used to keys. This invasion is represented as much by all the doorways and curtains through which characters enter and exit—and sometimes linger in or block—as it is by the various cameras in the film. (One of them, a Bell and Howell, is Powell’s first camera, because of course it is.)
Like his earlier collaborations with Pressburger, Powell’s “Peeping Tom” is more of a fantasia than a “realistic” portrait of a serial killer. The worlds of “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus,” and, especially, “The Tales of Hoffmann” are passionately intensified, lurid versions of the real one. The characters in them, however, seem very real because they touch us, and I think this is really what upset everybody so much about “Peeping Tom” the first time around.
Midway through the film, Helen wants Mark to help her illustrate her magic-camera book, which has just been accepted for publication. Mark is genuinely thrilled for her and wants to “find [her] faces” for her, as he puts it. He tells her, “Everyone’s face looks like child’s if you catch them at the right moment.”