The story of how Peeping Tom effectively killed Michael Powell’s career in the U.K. is well known, but perhaps Powell was actually trying to slay cinema itself? The film was trashed by British critics upon its release in 1960, resuscitated by the American New Wave (particularly Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola) in the 1970s, and is considered an indispensible horror masterpiece today. It is an immensely strange film—a sympathetic portrait of a documentarian/serial killer who murders women with a blade attached to his camera’s tripod. The film might be considered the grandfather to the omnipresent found footage horror genre and it inspired Jim McBride’s classic, scathingly self-reflexive David Holzman’s Diary—and virtually every self-critical documentary since.
The film remains relevant today not simply because of its vast influence, but because of the fundamental truth Powell expresses about the dark heart of cinema. Film is an art form of repressed desires, built on the voyeur impulse and geared to serve some of our most reactionary compulsions. Movie directors are psychological intruders, mad scientists obsessed with using illusions of reality to create involuntary emotional reactions in viewers. As a filmmaker myself, I find the unsettling revelations of Peeping Tom to be a kind of truth tonic; I urge all who watch, write about or, especially, make movies to try to understand Powell’s dark message:
The cinema wants to hurt you.
Carl Boehm is mesmerizing as the homicidal anti-hero, Mark Lewis. Mark is a shy, repressed psychopath who works on movie sets as a camera operator by day and takes professional porn pictures by night. He dreams of becoming a Big Time Film Director and is making a “documentary” about fear, i.e. killing women with his camera tripod (that turns into a knife) and filming his victims’ reactions. This is a film of garish hues and self-aware artificiality; it even begins with a street scene that is clearly set on a sound stage. Coppola would later make his One From the Heart in the key of Powell’s expressive phoniness—and understanding the British master’s anti-realist, self-referential aesthetic is crucial to unpacking the layers of auto-critique in his work.
Within this hyper-simulated milieu, we quickly find ourselves behind the camera, forced to be complicit in the act of watching and killing a prostitute. The artificiality interacts with the guided identification to make you aware you are in a fabricated, controlled universe. There is a character holding a camera and you are seeing from his perspective, but there is also a director constructing the scene, making you see what you’d never imagine yourself to see. Thus, the terror is two-fold; we are witnessing a murder that we’re made to feel like we’re committing, while we understand, on a meta-level, that it’s in fact Powell who is directing our fate.
The British press largely rejected this forced complicity and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a nasty thing to turn your viewers into murderers—especially in the opening scene. Of course, the film was far from “corrupt and empty,” as one reviewer for Evening Standard called it. The forced identification, which begins the film, was a strategic move by Powell to make his motives clear. This is a movie about the corruptible relationship between the director and his audience, or perhaps, between the image and voyeurism. Cinema is our most complex art, as close as we’ve ever come to integrating all the creative disciplines into one glorious medium. But the urge to make films is built, at least partly, on some truly revolting instincts.
Mark is fixated on constantly filming, like those obsessive characters that make all the found footage horror films (and documentaries) possible. He has a director’s chair in his private screening room emblazoned with his name. After he murders his victims on camera, he watches the footage and it brings him to orgasm. His camera is a phallus proxy and his victims are all women, but he’s less obsessed with their sexuality than with his ability to frighten them and capture their faces on film. Mark is after something specific—he’s chasing an elusive image that drives both his artistic and murderous actions. He’s the consummate visionary in that way, driven by his internal artistic impulses, even though they happen not to gel nicely with a functioning society. In another context, with some slight tweaking of his methods and means, we’d all be celebrating his heroic single-mindedness and commitment to his art.
What is this peculiar image that he’s after? A clue comes from an early scene where Mark explains his relationship to his deceased father, who was a biologist that studied fear in humans. He plays footage of himself as a child, when he served as his father’s primary subject. We watch Mark’s father throw a lizard on his sleeping son and then film his child’s shrieking reaction. “I’m sure some good came of his work,” a clearly damaged Mark tells his horrified neighbor. His mother also died on camera and was replaced by a younger woman. Later we see the father give his son his first film camera, passing on his work from the realm of science to the realm of cinema.
The father in these documentary-style scenes was played, of course, by Michael Powell himself. The son was Powell’s real son and the dying woman was his son’s mother. Powell is the clear bifurcated stimulus of Mark Lewis’ derangement; the father is director and the son is character. Everything we see Mark do, then, is scathingly turned inward. Continuing his father’s work is Mark’s motivation for killing women and filming their reactions. The “Mark” character is a manifestation of Powell’s apparent desire to question his own—and our own—compulsion to use cinema to elicit emotional effects in others.
This harrowing, revealing scene about Mark and his father ends with a meta sound edit: a director yells “Cut!” and we are suddenly on a film set where Mark works as an assistant cameraperson. The director of this film-within-a-film is a caricature of the dictatorial filmmaker, unhappy with his lead actress’ performance until she collapses with exhaustion after several takes of a scene. He is a coddled perfectionist who can only exist in the phony word of the lighted soundstage. The director character is far less likable than our sociopathic protagonist. The point is clear: filmmakers are the enemy. Mark’s next victim is the stand-in for the exhausted lead actress and he kills her on set. They find her body during the next day’s filming.
Mark is brought in for questioning and the police naively fondle his camera like it’s an innocent object, ignoring the film inside that would reveal Mark’s guilt. The only character who can “see” Mark for what he truly is happens to be blind and thus immune to the power of images and the manipulations of those who wield them. It turns out Mark’s documentary about fear includes his victims seeing their own reflections as they die. The purest fear is being confronted with fear itself. As the cops finally close in on Mark, he films himself committing suicide in a pre-planned act that includes still cameras capturing his growing terror as he lunges toward his mounted blade. With this act, Mark’s work is complete; the ultimate fear has been filmed, and the manipulator ceased. An editor could now take his footage and create something almost transcendent, I’m sure.
The thematic plot point of Mark showing his victims their own deaths in a mirror plays as Powell imploring his viewers to reflect on a basic nature of cinema. I love movies and I’m honored to make them, but what we filmmakers do is not a clean thing. Martin Scorsese famously said, “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and [Fellini’s] 8½ say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates.” With his masterpiece, Powell created a lasting statement that should be revisited by anyone with an interest in moving images. The film is not a dusty object but a call to examine the sinister, sadistic core of the art form we worship.