Peeping Tom (1960) Revisited

Peeping Tom (1960)Notably the film that practically killed Michael Powell‘s career dead, a film that scared the world just before we were shocked by Psycho (1960). You could say it was a matter of timing with Alfred Hitchcock‘s film that altered the language of film forever. So why am I returning to this film? It’s a question I’m still asking myself, Peeping Tom (1960) is one of those film I was originally recommended to me at university. It’s a film about the desires of film-makers really if anything else, equally about those who watch them and the power that the medium we have come to be in awe off in the last 120 years. The power of the medium from a side-show attraction to a multi-billion dollar business with a fully formed language that depicts all aspects of life from the mundane, the daily to the fantastical. Yet to understand the power and the darker limits of the medium, we usually avoid them.

The camera as a tool captures all that it sees, it never lies until, unless the image before has been manipulated. In some cultures it’s believed to take part of your soul if it looks at you. Part of yourself imprinted and shared with the world. Projected on a scale that we could at first not fathom, the power of the image over an audience is a spell yet to be broken. Today we can capture and record images at the touch of a button and a bit of memory on a phone. These images still can have the power to scare or even humiliate. Film is a medium that goes beyond just another creative expression it has the power to tell the truth or even manipulate. This is just a basic description of the power of film.

So why return to Peeping Tom I still find I am asking myself, it felt like a test more than anything to see if I could still be provoked by it, a film that is as much gripping as it is perverse, it’s as much terrifying as its addictive. It’s a film of emotional contradictions that is both in love with the medium yet fears how far we can push it to the limits of decency. Filmed using stock used for pornography it already attached the dirty aesthetic of being something to be either a fetish or adored. It took a while to find a healthy balance. It is a film that at the time of release had the same reaction of Marmite – you either love it or you hate it.

It has become a film about film in a fictional realm where the gaze is lethal. Making the actions in Rear Window (1954) look tame in comparison. When a murders observed from a distance, now the act take place involving the camera. It records the act, the reaction of the victim as the violently die on-camera. Very few people have died on camera – ignoring war-time footage, Death is a very private moment in a person’s life. We see murder take place 3 times over the course of the film. We are first trapped behind the camera-mans gaze as he carries out the first murder, we’re trapped indirectly, unable to look away at this blend of horror-pornography. It’s only the fact that Powell’s credit the beginning of the film that we are in for more of a horror than the adult blue film this could become. We don’t really know what has happened this early into the film, We only know that Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) has committed the act, but how or why is still a mystery.

We learn that he is an outsider socially when he returns home, catching the attention of birthday girl Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) and is allowed into his world where we learn he in living in the shadow of his father, whose home-movies are research into human fear. We also have the classic German villain, made only 15 years after the end of WWII there are still tensions, a man not to be trusted, luring Helen into his world, I wonder if she is next, I really had forgotten how this film plays out. I could only remember the film studio murder, built up with Vivian (Moira Shearer) being lulled into a false sense of security, The act’s captured twice, once for us, another for Mark, part of his own film (or documentary). A film maker with dark motive and drives that we still can’t understand.

Mark is very much a product of his fathers up-bringing, wanting to complete his work. When the police begin to investigate the second murder he doesn’t run and hide; he wants to film it all. As if he enjoys the investigation, not caring if they find him. Its only when he’s made aware of his problem does he begin to unravel before us. Realised by Helen’s mother (Maxine Audley) a blind woman whose remaining senses allow her to see what is blind to the others. There was a part of me that thought that Helen was another victims, which really would have been a betrayal to the audience, innocent to what was going on, even inspired by her new friends hobby.

Peeping Tom is not a film for the passing fan of Powell and Pressburger who have given us numerous delightful and powerful British films. It’s quintessentially British in tone which makes it fascinating, how can something so dark come out of this little Island. Well look back at the duo’s work together, they’re drenched in the darkness Black Narcissus (1947), the psychology in the film that drives the sisters to the brink. We’re pushed to the limits of what cinema can do, what the medium can do in terms of content and the ideas it can convey before becoming something that is not fit for consumption. It’s a fine line which Powell walked, his inner drives of what it means to be a film-maker, how far do you push the medium to get the results you want. Lastly its shows us up as voyeurs, who all congregate in a dark room and stare. Instead of the loners who use a telescope or long-lens camera. We are in a sense as bad as those loners, except our habit is accepted as the norm.

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