“They said you needn’t photograph my face” Says a model with a slight lip deformity. Mark the central character in ‘Peeping Tom’ (1960, Michael Powell) eye’s glaze over as he replies “But I want to” memorized by her eyes, beauty and her disfigured lip combined.
‘Peeping Tom’ has always been much more than a simple thriller film about a serial killer. The initial disdain and negative reaction from critics is perceived to be about the grizzly nature of the murders and it’s the casual attitude to porn in 1960.“Which magazines sells the most copies”…”Those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls”. However the mass disgust from critics and spectators which would lead to Powell’s career downfall may come from his innovative approach to portraying a serial killer. ‘Peeping Tom’ is about the many psychological layers of obsession.
Mark’s father’s obsession with using a camera to document and analyze human reaction to fear throughout his childhood leads adult Mark to in turn become obsessed with cameras and filming his victims reactions to being murdered. Audiences are never sure whether he is more obsessed with the camera or the victims. He would never have killed a victim if he was unable to capture their dying moments on film with a camera. There is a fantastic chilling moment at the height of a climatic emotional sequence with his love interest Helen’s mother. Mark moans in disgust, not because he feels remorse but because the lights fade too quickly in one of his shots and he feels the need to re-shoot with a new victim. The revolutionary idea of exploring the psychological aspect of being fascinated and mesmerized by what repulses us the most was too forward thinking for British 60’s audiences. The horror lies in the psyche of both the central disturbed character as well the audiences.
By Powell frequently putting viewers in the point of view of the killer through cinematography, he creates stronger link between them and Mark. As the narrative progresses with Mark’s awkward social presence, difficult childhood and his relationship with Helen develop, audiences somehow feel empathy for a man who essentially makes near snuff films. Neither hating him, liking him nor understanding him. In the film he makes a documentary about being serial killer, viewers are more or less watching the unedited version. Through watching it, we the audience become obsessed with Mark and Powell highlights the voyeuristic nature of all cinema and film itself.
The extremely well placed role of Helen’s mother Mrs Stephens, who being blind sees everything and nothing. Mark who thrives off facial expressions of fright, can’t read or intimidate her. Her instinct is that Mark is not what he seems. Of all the people including police, victims, work mates and Helen, it’s her mother he fears most.
“How did you know he was there?”…
“The back of my neck told me” – [Chuckles]
Helen’s growing relationship with the once lonely shy Mark allows him to feel ‘normal’. Through falling for a girl, taking her out and showing him a less guarded side of himself he gains some temporary peace. Perhaps this draws attention to western society’s need for people to play roles, resulting in people leading different lives due to what we have been told is ‘normal’ and ‘appropriate’ behavior. There are things Mark does with his camera in private he would never do in public, similarly there are many things people do in private they would never do in public.
The film within film was relatively new at the time of release. Helen cries “It’s just a film, isnt it?” whilst accidentally finding Mark’s film of a murder, Helen which is really just an actress playing a role within the film ‘Peeping Tom’, the forward thinking irony is not lost. The back drop of the film set, makeshift photography studio where props aid him in murder and when questioned by a passer by why he is filming the collection of a victim he claims to be from ‘The Observer’ Powell’s subtle wit makes a tense film more digestible.
The central themes have become even more relevant today than ever, Powell suggests that the biggest danger in the film itself is the camera, which speaks volumes about people’s natural voyeur tendencies to observe other people’s privacy from a safe distant perhaps like the internet. Using a camera to film and capture reality is almost impossible. By asking someone if they would like to be filmed or photographed you set a stage and atmosphere, but by not asking them you violate and intrude on their privacy. The renewed interest of recent due to the restoration allows a new digital generation to interpret Powell’s masterpiece with fresh eyes.
Von Von Lamunu