Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Peeping Tom

On the weekend, I caught a screening of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom at the Academy. I had heard of this movie for years, but had never seen it before.


Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) loves filming with his camera. The only thing he loves more is what he films. Though he is good-looking and unobtrusive, Mark is seriously disturbed. Permanently scarred by his scientist father's experiments on him as a child, Mark is obsessed with capturing fear on film. And he is more than capable of killing to get the image he desires...


Directed by the great Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffman), Peeping Tom was released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Unlike Hitch's effort, Powell's film was met with critical disgust and effectively ended his career in his homeland. Beloved by cinephiles, Peeping Tom has undergone a complete critical reversal (Martin Scorsese is a massive fan).

This movie is not really about the acting. Boehm is a good lead as Mark (even with his German accent). Moira Shearer, the star of Powell's The Red Shoes, plays Mark's would-be romantic interest, Vivian. She's fine, but the role is more a functional signpost for Mark's journey, rather than a character in her own right. Anna Massey also appears as Vivian's mother. She is blind, a factor which deeply unnerves Mark. She is the one character who can never be a part of his plans. The scene in which she appears out of the darkness in Mark's dark room makes no sense but leads to one of the best set pieces in the film.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, the most notable player is the person playing Mark's father: in a nasty meta-textual twist, Lewis Sr. is played by Powell himself. Both within the story and outside of it, Powell is responsible for orchestrating the action. To be honest, Powell's casting of himself is symptomatic of the movie as a whole: the actors really feel like pieces of a puzzle - they do their bit and it serves the film's underlying themes. And it is on THAT level where Peeping Tom is fascinating.
The reason why Peeping Tom has attained such a place with film theorists and fans, and the reason why it is so disturbing, over sixty years since its release, is because it is about movies. Throughout the movie, Michael Powell draws attention to concepts which general audiences are rarely forced to consider: movie direction, the objectivity of the camera, and their own positions as viewers.

From the opening scene, the viewer is aligned with Mark's camera, forced to follow his lead. Like a film director, he guides what the viewer and his victims are allowed to see. His entire modus operandi is based around provoking fear through images. His goal is not solely to record his victims' deaths, but to force them to view their own final moments via a mirror attached to the front of his camera.


Despite Mark's crimes, the movie is not that explicit (censorship standards were still in force). Somehow this does not blunt the movie's effect. Like Hitchcock, Powell recognises the power of unseen violence, and only reveals Mark's methods piece by piece, over the course of the film. The effect is unsettling, and provides one of the film's most disturbing sequences, when Vivian sits down to watch the film in Mark's home projector. Having already shown the viewer what he has been up to, Powell never shows what she sees, playing the scene out on her face.

As with all Powell's work, Peeping Tom looks amazing. Vivid colour fills the frame of every shot - while not as artificial as his earlier work, the intent appears to be to align the viewer with Mark's POV. Whenever Mark photographs something with his camera, Powell adopts a composition which is particularly eye-catching (the shot down the alley of the police carrying one of Mark's victims to an ambulance; the overhead shot of the police examining the body in the trunk). In this way, Powell is forcing the viewer to take on some of Mark's passion: we start to view the story through his lens, waiting for moments worth recording. It creates a strange kind of empathy between Mark and the viewer. With such beautiful compositions happening around him, it makes sense that he would want to capture them for his film.

Mark's quest to make his movie is mirrored by his workplace, a movie studio where a director is driven around the bend by his star's inability to complete basic tasks (ironically, the film he is working on is a comedy). Like Mark, he is obsessed with getting the scene right, running through dozens of takes to get the proper effect. Mark echoes this frustration in a later scene in which he reviews footage of his latest crime when the film cuts off before his victim's face can be fully registered by the camera.

I want to delve more into it, but it feels a bit redundant. There's over forty years of scholarship and analysis into Peeping Tom, and  I'm not really in a postion to offer anything that new.

The film has been compared to Psycho, due to the fact that they were both thrillers about mentally disturbed killers released in 1960. While there are a few surface comparisons to be made, they really bear little resemblance to each other. Certainly, considering Hitch's use of a camera that is never entirely objective or subjective, Peeping Tom could be read as a commentary on his style of film direction... but that is another blog post.

Ultimately, that is really subjective. Psycho is not among my favourites of Hitch's work, so Powell has a leg up on that count. I would say that Peeping Tom strikes me as colder, and more cerebral. Unlike Hitch's film, Peeping Tom does not blow it with a long-winded explanation of Mark's condition. Powell finds a variety of ways to lay out Mark's backstory (the home movies are creepy as hell) while avoiding the need for a massive exposition dump. Powell provides just enough information without dissipating the mystery entirely.

Suffice it to say, if you are a fan of horror cinema, or movies in general, you need to see Peeping Tom.  It is a unique, terrifying experience that is far more disturbing for its implications than what it shows. It's been a few days, but I still cannot shake it.

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