We Westerners hate and resist having our hypocrisy exposed. We get that trait honestly and through tradition, having inherited it from both our Puritan forefathers and Mother England. Both sides of the political and ideological spectrum sow vilification when someone, especially an insider, turns the lens on our own hypocrisy. That is true horror; and when an artist does so in film, purportedly the most accessible of mediums, the backlash can be catastrophic. Case in point: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Released the same year as Psycho, Peeping Tom, which is not as overtly violent as‘s classic, nevertheless opened to furiously scathing reviews from American and British critics: “It is the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing” (The Spectator). “The only satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain” (Derek Hill, writing in The Tribune). Audiences reacted with even more hostility, and it took the French to set the record straight a few years later when Peeping Tom was received there to widespread acclaim and enthusiasm.
Peeping Tom committed an unforgivable sin in lensing the hypocritical voyeurism of both filmmakers and film goers (that Powell condemned even himself in the film did not earn him a pardon). Before 1960, Powell’s career was notable, extensive, and esteemed, which included numerous wartime and post-war collaborations with Emeric Pressburger: 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad, 49th Parallel, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, Stairway To Heaven, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Hour Of Glory, to 1951’s The Tales Of Hoffman. Backlash to Peeping Tom was cataclysmic, resulting in Powell being permanently blacklisted by both British and American film industries. He was reduced to working (sporadically) for television and producing only three feature films over the next twenty years. That work included a television treatment of Bela Bartok’s opera “BlueBeard’s Castle” in 1963 and 1969’s bitter, semi-autobiographical Age of Consent.
Predictably, the West eventually came around, and Peeping Tom has now been posthumously recognized here with a reappraisal led by, who famously championed it as one of the great achievements for both Powell and for cinema.
Peeping Tom opens with the first person perspective of Mark Lewis (the eerily blank and blonde Austrian Karlheinz Böhm, son of Fascist conductor Karl Böhm) covertly approaching a prostitute with a rolling 16MM camera hidden under his pervert’s trenchcoat. He throws an empty Kodak box into a trash receptacle , follows the courtasan up to a seedy hotel room, and films her undressing. Lewis zooms in for the extreme close-up on her face, twisted and frozen in fear, as he lunges toward her for the kill. Cut to Lewis’ projection room, with the protagonist in an aisle seat watching his latest cinematic snuff opus. The clattering projector emits the only sound. The grainy, black and white footage is completely silent. Lewis’ voyeuristic experience is purely visual.
Later, Lewis films police removing the dead girl’s body, along with the expressions of a shocked crowd, before he hops onto his motor bike. He is late to his job in a store that caters to dirty old anonymous men who thumb through Lewis’ under-the-counter, softcore views of pin-up women, while pubescent girls come in seeking candy. The scene bluntly oozes Freudian implications. Retail demands of mundane voyeurism empower Lewis’ rancid iconography.
As he photographs a woman, Lewis reacts with orgasmic elation to the view of her disfigured face. “Maybe you can fix my bruises too,” the victimized model tells Lewis (referencing his ability to eradicate imperfections in the dark room). “Oh, I don’t want to,” he sighs, in an understated Aryan whisper, like Peter Lorre in M.
When he returns to the rooming house, Lewis spies the birthday party of giddy downstairs tenant Helen (Anna Massey, in her first film). In turn, she sees Lewis and invites him in. After he awkwardly declines her proposal, she brings a slice of birthday cake up to the handsome loner. Helen belatedly discovers that Lewis is her landlord, not a fellow tenant. He inherited the property from his late father, but wants to be “a director.” When Helen asks to see his films, Lewis strokes the rim of the milk cup he gave her. Although she requests to see his latest endeavor, Lewis takes her into the laboratory-like darkroom and instead shows her home movies from childhood, taken by his sadistic psychiatrist father (played by director Powell). Through the lens, father watches son viewing a couple engaging in hanky panky. Daddy drops a pet lizard in his sleeping son’s bed and captures a predictably frightened reaction. More unsettling is the view of junior photographed beside the corpse of his mother on her deathbed, then meeting her immediate successor, followed by father gifting son his first camera. When Helen demands to know the reasons behind Daddy dearest’s sadism, Lewis evasively coddles his lens.
Working as an assistant on a film, Lewis picks exhibitionistic stand-in Vivian (Moira Shearer) as his next victim. With a phallic blade protruding from his camera, Vivian’s image is forever captured, on a studio lot, after hours, finally making her a star. Powell shrewdly plays on and perverts Shearer’s role from his previous Red Shoes.
For his documentary, Lewis films the discovery of Vivian’s body in a trunk and ensuing investigation, knowing full well that he will be discovered. “They are efficient,” he says, envying the investigating officers.
When Helen kisses Lewis, he kisses the camera. When she touches his lens, he recoils impotently. Only Helen’s alcoholic blind mother sees the authentic portrait of Lewis. As long as Lewis cannot see Helen’s fear, she remains safe. The climax within a climax is an extravagant evolution for Lewis: from daddy’s experiments in terror to his own multi-media performance-art stardom.
Powell’s casting is shrewd, with himself playing the patriarchal ringmaster and his own son as the adolescent Mark Lewis. Originally, Powell had wanted Laurence Harvey in the role of the adult Lewis, but chose instead Böhm. The casting of Esmond Knight as a sadistic director of the film Lewis is working on mirrors Böhms’ own relation with his famous conductor father. In a case of art imitating life, Böhm followed Peeping Tom by collaborating with equally fascistic cult director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, before dedicating the rest of life to charitable work in Ethiopia.