Peeping Tom (1960)

Dir. Michael Powell. Starring Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

Cats, for the most part, don’t like citrus scents. Making your couch smell like lemon, for example, will reduce the cat’s desire to climb it, scratch it, or otherwise kill it. I know about this because I’ve tried it on my cat before (who is terrible and doesn’t care a whit what something smells like), but because I’ve also seen other cats sniff lemons and oranges. Their little faces screw up; their eyes narrow and they lean their heads back, all but saying “I don’t like that.” Peeping Tom is not frightening, but it is a champion of all the movies that have ever endeavored to make its audience think, “I don’t like that.”

The movie rapidly gives us reason to recoil; the handheld camera is shown in a man’s jacket, and the crosshairs are a clear statement that the prostitute this man is filming is a target. They go upstairs. The filmmaker drops an empty box for film into the trash. She takes some of her clothes off. She lies down on the bed. And as the camera comes nearer, she begins to scream. A projector, lit as much in red as anything else, rolls, and then so do the opening credits. It’s still disturbing after all these years, which is an immense triumph for a movie better than fifty years old. The hits continue rolling. Mark (Boehm) kills at least twice more during the movie and threatens to do so another time. The corpses are always found – Mark does not work very hard to hide any of them – but the viewers never see them. The prostitute is covered up with a sheet; his last victim, a frequent model for dirty pictures, does not even get the privilege of having the building she’s killed in shown after her death, much less her person. Vivian (Moira Shearer), a stand-in who Mark films dancing around the set of an actual movie, is crammed into a trunk where an actress accidentally finds her during a take. She screams and faints dead away. (The movie’s only laugh out loud moment belongs to Esmond Knight, playing a difficult director named Baden. When the actress faints, the irony of the situation strikes him; he’d spent dozens of takes trying to get her to faint properly the day before. “The silly bitch has fainted in the wrong scene!” he cries. It’s the epitome of comic relief, with the emphasis of course on “relief.”)

Peeping Tom uses the murders to move the plot along, but only the first killing sends shivers up the spine. If that were true, then we would fear for Helen’s (Massey) life throughout the movie, even though it’s fairly clear that she’s the safest person in town. The most disturbing aspects of the film are, predictably, in childhood. Mark reveals that his father, the renowned behavioral scientist A.N. Lewis, used his son as his primary test subject to study fear. The house that he still lives in is wired for sound in every room, and numerous short films exist of the young Mark. All of them add up to his current mental illness. In one short, he looks over the fence at a couple kissing and then smiles back at the camera. In another, a flashlight is shined on the boy, waking him up in a state of confusion. In a third, by far the most unexpected and dismaying of the bunch, a foot-long lizard appears on the boy’s bed. He screams and screams. The lizard is close to him, moving a little but never lunging. Helen is as confused as the rest of us, in the moment, as to why this is happening. The lizard is too big to be British; he must have been placed there for some reason, and finding out later on that the lizard was put there by the father explicitly to terrify the son is not a good one. Helen is aghast at what Professor Lewis did. So are we; isn’t it clear to the man that filming his son’s every reaction, from watching quiet romance to seeing his mother’s corpse, that he’s sending a child straight to the bin? What’s much more interesting is the casting of the father, which I had somehow never come across in my previous reading on Peeping Tom and which hit me like a blow to the jaw. Michael Powell himself plays the elder Lewis in a couple of the shorts that Mark has lying around. He knows it matters, too. Mark makes a point of noting that his father is out of focus the first time we see him, but then he comes into focus a few moments later; it’s the cinematic equivalent of an MC asking for applause for the next performer before he comes onstage.

I don’t usually love to make judgments on a movie based on the director’s life or personality, but it’s not often that a non-acting director throws him- or herself into the film in such a meaningful part. (Directors like Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood are obviously different quantities.) Hitchcock’s cameos were an inside joke between himself and his audience. Francis Ford Coppola’s appearance in Apocalypse Now as a TV director or documentary filmmaker imploring soldiers not to look at his camera, to just keep going towards the fight, is an interesting if brief commentary on the homefront’s understanding of the Vietnam War. In this movie, Powell uses his own career as a cudgel. On one hand, A.N. Lewis’ fascination with filming and recording every bit of his son’s life is consistent with a film director who is, in reality, filming his literal son; the boy Mark is played by Powell’s son, Columba. Helen’s reaction to the professor is that he is needlessly cruel to his son, which is an evaluation I imagine most of us would agree with. By making himself both director within the film and director of the film, Powell makes a scathing suggestion: what if we viewers are complicit in this ugly terror? He suggests that just as A.N. Lewis dominated and terrified Mark, so will he dominate and terrify us, and the suggestion is all the more powerful because we are volunteers in Powell’s own experiment. Mark was a boy with no other family, but we at least have the power to leave the theater or turn the movie off. Yet we defer it to the man behind the camera.

The professor’s actions during Mark’s formative years are quietly blamed for son’s sexual and psychopathic neuroses. A psychologist Mark runs into on the set of the movie he’s assisting with throws “scoptophilia” at him, a term that is probably best known to movie viewers without the ‘t’ and from the pen of Laura Mulvey. He loves to watch, gaining vast pleasure from his ability to see. The camera is essential to getting off for him, allowing him to boost his powers of seeing while giving him the ability to go back and play it again and again, as often as he likes. His father, who kept copious notes and many films of his son, taught him that the camera is as magical and powerful as Christian Metz imagined it to be. It has the power to create fear, to return us again and again to the site of great triumph, to be manipulated so that it suits our desire. Perhaps the director is deranged, too, Powell seems to suggest, and that the director’s illness is transmittable, even especially catching in comparison to other sicknesses. (Certainly this is the tack that Mulvey takes, albeit without so much talk of the director. Even if “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” feels reductive in the years since its publication, there’s no doubt that we moviegoers love to watch the private, closest moments in the lives of others. As it is for Mark, and probably for his father, the feeling of immense power we breathe in as we watch private conversations, bedroom trysts, mental trauma, and the like must be something like divine wholeness) In the opening scene is the projector, not the killer or the killed, who gets the money shot. We are placed behind the camera, putting one innocent woman after another into the crosshairs and striking immeasurable fear into her as she screams. Powell raises the question of what might be happening to us as we drop our spirits, time after time, into the spinning wheels of a movie projector.

If Peeping Tom is terrifying, it has much more to do with the movie’s suppositions than with its events. Mark is an inventive serial killer but not an especially sinister one even by the standards of old Jack the Ripper. Certainly he is not prolific enough to inspire some kind of encompassing fear in the people of London. But the idea that there might be many Marks in the world, each of them steeped in home movies and a projector in a makeshift darkroom, each of them made dangerous by a cruel upbringing and the onset of puberty, is unsettling in the extreme.

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