Director: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Leo Marks
Voyeur: a person who enjoys seeing the pain or distress of others
It is the beginning scene of Peeping Tom that sets the feel for the rest of the film. A man approaches a sex worker who stands in front of a store window. It is night on the deserted street, and it feels like we are in an Edward Hopper painting. The light is strategic, bold against the shadows. It illuminates our soon-to-be victim, but strategically plunges much of the rest into stillness, as the silhouettes obscure the danger lurking close by. The man hides a camera in his coat as he films his approach, and we see his point of view. It is we who are now the voyeurs, but at a safe distance, away from harm. From unassuming to vivid and shocking terror, the beginning captures the audience and it is here where we see signs of future horror films like Suspiria, Jaws, and Carrie, and future horror masters like Wes Craven, who made it a trademark of their work.
Serial killer, Mark Lewis, played by Carl Boehm, is the type of serial killer we would become too well acquainted with. He is Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ed Edwards. He is clean cut, the boy next door who harbors a deep, sinister, and morbid secret. Throughout and to great affect, screenwriter Leo Marks and director Michael Powell explore the seedy side of humanity. They expose Mark’s childhood and the abuse he endured from his sadistic father. They leave subtle clues that Mark might not be the gentle, awkward introvert those around him think he is, such as his tendency to avoid eye contact, the way he embraces deformity because he connects to it, his darkroom and what he hides in it.
Peeping Tom is an exploration into the mind, its obsessions, and the formation of a serial killer. Mark’s father viewed him as a subject and his continuous filming is evidence of that detachment. Sadly, for as much as father studied son, it appears he never really knew him or cared to know him. Mark feels forever alone and has taken on his father’s voyeuristic tendencies. Mark knows he is ill, and his feelings of alienation spur his continued quest to destroy that part of himself he sees as disfigured. He is desperate for others to feel his pain.
Powell uses vibrant and saturated color juxtaposed against black and white and shadows, to convey his cinematic approach to the theme. Shadows hide the evil that lurks all around while the colors illuminate it. Throughout, the music is dynamic and the often dizzy furor of piano increases the tension as it strikes our senses.
Not to be outdone by its cinematic elements, is the screenplay. Marks shines when he portrays Helen’s distrusting mother as she suspects a dark side of Mark’s character:
Helen: “Don’t you like Mark?”
Mother: “Haven’t met him.”
Helen: “You don’t like him. Why not?”
Mother: “I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.”
Helen: “But he’s shy.”
Mother: “His footsteps aren’t. They’re stealthy.”
Called the British Psycho, the parallels are well-founded, but in subject matter only. Released two months after Peeping Tom, Psycho was based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name. Bloch said that his novel was influenced by the idea of murder in a small town committed by an unsuspecting member of the community, much like the crimes of Ed Gein who lived near Bloch in Wisconsin.1 The well-deserved critical praise heaped on Psycho, though, should not diminish the achievements of Peeping Tom. Powell’s vision was more intellectually curious and visually artistic against Hitchcock’s stark realism, unique cinematography, and shocking moments. Unfortunately, the reception Peeping Tom received could not have been more different, as the controversial film effectively destroyed the until then notable career of director Michael Powell. It would not be until a cult following gave new life to the film and then Martin Scorsese’s restoration and rerelease of the film in 1979, that Powell’s reputation would be partially restored. In 1996, “Entertainment Weekly” would rank Powell 22nd in a poll of the Greatest Directors of all time.2
1 “The Backstory to Robert Bloch’s Psycho.” https://galaxypress.com/backstory-to-psycho/
2 “The 50 Greatest Directors and Their 100 Best Movies.” Entertainment Weekly, April 19, 1996. https://ew.com/article/1996/04/19/50-greatest-directors-and-their-100-best-movies/
Gritten, David. “Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’: the film that killed a career.” The Telegraph. August 27, 2010. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/7967407/Michael-Powells-Peeping-Tom-the-film-that-killed-a-career.html
Martin Scorsese: ‘The movie that plays in my heart’. The Independent. May 15, 2009. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/martin-scorsese-the-movie-that-plays-in-my-heart-1685003.html