Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a perfectionist. Or rather he strives for perfection--he wants to shoot the perfect movie. His obsession blinds him to everything and everyone that gets in the way of his goal, including and especially the "actors" he photographs.
Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" opens on a darkened London street (1). A woman of the night stands before a store window waiting for a customer. A man approaches, a running movie camera partially concealed under his coat. The woman sees the camera, is unimpressed (2). "Two quid," she says and turns toward her building. Mark follows, his camera running. In the room we see her only through the camera's lens. She begins disrobing, looks up with initial curiosity, then sees something truly terrifying. She cringes as the camera comes in for a close-up, then screams her horror (3). She is Mark's first "subject."
We learn that Mark is a focus puller for a major movie company. His side job is filming models (4), the pictures to be sold to gentlemen so inclined. The blond Milly (4) will become Mark's third and last "captured" quarry near the end of the film.
We will eventually learn that Mark Lewis is being driven to voyeurism and murder because of a traumatic childhood. He begins to open up to Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), a fellow renter in the house that had once belonged to his family. He tells her that his father, a psychiatrist, "was interested in the reaction of the nervous system to fear...especially fear in children and how they react to it." He adds, "I think he learned a lot from me." Helen asks to see some of his movies. He is at first reluctant, but her genuine interest changes his mind. His father's home movies are a series of vignettes of childhood terrors: a lizard put on the boy's bed as he is awakening (5); Mark compelled to go to his dead mother's bedside (6); forced to accept his mother's "successor" (7); his father's gift of a camera (8) which will eventually seal his fate.
At first Helen is amused seeing Mark as a child, but she soon is horrified by Dr. Lewis's misuse of his son for scientific purposes. When Mark tries to take her picture as she views the home movies, she makes him stop. She is, in effect, the first of Mark's female acquaintances who refuses to be captured by his camera. Strangely, this pleases him. He will not try to photograph her again.
The second and most compelling of Mark's photography sessions takes place in the film company's vast sound stage. Vivian (Moira Shearer), a stand-in, has ambitions to become a lead actress. (One of the ironies in the film is having Moira Shearer play a stand-in; just a few years earlier she had starred in the Powell-Pressburger hit "The Red Shoes," a critical and commercial success which made her an international star.) Mark has offered to give her a kind of screen test after hours. After everyone has departed, Vivian warms up by doing a rather stylized dance that she hopes will get her in the mood for her test (9). Mark suggests she try playing a frightened woman, something that will stretch her acting range. But she's too relaxed she says, she just doesn't feel it. Mark insists. "What would frighten me to death?" she asks herself. He tells her to imagine a madman who wants to kill her, "but to kill you isn't enough for him." Vivian doesn't know it, but the man before her is that madman and his overriding interest is to film, like his father, genuine fear. Viv begins to get an inkling of what Mark is up to once he unsheathes the knife that's been hidden in one of the tripod's legs (10). He approaches. This time he will get his perfect picture: great lighting, perfect focus, attractive subject and, most importantly, genuine fear (11).
The screen fades to black, we hear a scream, then an abrupt fade-in to the face of Helen's mother, who is blind (12). Mrs. Stephens is aware of her daughter's interest in Mark, realizes that she is falling in love with him. Her intuition tells her Helen is in danger. Mark appears at their window (13). Helen beckons him to come in. When she asks her mother how she knows that it is Mark, she says, "The back of my neck told me." Powell films their first encounter with a complex dissolve of Mark's face superimposed on Mrs. Stephens sitting on her couch, a cinematic trope which clues us to the most complex relationship in the film: Mark looks straight at the camera, Mrs. Stephens is inside his head (14). He is visibly troubled, probably senses that this woman is on to him. Unlike the scenes in which Mark films and finally kills young women, and the scenes between Mark and Helen, the interplay involving Mark and the older Mrs. Stephens has a decidedly erotic aura. Not only is Mrs. Stephens Helen's mother, she is also her shield against a man who has the power to violate her daughter. Her strategy is to let Mark know she is not fooled, she sees him better than those with sight.
Returning home from their first date, Helen kisses Mark in the hallway (15), then goes to her room. Mark's mother's room in fact. Mark presses his camera on the spot where Helen's lips touched him (16). In his studio he begins his nightly ritual of running his most recent film footage. This night it's the killing of Vivian. He sits next to his camera, starts the projector. There's a noise. He realizes he is not alone. Mrs. Stephens has been waiting for him in the dark. When he approaches her, she extends her cane, her sharp-pointed cane. "Take my to your cinema," she commands him. The projector continues to run as he leads her toward the screen. At the instant before Vivian is stabbed, Mark is close enough to touch the screen. It's as though he wants to enter the frame and relive her death. As he moves even closer, he blocks part of the screen. Vivian's terrified face is projected onto the back of his jacket, contorting her features so that they resemble a skull--her skull (17). Behind him Mrs. Stephens says, "What am I seeing, Mark?" The film ends.
Mark, however, is completely distraught, and pounds his fists on the blank screen (18). "It's no good," he sobs. "The lights fade too soon." His picture is not perfect after all. He looks at Mrs. Stephens, "Now I have to find another one."
"Peeping Tom" is as much about the cinema as about the deranged mind of a killer, as much about the director's gaze and search for perfection as about Freudian and Oedipal psychosis. When Mrs. Stephens runs her hands over Mark's face minutes later he asks, "You taking my picture?" (19). We think back to the last person who did take his picture, his father. This scene of Mrs. Stephens caressing his face takes place in the exact spot where Helen had kissed him. Now as Mrs. Stephens caresses Mark's face, the blind mother senses the horror he has undergone and the horror he is capable of. She wishes him cured but is powerless to effect it. The fact that this takes place outside Helen's--and his mother's room--gives the scene an eerily oedipal feel.
"Peeping Tom" came out a few months before Hitchcock's "Psycho." But their respective receptions were light years apart: Hitch was hailed as a master of the psychological thriller while Micky Powell was excoriated to the point that he was forced to leave England if he wanted to continue making movies. I suspect that Powell's film got under the skin of critics who thought he had gone too far with his parallels of the psychotic home filmmaker and the British film industry which, from Powell's point of view, clung too closely to sure-fire, safe, commercial fare. It's one thing to talk about voyeurism and sadism in the abstract, quite another to show it on screen and have the filmmaker being both a voyeur and a serial killer.
One reason for these critics' squeamishness, I suspect, was the performance of Carl Boehm's as Mark. Yes, he is creepy but oddly sympathetic, not unlike Norman Bates. Where Norman had to deal with his wacky mother, Mark had an obsessively directive father, played by Powell himself. Then there is Anna Massey's expressive face (20) which mirrors our own bewilderment: she is drawn to Mark because of his sensitivity, yet her perceptive intuition sees the child within him wanting desperately to escape his father's hold. Maxine Audley plays the crucial role of Helen's mother Mrs. Stephens and is the very incarnation of the possessive and castrating mother who will do anything to protect her daughter. Yet here too we have a woman who believes that there is good in this man. The critics, however, would buy none of this.
It has taken some forty years for "Peeping Tom" to recover from its initial reception as "sickening" and "filthy." We may or may not accept the film's psychoanalytic stance; nevertheless, its visual richness, Leo Marks's literate and complex script, the intricate analysis of gender and looking (especially the male gaze) (21), all these insure its current reputation as a masterpiece of cinematic imagination.
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