Peeping Toms Everywhere

A nice 35mm print of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is making the theatrical rounds thanks to Rialto Pictures. (Its next three screening engagements are in Boulder, Chicago, and Charlottesville.) Peeping Tom has interesting similarities to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Both were released the same year and feature seemingly shy and timid protagonists with murderous issues. More importantly, both films show venerated directors working at the peak of their powers and delivering an artistic tour-de-force on that core subject that weds an audience to any film: voyeurism. There are also some very important differences. Psycho was shot in black-and-white with a budget of under one million dollars and reaped profits that skyrocketed to a worldwide gross beyond the $50 million mark. Peeping Tom had a similar production budget, but was shot in Powell’s preferred color-saturated medium of Technicolor and was a financial disaster. Even worse, it dealt Powell’s career a crippling blow. Both have now long been studied and revered as masterpieces, so what went wrong for Peeping Tom?

One theory is that Hitchcock was expected to deliver the macabre, whereas Powell (along with frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger) was associated with accessible classics like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). It’s a sad fact; most people don’t like surprises. It reminds me of Adam Sandler fans who walked into Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and then stomped out in a confused rage worthy of Happy Gilmore. Another theory is that Peeping Tom pushed the topic of Scopophila uncomfortably into the foreground whereas Psycho alludes to it obliquely. Hitchcock’s elaborate visual grammar makes it easy enough for any intellectual to dissect, but Psycho also delivers a murder mystery that can be enjoyed by crowds who don’t want to get squeamishly self-conscious on the subject of their own pleasures in watching a person being murdered.

In Peeping Tom, Carl Boehm plays the part of Mark Lewis, a 16mm cameraman obsessed with capturing the essence of the moment when a person realizes they will die. A customized tripod holding the camera becomes the murder weapon, and a parabolic mirror is added for the benefit of the victim to witness their own murder. Phil Hardy nails it best (no pun intended) in his Overlook Film Encyclopedia for Horror:

The Chinese-box structure allows us to watch the image of a film-maker filmically penetrating the object of his desire while he, and we, watch her looking at her own image, unsettlingly splitting the audience’s identification process as we – and he- are both in the position of aggressor and victim, at both ends of the sado-masochistic spectrum. To prevent any avenue of escape or defence, Powell also introduces subjective camera techniques for his soft-porn images, and later, when the police have discovered his victims, links Boehm’s obsession with exactly the kind of images viewers seek in “normal” cinema: scenes showing attractive women, action, emotion, investigations, drama – although each is somehow turned back upon the audience, the porn model is revealed to be scarred, for example.

Peeping Tom‘s foregrounding of Scopophilia is precisely why it is so relevant today. Never before in the history of mankind have so many people derived pleasure and/or cues for how to behave as they do today from a steady stream of visual stimuli. Be it airports, at the bar, watching TV, gazing at our cellphones, laptop, or a passing digital monitor of any kind… we are all bombarded by visual images on a level hardly imagined by our predecessors. Ad folks call these “impressions.” The average person today probably receives as many of these “impressions” in one week as  people during the time of Psycho and Peeping Tom received in the fullness of a whole year. Ironically, rather than becoming more visually literate most of us have succumbed to either a surrendered fatigue or even a blissful acceptance.

Voyeurism has gone viral and continues to fascinate the most uncompromising cinematic intellects of our day (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games comes immediately to mind), but Peeping Tom still towers over the many films that have tackled the subject. Lovingly crafted, criminally reviled in its time, it remains a prophetic power-house of insight into a dark corner of the human psyche that has grown exponentially in our current climate. Think of this country, traumatized by past events, with each person packing a camera in their cell phone, capturing images from Abu Ghraib on down to the most private act in a dorm room, and then posting it to a social network where everyone else can further poke and prod the subject to death (sometimes quite literally, as in the case of Tyler Clementi). We are a nation of Peeping Toms, but unlike Mr. Lewis, only a small minority care to see the reflection.

For more on Peeping Tom, click on the TCM essay below by Felicia Feaster:

http://www.tcm.com/thismonth/article.jsp?cid=102783&mainArticleId=102771

4 Responses Peeping Toms Everywhere
Posted By idawson : October 27, 2010 10:46 am

Thanks for mentioning this film … it is constantly in my rotation of “Must See” films but alas, I do not see. I should make a concerted effort to catch it now.

Posted By idawson : October 27, 2010 10:46 am

Thanks for mentioning this film … it is constantly in my rotation of “Must See” films but alas, I do not see. I should make a concerted effort to catch it now.

Posted By ptsbobby : October 28, 2010 9:57 am

What a shame that this misunderstood classic ruined its director’s career. It remains a rare and difficult film to find. I was able to get a decent quality download of it, but I wish TCM would give it another run soon

Posted By ptsbobby : October 28, 2010 9:57 am

What a shame that this misunderstood classic ruined its director’s career. It remains a rare and difficult film to find. I was able to get a decent quality download of it, but I wish TCM would give it another run soon

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