In the world of voyeuristic cinema there has only been one movie that keeps coming to mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). It’s been well documented and discussed over the years how self-reflexive it is, how Hitch creates layers by having us spy on the characters in the movie whom themselves are spying on others, and we all take very great pleasure in it. But while LB Jefferies takes a more passive approach to voyeurism in Rear Window (the level of his passiveness can be debated), Mark in Peeping Tom is the epitome of aggressiveness. He’s not handicapped nor is he trying to catch a murderer in the act; he’s a murderer himself and he films his kills.
However Peeping Tom is not just a thrilling look at voyeurism, it’s also a study of psychoanalysis, and the roles men and women play in cinema. I won’t go into that though; it’s a discussion that can be saved for an academic essay. But just to give you a gist, it deals with the female character often being portrayed as a passive damsel — either existing to be saved or to be the object of the male character’s sexual desire (in what can be referred to as scopophilia, the love of looking) — while the male is portrayed as the active hero. Of course, with anything, there are subversions, and what I find most interesting is that Peeping Tom both conforms to this notion as well as subverts it. It conforms by having female characters whose only roles are to die, and it subverts by having a strong-willed female whom at one point almost made me believe that she had our male lead strung up by his testicles (not literally of course). So what role does the woman play?
The movie is about a serial killer named Mark (Karlheinz Bohm) who has a very unique way of carrying out his kills: he films his victims’ dying moments. Not the whole act, just their faces. He wants to capture the fear in their eyes as they realize the horror of what’s happening to them. So taboo was this topic back in the late ’50s, and so loathed was the film, that Peeping Tom was pulled out of theatres and ended the career of its director Michael Powell. Of course when you watch it now it’s impossible to comprehend the hysteria it caused, but it did cause quite the hysteria, and like many controversial movies, it has aged perfectly over time and is now considered to be Powell’s masterpiece.
So what makes it so enduring? It can’t be the acting, because in many parts the acting is horrendous. It can’t be the mise-en-scene, because many details are outdated. So perhaps it’s the themes of the movie, the ones I mentioned above. Here we have a man who himself is a model of many layers. He’s a very complex soul, and like Norman Bates, has a tortured and conflicted past. But while Norman had an overbearing mother, Mark had a creepily psychotic father who used to film him at night and put lizards on his bed just to freak him out. His father’s first gift to him was a camera, and that’s why he treasures it so. He’s a photographer and a focus puller by day, and an experimentalist killer by night. His entire life is one big experiment, a sort of documentary on fear, and to Mark, it’s like a tribute to the work of his father (who sought to study and understand the science of fear, but while his father looked for it in children, Mark looks for it in women).
Mark’s also complex because there’s an abundance of good in him as well. When he falls in love with a tenant of his house, Helen (Anna Massey), she gradually begins to reveal the innocence within. He allows her not only into his room, but also into his secret ritualistic chamber where he screens his snuff footage after every kill. You can tell from the way he moves around in it that the space is his, yet he lets Helen explore it. Even though she takes a few liberties and becomes more annoying than inquisitive, Mark never gets flustered by her. For once he sees a woman as a person instead of an object of sex and death, and he’s able to do this because he distinguishes friend from victim through the lens of his camera. The scene in which Helen plays around with Mark’s camera reveals this: she points the camera at herself, saying she wonders what capturing herself would be like. Almost instantly, Mark snatches the camera from her and cradles it, saying something like “Not you. It can never capture you”. The camera is his conscience; it decides for him who to kill and who to spare, and so he becomes a slave to it.
Peeping Tom delves into the human psyche probably more so than Hitchcock’s Psycho does. It’s also less graphic and, to use the word loosely, violent. Powell draws our attention to Mark’s turmoil instead of flooding our eyes with blood and our ears with screams, and I think this makes the movie just that bit more unsettling. Tension is built in quiet and dark moments, and is escalated via smart uses of light. To confuse and mislead his victims, Mark shines lights on their faces and plays around with them, spinning them around, turning them on and off. It’s a dance of deadly seduction. But the most important light he manipulates is the light reflecting off a mirror. What mirror exactly I won’t say; it’s a spoiler best kept a secret, but it ties up the movie nicely.
I read somewhere that Mark is actually a protagonist. Can it be possible for a serial killer to be a protagonist? Dexter’s a protagonist isn’t he? We sympathise with him, just as we sympathise with Mark. He’s a killer but he doesn’t want to be one. He wants to be normal like everyone else (hence the mundane day job), but his past has prevented that. And so Peeping Tom, a movie about looking, lets us look into the life of a man who is every bit as corrupt as the crimes he commits. It is this obsession with the “love of looking” that has endured over the years, and that has kept Peeping Tom looking fresh despite its antiquation. Mark is a voyeur of the highest order, and so are we.
Best Moment | The first time Helen enters Mark’s room, she asks to see some of his films. He’s smiling and his tone is quite chirpy, but suddenly it changes when he says “Would you like to see them now?”. His eyes widen and his gaze becomes stiff. He smells blood.
Worst Moment | The first time Helen enters Mark’s room, she asks to see some of his films. While he shows them to her, she keeps making stupidly redundant comments and asking ridiculous questions like “What is that light on your face?” and “Naughty boy! I hope you got spanked!”. Just be patient and let the film run.