Why Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is as startling and prescient as ever
50th anniversary re-issue of film that dissects vicarious thrill of the audience
Peeping Tom, which this month celebrates its 50th anniversary, is a film that was truly ahead of its time, writes Niki Boyle
Upon its release, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was regarded as an abomination in celluloid, denounced by critics with a hysterical fervour: while it may be easy to scoff at The Daily Mail’s judgement of the film as ‘a thoroughly nasty piece of horror,’ it was harder to swallow the liberal Guardian’s verdict that the horror ‘is made all the nastier by its heavily assumed air of psychological studiousness,’ or the views of the democratic-socialist Tribune, which declared that ‘the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer,’ going so far as to add that, ‘even then the stench would remain.’
What’s even more surprising is that this torrent of bile and vitriol was directed at Powell, who at this stage in his career was a respected British filmmaker in mild decline. Along with Hungarian filmmaking partner Emeric Pressburger, he had created such beloved cinematic masterpieces as Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale, among many others.
What could he have done to so provoke the ire of the critics?
In actual fact, he had made a film that inspired discomfort because it acted as an indictment of the cinemagoers themselves. The protagonist, Mark Lewis (played by the blankly unthreatening Carl Boehm), works as a focus puller on film sets by day, while occupying his leisure time by murdering attractive young women with a knife concealed in his camera tripod. Using this technique, he aims to capture an expression of pure terror on his victims’ faces as they meet their end. It turns out that young Mark was subjected to similar, less deadly experiments by his psychologist father, who filmed the results, and as such, he’s grown up a tad unbalanced. To add an extra layer of twisted melodrama, Powell himself played the demonic patriarch in the tormenting home videos, using his real life son as a stand-in for the young Mark.
What critics at the time failed to understand was that this was not just an exercise in getting cheap thrills; this was a dissection of the vicarious thrill audiences experienced when watching a horror film. The peeping tom of the title referred in part to Lewis, this is true; but it also referred to every single person sitting in the cinema, who felt simultaneously thrilled and disgusted by the violent acts carried out on screen for their gratification. There’s even a vein of coal black gallows humour running through the film, which must have incensed the critics even more: when Lewis shows up at the scene of his latest crime holding a camera, the attending policeman assumes he must be a reporter, and asks which newspaper he’s from. ‘The Observer,’ he replies, drily.
That the film was recognised for its true breadth and scope before Powell passed away is a small mercy; at the time of his death in 1990, Powell’s legacy was already being revived by über fan Martin Scorsese and his young wife and film editor Thelma Shoonmaker. Ironically it was the very film that had brought about his downfall was enjoying fresh critical appreciation thanks in part to the championing efforts of Scorsese, who claimed that, in conjunction with Fellini’s 8 ½, Peeping Tom said ‘everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates.’
A smaller mercy still is that Powell died before his film became reality: the audience’s vicarious joy in the destruction of others has been present in the rise of *3You’ve Been Framed*2- style hidden camera shows; the user-generated content of YouTube and secretive voyeur porn in the less salubrious corners of the internet; and even in the initial stages of X Factor, where hapless contestants martyr themselves in front of a baying audience in a parody of ancient gladiatorial sacrifice. To say that Peeping Tom was under-appreciated in its time is an understatement; as its 50th anniversary approaches, it can be held up with the likes of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 as startlingly and worryingly prescient.
Peeping Tom, Cameo, Edinburgh Fri 3-Thu 9 Dec; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tue 4-Thu 6 Jan.