Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Peeping Tom


Peeping Tom was a breaking point in the career of director Michael Powell, the end of his productive association with Emeric Pressburger, who had co-directed most of Powell's previous run of films throughout the 40s and 50s. Powell went solo for Peeping Tom, and audiences of the time proved unprepared for its psychosexual darkness, its ugliness and brutality, its stark frankness about the sexual thrills of murder experienced by a shy, quiet young man working in a film studio. One would expect that such shocks would not endure, that audiences would become inured to such horrors — and, indeed, the reputations of Powell and Peeping Tom have been rehabilitated since the initial controversy. But this is not to say that the shock of the film itself has worn off. It is still an extraordinarily tense, raw film, dealing with some nasty and discomfiting emotions in a very open way, laying bare the despicable violence that lurks within the impulse to voyeurism, including or especially the voyeurism of the movie theater.

The voyeuristic murders in Peeping Tom are explicitly linked to the cinema, and Powell places his audience in the position of the voyeur, admiring the victim through the lens, thrilling on the expressions of fear and revulsion that pass across the faces of the young women about to be killed. Right from the opening scenes, in which a killer stalks a prostitute, Powell places the audience in a voyeuristic position by filming from the point of view of the killer, with the view-finding crosshairs of the camera centered on his victim as though marking her for death the moment she appears in the frame. Later, a murder takes place on a movie set, with the eager young extra Vivian (Moira Shearer) posing happily for the camera until she realizes that her photographer has a darker fate in mind for her; screen immortality coupled with physical mortality. The camera captures the images of the victims at the moment when they will be lost forever. Of course, the victim is found the next day while filming a scene, stuffed inside a trunk used as a prop by a "real" studio movie, and again the killer is on hand, filming the reactions of the actress who discovers the body, as she screams and faints, her reactions not faked for once. The director, who had earlier spent countless takes trying to get a realistic-looking fainting scene out of this same actress, looks over in frustration, exclaiming, "that silly bitch has fainted in the wrong scene." Later, this same director will cruelly force the actress to repeat the scene with only cosmetic changes, asking her to repeat the same lines that are now inextricably intertwined with murder and the discovery of a corpse. Powell's dark humor makes it apparent that he's tweaking the voyeurism of the audience, suggesting that we're all too happy to take pleasure and entertainment in horrible things as long as we know that it's fake, even when we allow an engaging movie to fool us, if only for a moment, into reacting as though it were real.

Later, the home movies of the killer Mark (Karlheinz Böhm) will be discovered by his innocent young neighbor Helen (Anna Massey), and she'll recoil in horror, crying and begging him to tell her that it's not real, that it's just pretend, just a movie. But there is no such reprieve for her; none of the security that ordinary movie audiences have when watching fantasies of murder and madness. Maybe this is why audiences were so turned off by Powell's film, which takes the potential ugliness of the cinema, its capacity for abstracting real horrors, and rubs it in the viewer's face. Mark's murderous cinema places him in a violent and sexual relationship to the women he films, the "actresses" in his homemade psychodramas. When Mark is filming Vivian, at one point he stands behind her, holding his camera close to his chest, raising one of the legs of its tripod in what can only be called a stunningly obvious phallic symbol, an erection even. But it's the camera that's getting excited on behalf of Mark. It's as though he's transferred his sexuality — he's clearly a virgin, and can barely muster the composure to speak most of the time — into the camera, made its tripod leg (capped with the knife he uses to murder his subjects) an extension of himself, just as its lens is an extension of his own vision. Through the camera, he sees everything with crosshairs layered over it, a subject to be captured and immortalized, all working towards a "perfect" film.


Powell's filmmaking is brilliant here, creating almost unbearable suspense in one scene after another. Böhm turns in such a creepy but oddly charming performance that it's never quite clear what Mark is going to do next, when he's going to give in to the darkness within him and when he's going to resist. This tension is especially acute in the early scene where Helen visits Mark's apartment for the first time, intrigued — why she's drawn to him never really makes sense, other than that she needs to be for the sake of the plot — by this awkwardly shy man upstairs. When she enters his dark room/screening room, it feels like an invasion, like she doesn't belong in such a place of evil and perversion. Powell creates an overpowering mood of dread, infusing every movement, every action, with suspense; even the way Mark glides around the shadowy room, guiding the hesitant Helen to admire his camera equipment, is incredibly eerie. But the most profound suspense comes from Helen's request to see one of Mark's movies. Powell draws out the moment, showing Mark at his cabinet, hesitating over what to show her, and it's so tense because in some way, we understand that Mark's choice of film reels will decide this woman's fate. Will he show her one of his murders? Or the film he was watching when she came in, an only slightly more innocuous documentary reel he shot of his latest victim's body being removed by the police? Or will he actually choose something innocent?

It turns out that in fact he chooses a childhood film of himself, shot by his father, and Powell again ratchets up the tension as this film begins to make sense of Mark's warped mind, at least for the audience; Helen, not understanding what she's seeing, without the knowledge of the adult Mark's actions, is only confused. Powell's genius here is to make the audience root for Helen to stop watching, not to look any deeper into this man's tormented psyche. We don't know what's coming next on this reel, but we fear for her eyes anyway, fear that she'll see something she'll wish she hadn't, fear especially that she'll something that will provoke Mark to turn his camera on her, as he does eventually, trying to film her reactions to this childhood memory. Instead, the camera keeps running, revealing the origins of Mark's psychosis in childhood traumas and the cruel experiments of his father (played, in a brief cameo in these films, by Powell himself, further confirming the film's linkage of cinema with corruption and horror). If the psychology is perhaps a little trite, seen now, it's only because Peeping Tom — along with Hitchcock's Psycho — has served as one of the template inspirations for virtually all the serial killer thrillers to come along in its wake.

Even so, Peeping Tom retains much of its power for making audiences squirm, tapping in as it does to the psychosexual undercurrents of the cinema, the appeal of the glamorous actress posing for the cameras, the appeal of the action and horror that makes audiences react viscerally. For Mark, the cinema is a mortuary, a method of embalming. When watching one of his films, as he approaches the screen, the face of a screaming woman is stretched out across his back, and where this happens her pretty face becomes skull-like, gaunt with black eye sockets, killed within the camera's trap. This, Powell suggests, is the real horror lurking within the empty entertainment of the movies.

11 comments:

Dave said...

I go back and forth on this one, as I feel like I should like it more than I do, yet each time I watch it I find it not quite at the level I expected. I recently watched it again just before ranking Powell & Pressburger at #14 in my 30 favorite directors, so I obviously am a big fan of Michael Powell's work.

I often see it claimed that Peeping Tom is unfairly compared to the same year's Psycho, but I think such comparisons are inevitable. I just don't find Peeping Tom anywhere near as suspenseful as it tries to be, whereas even after all of the imitators, the first time I watched Psycho I was on edge throughout. I think what ultimately holds things back a bit for me is the psychoanalysis that takes place is just so hamfisted, it's hard for me to appreciate. As you point out, the same could probably be said about Psycho, but I don't think that Hitchcock's film openly relies on the psychoanalysis as much. It really doesn't come into play in a major way, as far as analyzing it, until the end. Up until the truth is revealed, we're just dealing with a psychopath. The greater reliance in Peeping Tom doesn't really work for me.

BUT, even after saying all this, it's still one that it is interesting for me to watch precisely because of the man directing. Powell does so very interesting things with the camera that sort of serve as visual indictments of his own profession - or at least thoughts on a dark side of filmmaking. So, in summary, it's one that I like and appreciate but have issues with story-wise.

Sam Juliano said...

"Even so, Peeping Tom retains much of its power for making audiences squirm, tapping in as it does to the psychosexual undercurrents of the cinema, the appeal of the glamorous actress posing for the cameras, the appeal of the action and horror that makes audiences react viscerally."

Aye Ed, this couldn't have been better appraised. I was fortunate enough to see this last year in a pristine 35 mm print at the Film Forum as part of last summer's 'Brit Noir' Festival, and I can certainly testify to those perceptions. This film -as you well know- has divided critics (and audiences) since it's original release, with the naysayers claiming a markedly sadistic focus, and the supporters toasting a work of cinematic genius. The same evaluators took a similar position on Hitchcock's ROPE, which could rightfully be seen in the same terms. I quite agree that the film stands as "a template inspiration for all the serial killer movies" that have come later, and that the film displays a a remarkable technical virtuosity. Amplified, I wasn't entirely pleased with Bohm's performance, but the awkward mannerisms may in retrospect have intensified the realism of the turn.

As always, a probing and beautifully written review.

Dave said...

Not sure what happened, but I left a comment here this morning that posted OK, but now that I return it is no longer here... not sure what happened, hopefully it will show up again.

Ed Howard said...

Dave left a comment that got to my email box but hasn't shown up here. If anyone else has problems commenting here please let me know. I'm not sure what happened, but here is his comment:

"I go back and forth on this one, as I feel like I should like it more than I do, yet each time I watch it I find it not quite at the level I expected. I recently watched it again just before ranking Powell & Pressburger at #14 in my 30 favorite directors, so I obviously am a big fan of Michael Powell's work.

I often see it claimed that Peeping Tom is unfairly compared to the same year's Psycho, but I think such comparisons are inevitable. I just don't find Peeping Tom anywhere near as suspenseful as it tries to be, whereas even after all of the imitators, the first time I watched Psycho I was on edge throughout. I think what ultimately holds things back a bit for me is the psychoanalysis that takes place is just so hamfisted, it's hard for me to appreciate. As you point out, the same could probably be said about Psycho, but I don't think that Hitchcock's film openly relies on the psychoanalysis as much. It really doesn't come into play in a major way, as far as analyzing it, until the end. Up until the truth is revealed, we're just dealing with a psychopath. The greater reliance in Peeping Tom doesn't really work for me.

BUT, even after saying all this, it's still one that it is interesting for me to watch precisely because of the man directing. Powell does so very interesting things with the camera that sort of serve as visual indictments of his own profession - or at least thoughts on a dark side of filmmaking. So, in summary, it's one that I like and appreciate but have issues with story-wise."

Ed Howard said...

Sam, I think that the awkward qualities of Bohm's performance are very much intentional. His character wouldn't be so compelling if he wasn't so ungainly and strange. In any event, the comparison to Rope is a good one, and of course Psycho and even Rear Window, with its voyeuristic focus, are also good reference points. It's a very Hitchcockian film, though in terms of its raw ugliness and brutality it goes further than Hitch himself would until his blunt, nasty films of the 70s.

Dave, I can see your point about the film's psychology, and I had the same problem with it to some degree, as I hinted above. But I don't see it as a big problem; the psychology is pat, but as in Psycho, the characters, situations and aesthetics are compelling in ways that go far beyond such simplistic psychological explanations. Mark's behavior may have just originated in childhood trauma, a trite bit of psychoanalysis, but what Powell does with this character goes far beyond that, into an examination of voyeurism and sexual predation and a self-critique of the cinema.

Adam M said...

I've never seen this film on the big screen, I've heard from those that have that it adds a lot more to experience, in terms of identifying with the voyeuristic gaze on display. Very interesting blog, I enjoyed reading it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Powell isn't interested in suspense in the hitchcock style. From the very beginning his film is about film analysis. Unlike Psycho AND The Red Shoes we don't see any blood at all. What's horrifying is the way Powell exposes our desire to see, and relates it to the process of fimmaking itself.

Boem went on to star for Vinctene Minnelli and (more important) Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Powell was shooting The Queen's Guard when Peeoping Tom was released. He was never able to wrok in the UK again. He went to Australia where he discovered (drumroll please) Helen Mirren.


He worked with Pressburger again on a marvelous television movie for children The Boy Who Truned Yellow.

Leo Marks, the scriptwriter for Peeping Tom is the voice of Satan in Marty Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ

Tony Dayoub said...

Powell isn't interested in suspense in the hitchcock style. From the very beginning his film is about film analysis. Unlike Psycho AND The Red Shoes we don't see any blood at all. What's horrifying is the way Powell exposes our desire to see, and relates it to the process of fimmaking itself.

I agree with Mr. Ehrenstein. To a certain extent, Powell's elimination of suspense makes the film less entertainment and more an exploration of the central character's psyche.

I believe this contributed, as you say in your post Ed, to the audience's discomfort. In my mind, this clinical detachment Powell exercises also created the perception that perhaps Powell was conducting a bit of self-analysis. This is definitely a misread, but I think it tainted Powell in his audience's mind for the rest of his career.

Ed Howard said...

Adam, thanks. I imagine the film would be fascinating on the big screen, especially in light of its voyeuristic theme.

David and Tony, I agree that the film is more a work of analysis and thematic investigation than a true suspense piece or thriller. There's very little attempt to drum up suspense, since Powell seems more concerned with probing this character, and through him, examining the nature of why and how we like to watch things on screen. It wouldn't be so discomfiting if we could convince ourselves that it's "just" a thriller, a story meant to startle and surprise us.

Bat Mite! said...

I remember watching Peeping Tom for class around roughly the same time as Bigelow’s Strange Days and it’s hard not to argue that the latter draws heavily from the former.

The opening scene (while certainly more frantic and fast paced than Peeping Tom), elicits a similar sense of discord amongst us, making us aware of our own voyeuristic impulse.

The murders that frame the plot of Strange Days are presented as filmed experiences recorded directly from the point of view of the victim, which when played back allow a user to experience all recorded sensory inputs as if actually doing it themselves.

And while there’s no escaping the ham-fisted psychoanalysis that permeates through any ‘thriller’, it does so with remarkable restraint.

I suppose what I'm crudely trying to articulate is that Strange Days made my enjoyment of Peeping Tom all the greater.

Ed Howard said...

Bat Mite, you make a good point that the countless imitators, which sometimes threaten to obscure the innovations of films like Peeping Tom or Psycho, in many cases actually sharpen the achievements and the artistry of the originals. It's so easy to get this formula wrong.