Fifty years ago, Michael Powell was the darling of British cinema, thanks to the movies he directed with Emeric Pressburger, including Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. And then he
Fifty years ago, Michael Powell was the darling of British cinema, thanks to the movies he directed with Emeric Pressburger, including Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. And then he made Peeping Tom. It’s since been reappraised, but in 1960 — the same year Hitchcock released Psycho — it was reviled enough to derail Powell’s career. Critic Caroline Lejeune wrote: “It’s a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom.” Dilys Powell called it “essentially vicious.” But why?
Peeping Tom is the story of Mark (Carl Boehm), an unassuming focus-puller at a film studio who spends his free time working on what he calls his “documentary”. Chillingly, it entails filming women with a camera that has a spike concealed in the leg of the tripod, and a mirror in which the victims are forced to watch their own contorted faces as they are stabbed to death. Mark obsessively reviews his film, his voyeurism hinging on his need to see the fear on the women’s faces as they realize they’re about to die.
It’s shocking even today. But the truly upsetting element in Peeping Tom is, of course, what it says about the cinema, in which we are all voyeurs. Not just the audience, sitting anonymous in the dark, watching other people’s lives, but also the director orchestrating the action from behind the camera. “All this filming isn’t healthy,” Mark is warned at one point, and Powell understood this very well. Martin Scorsese once said that “Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about filmmaking […] the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two.” Perhaps it’s understandable why movie critics responded so vociferously; they are indicted by it, too.
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