Have this article read to you, listen to it like a podcast
Sitting in the dark, watching a stranger’s life (unbeknownst to them) intimately, while casually snacking. This sounds like a stakeout, but it’s also the reality of being a filmgoer. The weirdness of this ritual is not often something that the films we are watching force us to confront. Enter British director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.
Peeping Tom is admittedly an uncomfortable film, but it’s also a brilliant and incredibly influential one. Released in 1960, it’s a film that was greatly admired by directors who formed the film landscape in the decades that followed: people like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, and George Romero, to name a few.
Part of Peeping Tom’s brilliance is that it not only incriminates us by being part of lead character Mark Lewis’s voyeuristic compulsions but, as mentioned, it also shines a light on the act of cinema-going itself and its natural voyeurism: a voyeurism that we don’t normally think twice about.
Scorsese, a lifelong champion of Powell’s who, later in Powell’s life, also became a friend, comments on what the filmgoing experience can do to the extreme filmgoer. “You have people whose lives are cut off in a way and just live through cinema. I don’t say it’s a good thing, either. Who just sit and watch.”
Peeping Tom is the story of a disturbed man who can’t seem to exist in the world without his movie camera. When his date asks him to leave it at home before they go out for the evening, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself without it. It seems he is someone who can experience life, and women, only through filming them.
This film has its share of creepy aerial shots, as though we’re watching the women Lewis sees inside a dollhouse. There’s something decidedly predatory about this. Carl Boehm, who plays Mark Lewis, said later that he identified so heavily with his character that this became one of the hardest times in his life.
Did we mention that Lewis is also a murderer? Not exactly a spoiler, this fact is revealed in the very first moments of the film as we stalk a prostitute from Lewis’s, or more specifically from his camera’s, point of view.
When Peeping Tom was released, it received such terrible reviews that it destroyed Powell’s career in England. Prior to this, he had famously enjoyed a successful run with screenwriting partner Emeric Pressburger, with whom he made 19 films. Unable to get funding, their partnership eventually disbanded in 1957. Peeping Tom was one of Powell’s first projects sans Pressburger.
According to British director Stephen Frears, Peeping Tom may have been more disturbing as the result of Pressburger’s absence. “Some restraining influence, some good sense that Pressburger must have spread over the films disappeared,” he jokes.
Instead of Pressburger, the man responsible for Peeping Tom’s script was wartime codebreaker Leo Marks. Marks, who himself was a fascinating and mysterious figure, was told his own real life wartime codebreaking helped shorten the war by three months. Marks has admitted that he ultimately sees codebreakers as voyeurs and that he wanted to portray one voyeur’s life from childhood onwards and what made them tick.
Peeping Tom was shocking in the era in which it was released, but interestingly, 1960 was also the year Hitchcock’s Psycho was released, September 8th, across the United States. (Peeping Tom had an April 7th release date.) In fact, Hitchcock prevented his own film from having a press screening because of the way Michael Powell was crucified after Peeping Tom’s.
But if there is something stylized and beautiful about Hitchcock’s film, however shocking (spoiler) the untimely death of his presumed protagonist was, watching Peeping Tom feels more like spending too long staring at artifacts a teenaged boy might be keeping in the bottom of a drawer. It’s lingeringly, familiarly uncomfortable, and as viewers who are forced to go along with an often unsympathetic, flawed, human protagonist, we are kept in that space.
Reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and the concept of the unreliable narrator — a character who’s giving his accounting of events from a morally questionable place — Lewis is different because he himself is a victim, and he is therefore ultimately more sympathetic while he paradoxically continues to do terrible things. This is what in the end may have outraged critics upon Peeping Tom’s release 63 years ago.
“The critics couldn’t handle the film,” says Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell’s third wife and Scorsese’s long-time editor. “They couldn’t handle the fact that they were feeling sympathy for the main character who was, in fact, a murderer.”
Perhaps another thing that critics couldn’t handle unconsciously was the incrimination of their own livelihoods. They themselves, as professional film watchers, were daily voyeurs and the creepiness of such a pastime was something the film itself was shining a light on.
Schoonmaker went on to say, “But of course Michael had no idea that by making the character sympathetic he would be ending his career.”
Said Powell cheekily, “The film was full of compassion: but it was full of compassion for a diabolical murderer. But then for me he wasn’t a diabolical murderer. He was a cameraman.”
Anna Massey, the film’s female lead and real-life daughter of Raymond Massey, also looked at Lewis with an amused cynicism. “Directors have to have that urge to gaze. So, in a sense, Mark is a perfect hero for all film directors.”
Said Schoonmaker about Powell’s work in general, “If he did have someone who was doing evil things, you would always understand him. You would understand his humanity, not just his evil nature.”
To make someone who does terrible things sympathetic and also to show the probable cause of this behavior — that it’s perhaps being passed down the generations of a family line — exhibits a lot more depth than we as a culture generally view our villains with.
Lewis is a predator, but he’s not a predator as two-dimensional cartoon character — as villains and monsters are so often portrayed in film. More true to life, he’s a predator who started out as a victim. We are even shown some of the reasons for his acting out. In other words: he is a human being.
Said Marks, “He would feel so close to the person that he was watching that he would imitate their movements. He’s not even aware that he’s doing this.” Another metaphor for filmgoing where, as audience members, we step into another person’s life, often to the extent that we completely forget ourselves.
Interestingly, poetically, the character who seems able to see and sense what Lewis is about the most clearly and quickly is a blind woman.
Asking the audience to identify with a character who commits despicable acts is always a fascinating gamble. It’s one that in the long term, Powell won, but in the short term, Powell very much lost.
The film begins by immediately exploiting and terrorizing classically attractive and “cheap” women. They are literally prostitutes and pinups with whom Lewis comes into contact both in the streets and in his professional life, where he photographs the latter. It therefore becomes an interesting choice that Lewis’s eventual love interest is less conventionally attractive. The fact that she is not could be one reason he does not immediately approach her coldly, clinically, and menacingly. He says at one point that everything he films, he loses, and he uses this as a reason to never film her. Filming someone is an act of violence and aggression in this universe, but what does that say about the film’s director and by extension its audience?
Powell used his own son in the film. In the home movies of Lewis’s childhood where Powell’s son appears, Powell himself played the abusive father, which further seemed to outrage critics.
Said his son Columba, laughing, “It’s only a film.”
“It was partially budgetary, partially emotional,” commented Marks on Powell’s decision to use his own family in the film. “It was Powell’s way of showing he really did understand the script.”
Said Scorsese about Peeping Tom’s sensibilities, “He was telling an extremely uncomfortable truth, something that nobody really wanted to know. On top of which he was doing it in spectacular, lurid Eastmancolor. Images that almost recall the covers of porno magazines.”
One notable review in its time read, “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.”
Explained Marks years later, “Many of the responses to Tom were typical of the public responses then to peeping toms. They were sent to prison. No attempt whatever was made to understand them. And we sought not merely understanding, but sympathy. And the critics did not seem prepared for this.”
The film was pulled from theaters within a week of its release.
“It [the film] was shocking because it was sort of un-British,” commented Frears on Tom. “People didn’t do things like that in Britain.”
Powell’s career in England ended with Peeping Tom to the extent that he was forced to eventually flee to Australia in order to make another film. Aside from a shorter children’s piece, his final feature film was another Australian production, Age of Consent, made in 1969, just nine years after Tom’s release.
Peeping Tom vanished until Martin Scorsese brought it back to the world 20 years later with a new rerelease, where it received a very different kind of critical reception. This time and in the years since, it has been reassessed by critics in a much more favorable light. In the case of yet another film ahead of its time, it is now considered a masterpiece.
Says Scorsese in the end, “Powell dared what no one else had dared before him: to show us how close moviemaking can come to madness.”
Peeping Tom screens starting today.
Wednesday, May 31 – 5:45pm, 8pm
Thursday, June 1 – 5:45pm, 8pm