When director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was first released in Britain in 1960, its reception was not only dismissive but filled with angry disgust, as though the critics had found something slimy and pulsating in their popcorn.
Had Powell been a director who had built up a reservoir of good will — like Alfred Hitchcock, for example — he might have gotten away with pushing the permissive envelope, but he had long been considered an eccentric talent who had a penchant for overripe pictorialism and who was occasionally drawn to somewhat unsavory material. And though two of his most acclaimed films, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), were classic depictions of death by desire, the similarly themed Peeping Tom was seen as merely tawdry and in unforgivably bad taste.
The film effectively ended Powell’s career — he was never again allowed near a major production — and was feebly distributed in America in a heavily edited version. It became a staple of late-night TV and over the years developed a cult following (of which I am proud to be a charter member). In 1980, thanks largely to Martin Scorsese, who acknowledged Powell as a great influence, the film was restored to its original form and rereleased. As a reflection of the seismic shift in the aesthetic sensibility of viewers in the ensuing 20 years, what once seemed like a sensationalistic wallow now looked like a lyrical meditation.
The Peeping Tom of the title is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a photographer and mild-mannered serial killer who suffers from scopophilia, defined in the film as "the morbid urge to gaze." As a young boy he was the subject of the experiments of his scientist father (played by director Powell), who frightened the child and then filmed his reactions. The grown-up Mark’s murder weapon is a camera — he films his victims, all women, as he impales them on the swordlike leg of his tripod.
Mark is the creation of screenwriter Leo Marks and carries a mix of pathologies one probably wouldn’t encounter in real life. Part of his motive is vengeance (his phallic tripod penetrates stand-ins for his hated stepmother), while part is a desire to put a face on the dislocating emotion that plagued his childhood (i.e. fear) as well as a need to surpass his father’s sadism (using a twist in his murders not revealed until the film’s end), like a dutiful son expanding the family business.
Powell treats all this with great restraint — there’s not a drop of blood in the film — and is well aware of the parallels between Mark’s affliction and the obsessive nature of making and watching films. Continually we’re asked to sympathize with the monster and continually we do, taking in his sadness and his helplessness with our morbid gaze.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.