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Peeping Tom

(Michael Powell, UK, 1960): The London street corner where a hooker lingers beneath a streetlamp is as phony looking as any New York avenue concocted by Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut nearly forty years later, but the effect is considerably more sinister, instantly establishing an aura of projected derangement that’s only too quickly confirmed when the p.o.v. shifts almost instantly to the camera concealed by the man who follows the woman into a second floor flat to record the scream she will emit when she looks at us an realizes what’s about to happen and the opening credits roll. Peeping Tom is unsparing from this moment forward, and it’s no stretch, even nearly sixty years on, to imagine why it instantly established itself as the most dangerous movie England had ever seen.

Often compared with the contemporaneous Psycho, which also dealt with an outwardly gentle young man afflicted with voyeuristic psychosis and murderously unresolved parental issues, Peeping Tom took Norman Bates’ habit of peering through concealed holes in his motel walls to the level of obsessive pathology and implicating complicity of killer and the rest of us looking on. Once locked into the p.o.v. of part-time focus-puller and soft-porn nudie photographer Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a man who films the instant of death when his bayonet-equipped tripod pierces his victims, there’s no unsynching his perspective from ours, and therein lies at least one reason why Peeping Tom remains one of the most subversively dangerous and confrontationally disturbing movies a major filmmaker ever dared make. The mystery isn’t that it’s release almost instantly compelled the departure of the stalwart prestige English filmmaker to Australia — to which the country had long banished its most incorrigibly undesirable elements — but that Powell made it in the first place. As that opening makes so abundantly clear, this was a movie engineered to suggest death and the cinema were intimately acquainted. Hitchcock constantly teased the idea, but Powell literalized it with a vengeance.

Written by the eccentric wartime cryptographer Leo Marks, who perfected a system of poetry-based codes to prevent messages being sent to undercover British agents supporting resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries, Peeping Tom remains most striking today not just for its fearlessly suggestive association of movie-watching with dissociative sadism, but for its deeply unsettling insistence that we understand the killer. Far from a coldly calculating creep with a movie camera, Boehm’s Mark is a stricken loner and socially maladroit victim of childhood trauma, a kid who has forever borne the scars of acting as his own father’s experiments into the nature of fear. (That Powell himself appears as the father is among the film’s more notoriously infamous trivial items.) He is a man so clearly at odds with just about everything in the world he is comfortable only viewing it through a lens, which at once makes Peeping Tom‘s enduring appeal to filmmakers and theorists a matter of inevitability, but also accounts for Martin Scorsese’s particular fixation with the film — he almost single-handedly revived it for serious re-consideration — and the clear lineage placing Mark on the pathological movie-character spectrum that runs from Peter Lorre in to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: men who commit heinous crimes and suffer from perverse delusion, but who cannot be dismissed as monstrous: their subjectivity compels an acknowledgement of shared humanity that is every bit as troubling for being so precisely and sympathetically articulated. As much as you might like to, you can’t hate Mark Lewis. But you could hate Michael Powell for creating him, and that, it would seem, is precisely what happened.

Installing us instantly and inescapably in Mark’s perspective is the movie’s most challenging and defiant tactic. There is no mystery to who is doing the killing, and the juxtaposition between this meek and sadly isolated character and the calculated deliberation of his actions — he must meticulously plan his killings, has already repurposed his camera as a weapon, and is frequently seen sitting watching his own snuff movies alone his his flat — compels considerable discomfort in our status as viewers. When one of his tenants, the homely but gently sympathetic Helen (Anna Massey), takes an entirely innocent interest in this awkwardly sweet man, we are utterly aligned with Mark’s horrific struggle not to see her as an especially vulnerable victim, and his ultimate act of self-casting functions as the only means of defying his natural predilection toward killing her available. If there’s horror here — and there’s plenty — it may never be more acute than when we see Mark play his own victim as the only humane option he has. Powell and Marks never relent in asking us to feel for this man with the killing movie camera, and that likely qualified as one of the movie’s most outrageous transgressions.

As a cinematic experience, Peeping Tom remains electrifying, perhaps Powell’s most powerfully realized achievement. From the casting of the German actor Boehm as the otherwise perfectly English Mark — his inescapable accent only contributing to the character’s aura of outlying oddness — to the film’s almost hallucinatory application of Powell’s legendary capacity for heightened colour schemes, the film delves into a kind of artificial dream realm that’s only more dramatically unnerving for Powell’s determined fascination with London as a kind of urban labyrinth of alleys, sleazy newsagent shops, tawdry nudie studios and low budget branch plant movie production outpost. There’s some fierce humour at work in Mark’s gig as a focus puller at a production studio clearly based on J. Arthur Rank, and it’s only made more mordantly unpleasant by the film’s most protracted sequence of precisely directed murder — by both Powell and Mark — of The Red Shoes diva Moira Shearer on an empty soundstage where she’s convinced she’s being privately shot for an audition reel. That she, England’s most famous female hoofer, even dances for the camera that will kill her is possibly the film’s most outrageously predetermined poke in the British audience’s collective eye. Powell’s career, as esteemed as any in his country’s history, was effectively ended even before the movie’s notorious premiere screening was finished. It was one thing to look at killing in movies, something rather different to suggest that looking itself was a form of murder. Even Hitchcock, as perversely voyeuristic and sadistic as popular filmmakers came, had more self-preservative sense than that. And even Norman Bates would have been horrified. (Criterion)