Peeping Tom is a 1960 British thriller/horror film directed by Michael Powell and written by the World War II cryptographer and polymath Leo Marks. The title derives from the slang expression 'peeping Tom' describing a voyeur. The film revolves around a serial killer who murders women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions of terror.
The film's controversial subject and the extremely harsh reception by critics effectively destroyed Powell's career as a director in the United Kingdom. However, it attracted a cult following, and in later years, it has been re-evaluated and is now widely considered a masterpiece.
The music score, written by Brian Easdale, contains a challenging part for solo piano, which was played by the Australian virtuoso Gordon Watson.
Mark Lewis meets Dora, a prostitute, covertly filming her with a camera hidden under his coat. Shown from the point of view of the camera viewfinder, tension builds as he follows the woman into her home, murders her and later watches the film in his den as the credits roll on the screen.
Lewis is a member of a film crew who aspires to become a filmmaker himself. He also works part-time photographing soft-porn pin-up pictures of women, sold under the counter. He is a shy, reclusive young man who hardly ever socialises outside of his workplace. He lives in the house of his late father, renting most of it via an agent, while posing as a tenant himself. Helen, a sweet-natured young woman who lives with her blind mother in the flat below his, befriends him out of curiosity after he has been discovered spying on her on her 21st birthday party.
Mark reveals to Helen through home movies taken by his father that, as a child, he was used as a guinea pig for his father's psychological experiments on fear and the nervous system. Mark's father would study his son's reaction to various stimuli, such as lizards he put on his bed and would film the boy in all sorts of situations, even going as far as recording his son's reactions as he sat with his mother on her deathbed. He kept his son under constant watch and even wired all the rooms so that he could spy on him. Mark's father's studies enhanced his reputation as a renowned psychologist.
Mark arranges with Vivian, a stand-in at the studio, to make a film after the set is closed; he then kills her and stuffs her into a prop trunk. The body is discovered later during shooting by a female cast member who has already antagonised the director by fainting for real at points which are not in the script. The police link the two murders and notice that each victim died with a look of utter terror on her face. They interview everyone on the set, including Mark, who always keeps his camera running, claiming that he is making a documentary.
Helen goes out to dinner with Mark, even persuading him to leave his camera behind for once. Her mother finds his behaviour peculiar, aware how often Mark looks through Helen's window. Mrs. Stephens is waiting inside Mark's flat after his evening out with her daughter. She senses how emotionally disturbed he is and threatens to move, but Mark reassures her that he will never photograph or film Helen.
A psychiatrist is called to the set to console the upset star of the movie. He chats with Mark and is familiar with Mark's father's work. The psychiatrist relates the details of the conversation to the police, noting that Mark has "his father's eyes." Mark is tailed by the police who follow him to the newsagents where he takes photographs of the pin-up model Milly (two versions of this scene were shot; the more risqué version is credited as being the first female nude scene in a major British feature, although even on the racier version, Milly only exposes one breast for a few seconds). Slightly later, it emerges that Mark must have killed Milly before returning home.
Helen, who is curious about Mark's films, finally runs one of them. She becomes visibly upset and then frightened when he catches her. Mark reveals that he makes the movies so that he can capture the fear of his victims. He has mounted a round mirror atop his camera, so that he can capture the reactions of his victims as they see their impending deaths. He points the tripod's knife towards Helen's throat, but refuses to kill her.
The police arrive and Mark realises he is cornered. As he had planned from the very beginning, he impales himself on the knife with the camera running, providing the finale for his documentary. The last shot shows Helen crying over Mark's dead body as the police enter the room.
- Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis
- Anna Massey as Helen Stephens
- Moira Shearer as Vivian
- Maxine Audley as Mrs. Stephens
- Brenda Bruce as Dora
- Miles Malleson as Elderly gentleman customer
- Esmond Knight as Arthur Baden
- Martin Miller as Dr. Rosan
- Michael Goodliffe as Don Jarvis
- Jack Watson as Chief Insp. Gregg
- Nigel Davenport as Det. Sgt. Miller
- Shirley Anne Field as Diane Ashley
- Pamela Green as Milly, the model
- Michael Powell as A.N. Lewis
- Columba Powell as Young Mark Lewis
- John Barrard as Small Man (uncredited)
- Cornelia Frances Girl in sports car leaving studio (uncredited)
Peeping Tom has been praised for its psychological complexity. On the surface, the film is about the Freudian relationships between the protagonist and, respectively, his father, and his victims. However, several critics argue that the film is as much about the voyeurism of the audience as they watch the protagonist's actions. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, states that "The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people's lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it." In this reading, Lewis is an allegory of the director of a horror film. In horror movies, the directors kill victims, often innocents, to provoke responses from the audiences and to manipulate their responses. Lewis records the deaths of his victims with his camera and by using the mirror and showing each of his victims their last moments, provokes their own fear even as he kills them.
Martin Scorsese, who has long been an admirer of Powell's works, has stated that this film, along with Federico Fellini's 8½, contains all that can be said about directing:
|“||I have always felt that Peeping Tom and 8½ say everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. 8½ captures the glamour and enjoyment of film-making, while Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates... From studying them you can discover everything about people who make films, or at least people who express themselves through films.||”|
According to Paul Wells, the film deals with the anxieties of British culture in regarding sexual repression, patriarchal obsession, voyeuristic pleasure and perverse violence. The impossible task in the film is the quest to photograph fear itself.
In the opinion of Peter Keough, the death scenes of the film would provide a field day to Freudian psychoanalysis and deconstructionists. Cinema here is equated to sexual aggression and death wish, the camera to the phallus, photography to violation, and film to ritualized voyeurism. The emphasis of the film lies on morbidity, not on eroticism. In a memorable sequence, an attractive, semi-nude female character turns to the camera and reveals a disfiguring facial scar. This peeping tom is turned on not by naked bodies, but naked fear. And as Mark laments, whatever he photographs is lost to him. Mark is a loner whose only, constant companion is his film camera. He is also the victim of his father's studies in the phenomenon of fear in children, a human guinea pig subjected to sadistic experiments. His love interest Helen has her own fascination with a morbid gaze. She is a children's writer whose book concerns a magic camera and what it photographs.
Relationship with Hitchcock's films Edit
The themes of voyeurism in Peeping Tom are also explored in several films by Alfred Hitchcock. In his book on Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo, Charles Barr points out that the film's title sequence and several shots seem to have inspired moments in Peeping Tom.
Chris Rodley's documentary A Very British Psycho (1997) draws comparisons between Peeping Tom and Hitchcock's Psycho; the latter film was given its New York premiere in June 1960, two months after Peeping Tom's premiere in London. Both films feature as protagonists atypically mild-mannered serial killers who are obsessed with their parents. However, despite containing material similar to Peeping Tom, Psycho became a box-office success and only increased the popularity and fame of its director (although the film was widely criticized in the English press). One reason suggested in the documentary is that Hitchcock, seeing the negative press reaction to Peeping Tom, decided to release Psycho without a press screening.
In his early career, Powell worked as a stills photographer and in other positions on Hitchcock's films, and the two were friends throughout their careers. A variant of Peeping Tom's main conceit, The Blind Man, was one of Hitchcock's unproduced films around this time. Here, a blind pianist receives the eyes of a murder victim, but their retinas retain the image of the murder.
According to Isabelle McNeill, the film fits well within the slasher filmsubgenre, which was influenced by Psycho. She lists a number of elements which it shares with both Psycho and the genre in general. A recognizably human killer, who stands as the psychotic product of a sick family. The victim being a beautiful and sexually active woman. The location of the murder being not within a home, but within some other "terrible place". The weapon being something other than a gun. The attack registered from the victim's point of view and coming with shocking suddenness. She finds that the film actually goes further than Psycho into slasher territory through introducing a series of female victims, and with Helen Stephens functioning as the bright and sympathetic final girl.
When Peeping Tom was first released in Italy in 1960 the Committee for the Theatrical Review of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activitiesrated it as VM16: not suitable for children under 16. The reason for the age restriction, cited in the official documents, is: the storyline is shocking and several scenes are not suitable for minors. In order for the film to be screened publicly, the Committee imposed the removal of the following scenes: 1) two scenes taking place in the photographer’s studio, in particular those in which Milly is shown alone, fully dressed and half-undressed, in front of the mirror because she is indecent; 2) two other scenes showing a woman lying on the bed excessively half-undressed, because she is indecent. The official document number is: 32987, it was signed on 21 October 1960 by Minister Renzo Helfer.