Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)


It is, quite frankly, disturbing to read on the internet that Michael Powell’s career as a director was practically ended by the release of Peeping Tom. For some reason unbeknownst to those of us looking back at cinema history from the perspective of today, the audience and critics of the time hated the film. Ebert hypothesises that this was due to its insistence upon ‘implicating us in the voyeurism of the title character.’ Either way, the sentiment of 1960 regarding Peeping Tom was wrong. With the benefit of hindsight, and the ability to see its influence upon the work of directors as legendary as Hitchcock and Almodovar, not to mention the admiration Powell receives in general from Scorsese, it is clear that this film’s impact was justifiably profound.

The film follows Mark Lewis, an obsessive film-recorder that carries his camera everywhere. He works all day as a cinematographer, returns home at night to watch films in his apartment that’s predominantly dedicated to being a dark room, and also finds time in between for the occasional murder of a woman. The purpose of these crimes is to create a video record of the terror in their faces, which the victims themselves, by virtue of a mirror, also get to witness.

Lewis’ schizophrenia is genuinely terrifying from the opening scene, in which a prostitute falls victim to his obsession. This aspect of him aside, we see almost immediately after that he’s perfectly normal. He’s comfortably middle class and able to talk, even if awkwardly, with his neighbours. Yet his potential to flip at any moment, and the vulnerability this induces, keeps us alert to say the least.

Peeping Tom is fundamentally a psychological horror film. Whilst perhaps terrifying at the time of its release, the contraption that changes Lewis’ camera pod into a throat-spear is largely ineffective as a source of audience shock in today’s world. The area in which the film retains what will probably be eternal quality is its ability to make us curious about the explanations and motives for its protagonist’s actions. As such, it paved the way for future classics such as Psycho, in which similar schizophrenics which appear well-tempered reveal their Freudian nasty streak. A consideration of this really isn’t necessary to appreciate Peeping Tom, however. The film’s quality is justifiable in itself, and the delicious saturated colour in which Powell filmed it only adds to the beauty of the plot.

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