It seems unbelievable that a masterpiece like Peeping Tom seriously derailed Michael Powell’s career, but that is just what happened. Peeping Tom was a departure for the director, known for his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) over the course of three decades. Thankfully, thanks to critics like Raymond Durgnant and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, there was a backlash to the backlash, and Peeping Tom is now considered not only a classic of British cinema, but also of the often-derided slasher subgenre in horror.
From the opening shot, a huge close up of an eye, Peeping Tom announces itself as a brilliant piece of work. Those who have never seen it before may be immediately reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Thus, it’s utterly perplexing how two films dealing with such similar topics could have been received so differently by critics and the public, despite being released within months of each other. (Peeping Tom was released in May 1960; Psycho was released in June in the UK, and in September in the US.) While Psycho is the kind of movie that even non-horror fans have seen more than once, the same cannot be said of Peeping Tom, which is a great tragedy.
Like Psycho, Peeping Tom features a loner protagonist, the clearly troubled Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a focus puller for a film studio and a photographer of soft-core porn pinups. He’s also a budding filmmaker who is rarely seen without his trusty camera by his side, ready to document the world as he sees it at any given moment. The opening scene of the film reveals what he chooses to document: Mark stalks and kills a prostitute, capturing her terrified face with his camera. He returns to the scene of the crime the next day, to film her body being taken away by the police.
Like Norman Bates, Mark has a bit of a voyeurism problem, but unlike Hitchcock’s protagonist, he records his transgressions. As he tells another character in the film, “The most frightening thing in the world is fear.” That’s precisely what he seeks to preserve on celluloid.
Mark’s relationship with his camera is undoubtedly erotic; not only does he carry it with him everywhere, he caresses it like a lover. In one scene, he kisses it after he is unable to kiss his girlfriend Helen (Anna Massey). When we see his POV through the camera lens, there are crosshairs which evoke the crosshairs of a gun: the camera is his weapon. Truthfully, it’s the leg of the camera’s tripod that is the real murder weapon; unsheathing it reveals a knifepoint. It’s a fairly obvious yet very clever phallic substitute, and no doubt Freud would have a field day analyzing Peeping Tom, to say nothing of Mark Lewis himself.
Such ruminations on the power of fear and the disturbing allure of voyeurism can be found in the book Red Dragon, and there is no doubt that Powell’s film had an enormous impact on writer Thomas Harris. It’s not just that both narratives focus on a lonely, twisted man tortured by his family and pushed into pathology, it’s also each story’s obsession with cameras, film, seeing, and looking. Francis Dolarhyde worksin the darkness of a film lab, pilfering home movies and choosing his victims accordingly. Similarly, Mark Lewis has a darkroom where he watches his own home movies of murder. Like Dolarhyde and countless serial killers before and after him, Mark relives the moment over and over through visual trophies.
Like they do in Red Dragon, women complicate things in Peeping Tom. For Dolarhyde, it’s a blind coworker. For Mark, it’s his pretty young neighbor Helen Stevens and her blind mother. What’s most intriguing about this is the way that the women who see Mark all the time (the pin-up models, Helen, the actress Viv) seem completely comfortable around him. It’s Mrs. Stevens, who can’t see, who really “sees” Mark for what he is, an extremely troubled young man. As Mark tells Helen towards the end of the film, “It’s safe as long as I can’t see you frightened.” Fear is the trigger; it’s what drives Mark to document, and to kill.
This voyeurism is often reflected back upon itself, such as when Mark wants to watch Helen watching his movies or when he films the undercover cop watching him from below. In one scene, the undercover cop watches Marc watching Helen, in a hall of mirrors type of sequence that doesn’t include any actual mirrors.
The actual POV shots of Mark’s victims are a daring cinematic move on the part of Powell. (Robert Montgomery’s 1943 film The Lady In The Lake tried something similar and was heavily criticized.) The killer’s POV would be used later in Hitchcock’s 1972 film Frenzy. One can also see Powell’s influence in Franck Khalfoun’s 2012 remake of Maniac, but this technique was also used to great effect in the woefully underseen 2016 film You Are Not Alone.
Michael Powell was well-known for his exquisite use of color and Peeping Tom is one of the most outstanding examples of his style. It also seems a very obvious influence on filmmakers like Mario Bava—whose Blood and Black Lace would use similar color schemes just four years later—along with many of the other giallo filmmakers of the 1960s and ‘70s. One can see the acquisitive eye of Peeping Tom looking as far ahead to Brian De Palma’s 1982 film Body Double and Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo in 2002.
Indeed, the legacy of Peeping Tom appears enormous. From serial killer profile movies like Manhunter and TV shows like Criminal Minds and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, the desire to understand what makes a murderer is a mainstay of modern pop culture. In Peeping Tom, Helen represents that inquisitive mind even more so than Mark’s deceased father, whose voyeuristic, fear-obsessed abuse created the fiend that resides within Mark’s seemingly normal exterior. Helen tries to help Mark even at the risk of her own safety. She’s the human center of Peeping Tom and a reminder that sometimes, even monsters need a little love.