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Film Comment (NY) Sept/Oct 1979

'A Very Tender Film, a Very Nice One'.
Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom'.

By Elliott Stein

England has given us but two great directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell. Their paths crossed professionally twice during the Twenties - Powell was a stills photographer on Champagne and a year later worked on the script of Blackmail. More than thirty years later, they were reunited by a peculiar homage. 1960 Psycho, one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, aroused a storm of disgust among English reviewers; that same year Powell's greatest film, Peeping Tom, drew forth a tidal wave of scorn and abuse from critics in London. A Sampling -

Derek Hill in Tribune: "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain".

William Whitebait in The New Statesman: "Peeping Tom stinks more than anything else in British films since The Stranglers of Bombay .... What worries me is that anyone could entertain this muck and give it commercial shape."

David Robinson in the Monthly Film Bulletin: "It is only surprising that while the Marquis' books are still forbidden here after practically two centuries, it is possible, within the commercial industry, to produce films like Peeping Tom. De Sade at least veiled his enjoyment under the pretence of being a moralist."

Nina Hibbins in The Daily Worker: "I was shocked to the core to find a director of his standing befouling the screen with such perverted nonsense. It wallows in the diseased urges of a homicidal pervert ... It uses phoney cinema artifice and heavy orchestral music* to whip up a debased atmosphere ... From its lumbering, mildly salacious beginning to its appallingly masochistic and depraved climax, it is wholly evil".

* Hibbins's core was so shocked, her hearing was impaired: the film is only scored for piano.


Powell had spent thirty-four years in the industry: he went from directing "quota quickies" in the early Thirties to expensive, ambitious, and profitable productions, with illustrious collaborators drawn from all the arts, in the Forties and Fifties. In spite of this, the critical reception of this small personal film put the kibosh on Powell's career as a director of theatrical films in England. He followed it with The Queen's Guards (a largely unconvincing essay in patriotism which almost seems an act of atonement after Tom), but since then has only managed to direct two features in the last nineteen years - both in Australia. He reflected in 1977: "The reception of the film was a disaster for me. A whole generation of distributors wouldn't have anything to do with me because of it. This film ruined me. After Peeping Tom, it was impossible to get backing for other projects."

The ferocity of the film's critical drubbing should perhaps be seen in the context of its early-Sixties insular Zeitgeist - a milieu of journalistic opinion-makers for whom realism and naturalism (and more recently neo-realism) were traditionally equated with truth and morality. This was, in fact, the period of Look Back in Anger, We Are the Lambeth Boys, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Free Cinema, the New Left, and a plethora and a half of middle-class sentimentality about the rough but basically jolly and good-natured workers. Michael Powell, in his corner, had remained steadfastly uninterested in the kitchen sink.

Much bloodier than Peeping Tom were the Hammer horrors of the period - but their creators got off the critical hook far more easily. Powell's contemporary study in psychopathy did not take place over a rainbow in Transylvania. It could not be dismissed with a cup of garlic, a cobweb and a crucifix. It hit a raw nerve - went right to the jugular of folks who were paid to be professional voyeurs - in screening rooms.

Although it has been noted by one of Powell's latter-day champions* in England that "any interest in Powell in England has been generated by the French recognition of Peeping Tom," that recognition was not immediate or unanimous. Cahiers du Cinéma certainly had nothing to do with it: the Cahiers critics panned it unmercifully. In November 1960 a critique appeared in the less prestigious magazine Positif. This astute panegyric by Jean-Paul Torok remains to this day the single best study of the film. The ball was thus set in motion for a measure of critical acclaim in France; it was largely picked up by aficionados of thrillers. Tom received considerable attention in Midi-Minuit Fantastique, a review appropriately named after the very theatre on the Boulevards (specialized in soft-core porn and horror films) where Powell's film had first been shown in Paris.

* In 1963, the first major defence of Peeping Tom appeared: Ian Johnson's "A Pin to See the Peep Show" in Motion #4. Since that date, serious studies on it have been written by Raymond Durgnat and Kevin Gough-Yates.

In this country its career has been complicated and abortive. Tom was originally bought from Anglo Amalgamated by Astor Pictures. Astor had made a killing with La Dolce Vita, but quickly overextended itself with a score of foreign acquisitions and went bankrupt. Twenty-three minutes had been cut from Powell's film in order for it to acquire a Code seal; even so tamed, with Astor's disappearance, it went out of circulation. It was then acquired from EMI (which had taken over Anglo) by Brad Marks, who made further cuts and sold it to TV. At the 1977 Tellluride Festival's homage to Powell it was seen for the first time by the enterprising young film buffs who run Corinth Films; they loved it, acquired the rights, and will co-distribute Peeping Tom (the complete version), in association with Martin Scorsese, after its showing at the New York Film Festival.

The project originated with Leo Marks*, author of the superb original screenplay. Marks had worked for the government as a cryptographer during the war, and when Powell met him in the late Fifties, he was still "in Coding." Marks turned up with an idea about "a boy who is warped by his father because he's got this bug about sound and vision and he uses the boy as a medical case" Powell immediately replied: "That's for me!" The idea was sold to Nat Cohen of Anglo; Laurence Harvey was to star. Harvey became very "big" after Room at the Top and fortunately went on to more lavish productions. The role was given to Carl Boehm (Karl-Heinz Böhm), whose restrained and exquisitely tempered performance as the psychopathic protagonist makes Mark not merely palatable but sympathetic. (Powell: "It's not a horror film. It's a film of compassion, of observation and of memory, yes! It's a film about the cinema from 1900 to 1960. A film to be tasted with delight in the centuries to come. It's the opposite of a realistic film. It's a reverie.").

* His credits include the original story for Sebastian (1968), an espionage thriller co-produced by Powell, directed by David Greene, with Bogarde and Gielgud, and the script for Roy Boulting's Twisted Neve (1968). Mark's parent's were Orthodox Jews. Is this why Helen's line: "A scientist drops a lizard onto a child's bed - and good comes of it?!" has always oddly sounded to me like a translation from the Yiddish?

Mark Lewis works as a focus-puller in a film studio. He moonlights photographing "artistic" views of models. His leisure time is largely devoted to murdering young women as he photographs them watching their own terrified faces, then projecting the movie of these deaths at home in his dark-cum-projection room. He lives in a house inherited from his father - a psychologist who had made experiments on the effects of fear, on his own son, then filmed them - and is near-recluse until he becomes involved with Helen, a young woman, one of his lodgers. This relationship almost (but not quite) saves him from his pernicious hobby.

If Boehm's is a great performance, the others are merely impeccable: Anna Massey as Helen - there is no more moving doomed love affair in any film: Maxine Audley (Chaplin's Queen Irene in A King in New York) as Helen's blind mother; Moira Shearer as Vivian, the piquant studio stand-in.

When critic Jonathan Rosenbaum saw a complete print of Tom for the first time recently, he remarked: "It's the only English New Wave film." It is the only movie that equates watching movies with killing and fucking - something Goddard might well have thought up. A constant leitmotif - and what better New Wave metaphor? - is of characters blinded by light.

It is extraordinarily awash with cinematic allusions (which it will be left for the reader to discover) and enriching cross references: Mark's father is played by director Powell: Powell's own son plays Mark as a child. Shortly after his mother's death, his father remarried; the stepmother resembles the whores and models he shoots in sex photos and stabs on camera - she replaced the mother for whom Helen, who lives in his mother's room, becomes an Oedipal substitute. Helen is not Woman-as-Whore, so cannot be killed as the others are in order to symbolically murder his stepmother. But neither can he make love to Helen/Mother. Only by scaring women to death can he become his father scaring him, and thus symbolically possess his mother and achieve orgasm through seeing their death agonies in his private screening room.

When asked what paper he works for, the peeper replies: "The Observer." Helen's mother, who is blind, "sees" more clearly than anyone else in the film. And although the character played by Esmond Knight is rather dim, he is not blind, although Knight the actor is.

Auguste Renoir said he painted with his penis: Mark Lewis makes movies with his. As he fusses with his camera, a model asks: "What do you have under there, a girlfriend?" Helen refers to his camera as "an extra limb." Mark's first orgasm in the film occurs as he is projecting his movie of a whore's murder; his ejaculation coincides with the arrival of Michael Powell's directorial credit on the film which encloses Marks's film. At one point, he almost performs fellatio on his lens mount. Peeping Tom is the only subversive statement on the fascination of the cinema ever filmed. (Fascination: from the Latin fascius, a bewitching amulet in the shape of a phallus.)

We are not only all voyeurs watching the film - watching Mark watching his victims watch their own deaths - but nearly everyone in this movie is an overt or covert voyeur or filmeur. Mark shoots not only his victims, but films the cops who are on his trail. The camera is not only penis but weapon and not only during the murders: when the police are closing in on him in the final sequence, he shatters the window with his camera and "shoots" their approach. We have seen this scene before in dozens of Westerns and gangster movies - but always with a gun used for the action. The police investigating his crimes are also Peeping Toms; the giggling psychiatrist who hovers over and peers down at the film studio is one, too.

A cop photographs Mark; before killing Vivian, Mark films her filming him. Helen has written a book about a magic camera. When Mark returns home to find Helen's suspicious blind mother in his projection room, she orders him to" Take me to your cinema!" She then feels his face. "Are you taking my picture?" he asks. Her cane proves mightier than his tripod.

In the first chapter of On Photography (which includes a passage on Peeping Tom), Susan Sontag analyzes the act of photographing as power, as aggression, as predatoriness and sexual voyeurism. "To photograph people is to violate them ... To photograph someone is a sublimated murder .... The act of taking pictures is a semblance of rape." For the French critic Michel Caen, merely to stare is a sadistic act, which approaches killing: the eye sliced by a razor in Bunuel's L'Age d'Or was waiting for thirty years to be avenged by Powell's Peeping Tom - released in Italy with the title L'Occhioche Uccide (The Eye That Kills).

A film director is an authority figure who often plays God. Before filming Vivian's death, Mark comments that "the result must be so perfect than even He would approve." She thinks he is speaking of the director of her film within the film (that for which she is standing in for the star), whereas he is in fact referring to the director of his film within the film - his father who directed him in the "home horror" movies he starred in as a child - who, of course, is played by the director of the film we are seeing, Michael Powell. Chacun sa vérité. (Powell: "Peeping Tom is a very tender film a very nice one. Almost a romantic film. I felt very close to the hero, who is an 'absolute' director, someone who approaches life like a director, who is conscious of and suffers from it. He is a technician of emotion. And I am someone who is thrilled by technique, always mentally editing the scene in front of me on the street, so I was able to share his anguish.").

Mark's suicide is brilliant job of double mise en scène .: Powell's mise en scene of Mark's mise en scène of his own suicide. It is the most moving scene in this powerful and moving film, but whether Peeping Tom is giving us crime as mise en scène or mise en scène as crime is something for each individual voyeur in the audience to ponder for himself.

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