Photographing you photographing me

Text in context

John Hill's detailed study of British "social problem" films of the 1950s looks beneath their ostensibly socially progressive surface towards an underlying ideological conservatism which mirrors social concerns of the time.

He ascribes this, in part, to long-established narrative conventions. In the case of detective stories, for example, a crime is committed and equilibrium is upset. An opposing force is required in order to recover equilibrium and to provide "a narrative `solution' " [Hill, 1986 p 55]; precisely the narrative turn taken in the second half of Peeping Tom.

Another parallel with the social problem films may be found in the presentation of Mark's traumatic childhood which dramatises the social problem of the abused child. Ebert [Tookey 1994 p 637-638] for example takes this line:

a case study that couId have been simply sadistic but emerges (especially because of the Boehm performance) as a tragic record of a destroyed life.

We are invited to identify with Mark as victim; as the film's trailer puts it: "Peeping Tom.... Fear him... but pity him also...." Mark, as played by Boehm, is handsome, sensitive, nervous and in many ways entirely inoffensive.

Boehm's vaguely effeminate diction is appropriate to a portrayal of a man emasculated by his father but this does not entirely compensate for the distinct Germanic (in fact Austrian) accent. This prompts one to wonder if this jarringly unrealistic aspect of Boehm's performance is intentional. Perhaps Powell's choice of Boehm satirises the figure of the "sympathetic German" which caused such trouble years before in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)? Boehm was, to some extent, typecast in that he lived under the shadow of his father who was a renowned composer.

Returning to the parallels between Powell's films and the social problem films, the latter frequently focused upon violence and/or sexual deviation, concatenating these in ways which depicted sexual desire as intrinsically troubling. And women, Hill argues [1986 p 71], tended to be depicted as the source of

the `troubling' that sets the plot in motion, with resolution dependent on either the punishment of the woman for her transgressions or her acceptance of home and marriage....

This tendency remains at the heart of the social realist films of the early 1960s as well, Hill [1988 p 159] points to

a dichotomy between two types of female characters. On the one hand there are wives or potential wives; on the other, there are lovers and mistresses

Peeping Tom exhibits a similar dichotomy but one which revolves around the axes of sexual, assertive women on one hand and asexual mother figures on the other. This division is entirely explicit in the split between victims of Mark's murderous impulses and those women he spares as Hutchings, following Linda Williams, points out [Hutchings 1993 p 92].

Take Mark's first victim Dora (Brenda Bruce) for example. She is only seen through Mark's lens, she is without identity (not named in the film), just another prostitute, "one of the girls" [0.04.05]. Her anonymity is reflected in the oblique handling of the act of murder: we do not see how she meets her death (and we are curious about it...).

This handling is in direct contrast to the murder of Vivian (Moira Shearer) and the character portrait presented of her mirrors a shift from the implied to the concrete. We see something of her essence, while she may be naïve and vulnerable she is acting with purpose (to further her screen career). And we see, in detail, the apparatus which is used to kill her. Just as we have seen the physical apparatus of cinema - lights, equipment, props - which surrounds and frames this act.

Milly (Pamela Green), Mark's third victim, is a coquettish working class woman with a taste for the adventurous: "Last night I went out with my boyfriend, he's getting married next month, trouble was my fiancee saw us." [0.09.05]

All three of Mark's victims are sexual women, they have a degree of independence and self-motivation which stands in contrast with, in particular, Helen Stephens with whom he forms an attachment. They all, as Pirie [1973 p 104] points out, "rely on being gazed at for their trade" and all three "attempt to seduce the man behind the camera".

They are "posed as threats to a male order" argues Hutchings [1993 pp 91-92] and "provoke acts of repressive violence" which put them back into place as non-threatening.

Helen Stephens and to some extent her mother represent an unthreatening and sexually passive counterpoint to these women. Mrs Stephens (Maxine Audley), while she may not be able to look, is certainly presented as a seer. She cuts the cards (in one scene a reversed King of Hearts is on display, conventionally interpreted as signifying duplicity by a fair haired man) and seemingly she can hear Mark's heartbeat in the scene where they are first introduced [1:02:12]. This scene begins with a bizarre and almost subliminal shot of a net curtain being lifted which we must assume is symbolic of Mrs Stephens "second sight". She is the first to diagnose Mark's need to "get help" and the concern she shows for him as well as her inability to show the fear he wishes to photograph is what spares her from his murderous camera.

Helen too provides comfort and mothering, gives Mark permission to talk, to feel, to reveal some of his trauma. Twitchell [1985 pp 294 - 295] identifies Helen as "mother-substitute" and argues that it is this status which protects her from Mark. If she were ever to stray from that role, he explains, into that of Mark's "stepmother- that is, a woman - she will be in danger."

Regrettably Twitchell's analysis is undermined by numerous simple factual errors, misquotes from the film's dialogue and the perverse impression that Helen is killed in the film's denouement. Twitchell also finds the film "totally devoid of humour or relief" whereas the film in fact veers into parody on a number of occasions.

The seduction and murder of Vivian, for instance, is a parody of Shearer's role in The Red Shoes (1948) 2. This is one of a number of quite vicious (but frequently very amusing) broadsides delivered by Powell against perceived enemies of his art.

There is the philistine public represented by an onlooker at the scene of Mark's first crime. Spying Mark filming the events he cannot tell a cine camera from a stills camera, asking "What paper are you from?" [0:04:10] And there is Don Jarvis (Michael Goodliffe), the producer interested only in the bottom line, who insists that if a take is visible and audible then that will have to do [0:28:35], a caricature of John Davis of the Rank organisation.

But probably the strongest parodic element is the film's discourse on film-making itself and on the role of the director.

Powell's close involvement in the film and identification with its theme is well documented. Powell cast himself and his son respectively as Mark's father and son for the black and white film-within-the-film sequences. The house the film was made in was directly opposite his own home. The camera which Mark cannot bear to be parted from was Powell's own 16mm camera, used for filming family occasions, holidays, his children....

And in the character of Mark we see Powell, in particular his perfectionism and his preparedness to use unorthodox means to further his cinematic ends 3. Mark films unobserved where possible, if not he films under false pretences. We see him directing Vivian but having to resort to intimidation to achieve the results he desires.

Powell commented:

I felt very close to the hero, who is an absolute director.... A technician of emotion.... I am someone who is thrilled by technique, always mentally editing the scene in front of me in the street.... [Christie 1978 p 46]

Jean-Paul Török [1960 p 113] was perhaps the first critic to recognise this dimension of Peeping Tom:

It can be seen as a delicately nuanced psychological study of an authentic film auteur, who pushes a particular conception of the direction of actors to its limits.

(I return to Török's review in part IV.)

A second caricature of Powell is the director of The Walls Are Closing In, Arthur Baden (the blind actor Esmond Knight). The pun on the surname is obvious. This "fantastic extrovert" [Dr Rosen at 1.22.08] is a comic figure who serves as a counterpoint to Mark.

Moira Shearer, interviewed in 1994, is scathing in her assessment of Powell and reveals aspects of his directorial style which he glosses over in his own accounts - although it is presented satirically in Peeping Tom:

He was technically very imaginative and original, but.... didn't seem at all interested in the performances of actors.... Each day he would pick on someone... and simply go on with cruel sarcasm until the victim was a wreck.... [McFarlane 1997 pp 533 - 534]

Anna Massey, interviewed in the same year, is more forgiving but confirms Powell's tendency to need "... some sort of stimulus; it always happened just before a take that he would attack..." [McFarlane 1997 p 392]. And Dirk Bogarde, who says he was approached to play the role of Mark, gave as his reason for declining it "... he [Powell] was a real bastard!" [McFarlane 1997 p 69].

The idea has been advanced that the horror film, as a genre, represents a way for audiences to work through contemporary societal tensions. Landy [1991 p 395] sees the revival of horror and science fiction in post-war British cinema as attributable to ideological crisis as well as to the introduction of the new market category of the "X" film. She suggests that the horror films of that time reflect the conflicts and the disintegrating communities of 1950s/1960s Britain, offering "a medium with which to explore these public and private discontents."

The horror genre, Landy argues [1991 p 431], has an affinity with the social problem films

especially in its preoccupation with social and sexual deviance, criminality, and a community imperilled by desires that it finds difficult, if not impossible, to explain or contain.

Late 1950's Britain was a place regularly seized by moral panics about troubled youth, perversion and pornography. The vogue for horror films, those of Hammer particularly, was deemed by critics to be so socially threatening that it was proposed that an SO certificate be introduced: Sadists Only. [Pirie 1973 p 99]

Powell's film goes to some lengths to reproduce precisely the milieu which the critics so loathed and in this sense it invites attack. There is a quite explicit sensationalism, for example, in the scenes of Mark photographing Milly against a faux backdrop of the Moulin Rouge, complete with red light. Dora lives in a tatty boarding house where one must first put a coin in the meter before the gas fire can be lit. And all is filmed in lurid and unreal Eastmancolor, fast falling out of favour with respectable film-makers who preferred deeper, glossier colour processes.

These and many other touches combine to provide the garish spectacle of a sordid parallel world hidden beneath conventional British respectability. The prime signifier is, of course, Mark's dark and cluttered viewing room, archetypal mad scientist's laboratory and peep show booth combined.

But while often framed in sinister terms this hidden "seedy side of life" is frequently played for laughs and this ambiguity must have been especially threatening to respectable film critics.

Take, as a final example, the film's first moments of light relief where a patron of Mr Peters the newsagent (Bartlett Mullins), initially desirous of The Times and The Telegraph, negotiates the purchase of under-the-counter pornographic "views". These are handed over in a plain envelope labelled "Educational Books" [0:07:38].

During this transaction Mark is watching, shuffling issues of a tabloid newspaper (the Daily Mirror, of course) the cover of which announces his crime in banner headlines. "Well," says Mr Peters knowingly to Mark as the man leaves the shop, "he won't be doing the crossword tonight." [0:08:00]

Introduction: A puzzle and a half
Looking Voyeurism, scopophilia and other visual pleasures
What the critics saw
Appendix 1: Cast, credits and technical information
Appendix 2: Filmography and picture sources

Please send any comments or feedback to Derek Baldwin, the author.

Back to index