What the critics saw

The critical reception which greeted Peeping Tom is fairly well known so will not be rehearsed in detail here. A few key quotes are reproduced, but for a fuller treatment see Powell [1992 pp 400-402] or Tookey (who helpfully groups his collated reviews into "Pro" and "Anti" categories) [1994 pp 637-639].

A key line of attack was that the film was exploitative and/or degrading. Take for example Len Mosley of the Daily Express:

The acting is good. The photography is fine. But what is the result as I saw it on the screen? Sadism, sex, and the exploitation of human degradation [in Tookey 1994 p 638].

Recurring phrases in the critical onslaught were descriptions of the film as sick or nauseating, dirty or filthy: it was treated as though it gave off a bad smell.

As well as this critics felt the acting was poor and that there was far too much emphasis upon visual "trickery". For example Daily Mail critic, Fred Majdalany:

all is morbid, even to the point of photographing Moira Shearer, Anna Massey and Maxine Audley as though he had a grudge against them. The sorry theme has been dolled up in a flurry of trick effects with camera and lighting - another of Mr Powell's infatuations.' [Tookey 1994 p 638]

And William Whitebait picked up this theme commenting sarcastically "[Mark's] Marvellous camera... gets perfect tones in a dark street and in ill-lit interiors... " [Aldgate 1992 p 111] 4

Powell saw the critical response to the film as the culmination of years of disparagement from both critics and industry insiders (not least John Davis of Rank). A view prevailed, he relates, that The Archers (that is himself working in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger) were "pretentious.... overtly Continental... Expressionist.... dangerously arty". They were resented, Powell believed, for

bringing music, singing and dancing into our films when the true Briton was enjoying, and I mean enjoying, currency control, food rationing, full austerity, the lot.

[Powell 1992 p142]

When they got him on his own, Powell believed [1992 p 143], the critics "gleefully sawed off the limb and jumped up and down on the corpse...."

Powell professed disbelief at the reaction to the film, he once commented he thought Peeping Tom "a very tender film, a very nice one. Almost a romantic film." [Christie 1978 p 46] The descriptions of the film as perverse and obscene and crude were, by all accounts, deeply wounding. And his career as a director, of course, stalled completely.

Some, Moira Shearer is a prominent example, are dismissive of Powell's claims that he was hurt and bewildered by the reaction. He relished the controversy, she believes, because it proved to him that others did not "understand what he always called his `art'." [McFarlane 1997 p 535] But at least one contemporary critic did grasp something of Powell's intention, and of his art, namely Jean-Paul Török [1960, p 114].

Török recognised how the film made the "sado-masochistic element in voyeurism" explicit, how it begs the question "who is the real voyeur?" The film's title, he argued,

applies also to the spectator... permitted to indulge that acme of voyeurism which consists in observing the voyeur, seeing what he sees and watching him watch.

Török is appreciative too of the parodic elements in the film, humour is "cleverly used to enhance the moments of inaction", and of the film's "fantastic conception of eroticism". In many ways Török's review, as Aldgate comments, "anticipates the direction of much subsequent writing on/around Peeping Tom " [Aldgate 1992 p 113].

Ian Christie highlights what he takes to be a conspicuous lack in the contemporary reviews of the film:

any sense of recognition. Not only is the `matter' of the film held at arm's length as something nauseous, disgusting, essentially dirty; but the `apparatus' is for the most part ignored.... [the critics] avoid following through the `embedding' of the film process.... [Christie 1978 p 57] 5

This recalls the taboos intrinsic to the cinematic apparatus as Christie [1978 p 58] goes on to explain. The projectionist's private booth, the curtains which conceal the screen and taboos about actors looking at the camera may not only preserve cinema's illusion but offer us "the security of not being looked at".

Hutchings [1993 p 91] agrees, pointing out that Mark's victims all "break the first cinematic `rule': they look directly at the camera". They resist being the objects of the camera's voyeuristic gaze but are put "back in place". Echoing Mulvey, he points out that "to look is to be male and to be looked at female" and circumventing this `rule' is a transgression for which Mark's subjects pay with their lives.

Christie ascribes the misrecognition of the critics to British cinema's dominant aesthetic, at the time, of uncritical realism. Films were understood to belong to one of just two categories: the realistic/documentary or the escapist/entertainment. This is a schema which Peeping Tom transgresses, it fits comfortably into neither half of the binary in much the same way as it defies the bounds of genre categories.

This ambiguity is echoed within the text in Mark's description of his film of the murders and the investigation surrounding him as "a documentary" [for example at 1:24:55]. Clearly his arousal when viewing the films makes them something else entirely.

The film, and its director:

operates precisely in the space between `good' and `bad taste'. What is active and dynamic in his work is the constant refusal to seek a justification other than in terms of what is possible in and through cinema.... The `scandal' of Peeping Tom is the denial of that specificity, the refusal to acknowledge the illicit pleasure principle of cinema." [Christie 1978 p 59]

It could be added too that the film violates boundaries in precisely the same way that Peeping Toms themselves violate the boundary between the private and the public.

Introduction: A puzzle and a half
Looking Voyeurism, scopophilia and other visual pleasures
Photographing me photographing you
Appendix 1: Cast, credits and technical information
Appendix 2: Filmography and picture sources

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

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