Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom has one of the great preludes of any film. It’s a night scene and we see a man approach a woman in long-shot. We don’t see his face but a close-up shows that he has a camera concealed inside his overcoat. The woman is a prostitute – “it’ll be two quid” she says, and starts walking towards her apartment block. The rest of the scene is from the point of view of the camera, as its owner follows the woman up the stairs and into her squalid flat, and watches as she starts to undress. We briefly see his hand appear on the left, with something out-of-focus in it, then a look of terror on the woman’s face as he – and the camera – moves closer to her. Finally, her screaming face in extreme close-up.
And then we see the whole sequence again, this time in black and white, projected on a private screen; we see the back of the man’s head as he watches the recording. As the film-within-the-film begins, the credits of the movie we are watching start to roll. The last shot of this prelude shows the video-camera hissing slowly to a stop, even as “Directed by Michael Powell” appears on the screen.
This is an apt enough beginning for a film about a man whose camera is practically an extension of his own personality – something that makes him not very different from any movie director obsessed with his craft. Peeping Tom is a deeply self-referential movie, “a film about filmmaking” as Martin Scorsese once called it – but it’s also a superb psychological horror film, and one that stands the test of time surprisingly well.
The central character is Mark Lewis, an awkward but charismatic young man who works as a focus-puller at a movie studio and has a part-time job taking smutty photographs for a newsagent who stocks pornography on the side. “Remember what I told you about which magazines sell the most copies?” the newsagent asks sternly when Mark is late for a shoot. “The ones with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls,” intones Mark obediently.
In the slightly accented voice of Carl Boehm, the part-Austrian actor who plays Mark, “girls” sounds like “gels”, with a soft G. The accent adds greatly to the character’s charm and, along with his air of diffidence, make us sympathetic towards him. This sympathy is vital to the film’s effect, for (as we have learnt in that opening shot) Mark is also a murderer. A tortured childhood, where he was made the subject of sadistic, voyeuristic experiments by his father, has led him to become obsessed with the nature of fear. To this end, he kills people at camera-point and films his victims in their final, terrified moments (and no, this isn’t a “spoiler”; we learn all this early on).
The plot-driver in Peeping Tom is Mark’s internal conflict, which becomes urgent when a young girl named Helena begins to take a genuine, friendly interest in him. He considers the possibility of overcoming his compulsions and starting a normal life, but surely it’s too late for that now – for a net of suspicion is closing in on him, and can he really trust himself anyway?
The Psycho connection
There’s a funny early scene in the newsagent’s shop where a customer, an old man, behaves like a youngster buying condoms for the first time. He picks up a copy of the Sunday Times, dilly-dallies, then surreptitiously asks the shop-owner if he has any “umm…you know, views”. He buys a few soft-porn photos, but when the owner asks if he would like to be added to their mailing list he recoils like a frightened rabbit. “Oh no, no,” he says, doubtless picturing his wife going through his mail at home, “I’ll drop by again.”
At this point the camera is facing Mark, also in the shop, and a quick look of amusement flits across his face – a knowing smile, as if at a private joke. I remembered seeing a similar smile before in a similar context, in another film that very often finds mention in discussions of Peeping Tom: Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s the slightly morbid smile that appears on Norman Bates’s face when he realises that a seemingly straight-and-narrow young lady has checked into his motel under a false name. (Marion Crane has signed in as “Marie Samuels” but she slips up and refers to herself by her real name while wishing Norman good-night after a long conversation in the parlour.) It’s the smile of a madman privately amused by the discovery that other people – normal people – have guilty little secrets too.
Peeping Tom and Psycho, released within a couple of months of each other, have a fascinating symbiotic relationship, and one that’s impossible to logically explain (Powell and Hitchcock certainly didn’t exchange notes during the making of these movies). The similarity of themes and characters in these films is startling. Both films are about shared guilt, about the thin line separating minor transgressions from big crimes. Watching and being watched are strong motifs – they emphasize prying eyes (or a prying camera lens – though in this respect Peeping Tom has even more in common with an earlier Hitchcock film, Rear Window) as well as eyes that cannot see (the stuffed birds and the corpse in the cellar in Psycho, Helena’s blind mother in Peeping Tom). Both feature domineering parents (Mark Lewis’s father, Norman Bates’s mother) whose actions mark their children for life. Even the houses in the two films resemble each other. Superficially, the desolate Bates Motel, cut off from the main road, is very different from Mark’s house, located in the middle of a residential colony in London. But both buildings are symbols of unhappiness, decay, stunted childhoods…and eventually, breeding grounds for madness.
Both have very charismatic leading men in the performances of their lives (Boehm as Mark, Anthony Perkins as Norman) and the impact of each film depends to a very large extent on the ambivalence we feel for these characters. Perkins’ Norman Bates has passed into movie legend by now, but Boehm is equally good, especially in his conveying of Mark’s childlike qualities and his deep-rooted attachment to his camera. And both plots involve the monster baring something of his soul to a solicitous young woman (Mark showing Helena his childhood videos, Norman discussing “private traps” with Marion) – which immediately puts the woman in danger.
The effect these movies had on their first audiences and reviewers was similar too. Both were savaged by critics on their initial release, with comments like “the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing” (the very extremeness of which indicates how deeply the reviewers had been affected by the works, whether or not they acknowledged it to themselves). Psycho was relatively lucky. It was a commercial success from the beginning and soon recovered from the critical drubbing as well – within a decade of its release it had acquired a cult following, thanks to the work done by critics like Robin Wood, and though much of the impact it had on its original audience has dissipated, it is acknowledged today as one of the great American films. Peeping Tom had to stay out in the woods for a little longer, though its reputation was eventually restored as well (Martin Scorsese was instrumental in bringing it to the attention of film-lovers).
I’ve been a Psycho devotee for a long time, but I have to concede that Peeping Tom has dated better overall (despite the grating, intensely annoying “propahness” of the Helena character, who speaks the Queen’s language in a manner that would make the Queen seem like a parlour-maid by comparison). This is partly because it’s a much less-known film and thus still has the potential to surprise a first-time viewer – whereas Psycho’s secrets have been so extensively revealed, analysed, even parodied, that it’s impossible for modern audiences to imagine what its effect must have been like in 1960. But even outside of this comparison, Peeping Tom has that rare ability to repel and fascinate a viewer simultaneously. During the first viewing you’re busy following the broad story, but if you see it more than once you’ll notice the little details that give it its richness: the incongruous childlikeness of the girls who pose for the dirty photos (which mirrors Mark’s own innocence); the way Mark reflexively reaches for his shoulder, where his camera would normally be, the one time Helena persuades him to leave home without it; the creepiness of some of the videos taken by his father. It’s a film that gets right under your skin and stays there
P.S. Check out this excellent review of Peeping Tom - though needless to say, I don't agree with the writer's relatively low opinion of Psycho. Also, he gets a couple of details wrong - the opening murder in Peeping Tom isn't an extended single-take, there's a quick cut when they reach the woman's apartment.