Director: Michael Powell
Production: Anglo Amalgamated; Eastmancolor, 35mm, running time: 109 minutes, other versions include 90 minutes and 86 minutes. Released April 1960, London.
Producers: Michael Powell with Albert Fennell; screenplay: Leo Marks; photography: Otto Heller; editor: Noreen Ackland; sound: C. C. Stevens and Gordon McCallum; art director: Arthur Lawson; set decorator: Ivor Beddows; music: Brian Easdale.
Cast: Karl Boehm ( Mark Lewis ); Moira Shearer ( Vivian ); Anna Massey ( Helen Stephens ); Maxine Audley ( Mrs . Stephens ); Esmond Knight ( Arthur Baden ); Bartlett Mullins ( Mr . Peters ); Shirley Ann Field ( Diane Ashley ); Michael Goodliffe ( Don Jarvis ); Brenda Bruce ( Dora ); Martin Miller ( Dr . Rosan ); Pamela Green ( Milly ); Jack Watson ( Inspector Gregg ); Nigel Davenport ( Sergeant Miller ); Brian
Gough-Yates, Kevin, Michael Powell , London, 1971.
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* * *
Almost the most remarkable thing about Peeping Tom is the critical reception it provoked. This film, disingeniously described by its director Michael Powell as "a very tender film, a very nice one," was uniformly abused in its own country. Derek Hill's infamous claim that "the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer" may have been the most violent of critical assessments, but it was all too typical. Powell's career as a feature-film director never recovered from the assault, and the road to critical re-assessment of Peeping Tom has been long and hard. Anyone concerned with the whys and wherefores of this process need look no further than Ian Christie (ed.) Powell Pressburger and Others , where the nature of the affront Powell offered to orthodox criticism is clearly analyzed. Peeping Tom was only the climactic case in a long series.
None of this is to suggest, however, that Peeping Tom is not a disturbing movie. In narrative alone it is immediately problematic: any story about a man who murders women with the sharpened leg of a tripod, filming them as they die, is likely to attract adverse attention. When the young man in question is played straight, as someone with whom we are invited to empathise, and not as some rolling eyed gothic horror, then the difficulties are redoubled. How can we empathise with such perverse pleasures? And when the film-maker involved is such a well-established talent, how can we reconcile his presumed "seriousness" with what is conventionally the subject for a shocker?
Today such difficulties would not be quite as pressing as they were in 1960. Ranges of acceptability have widened, and the line between Art and Exploitation is no longer so easily drawn. Yet even today Peeping Tom is genuinely disturbing. For all our familiarity with violent movie murder, with sexuality, with the psychology of perversion, Powell's movie can still leave a spectator profoundly uneasy. For Peeping Tom refuses to let us off the hook after the fashion of so many horrific movies. Its elaborate structure of films within films implicates us as spectators in the voyeurism that fuels Mark's violence. We see the murders through his viewfinder; later we see them on screen as he projects them for his pleasure. We see his father's filmed record of experiments on the young Mark, experiments which have turned him into a voyeuristic killer. We see the movie studio where he works, the setting where he will murder (of all people) Moira Shearer, star of Powell's The Red Shoes . As the internal cross-references multiply (and they are endless) the implication insinuates itself into our awareness. In watching film, all film, the pleasures that we take are finally no different to Mark's; the gap between his and our voyeurism is too small for comfort.
It was Powell's misfortune to make Peeping Tom at a time when commitment to a one-dimensional notion of realist cinema was at its height. Peeping Tom , like all of Powell's cinema, is founded on a highly self-conscious manipulation of film itself, and it is impossible here to do justice to the resonating visual complexity of films like A Matter of Life and Death , Black Narcissus , and, of course, Peeping Tom . In this cinema it is the medium that is the source of pleasure and the focus of attention, not some instantly apparent moral ingredient. Peeping Tom turns that cinematic awareness back on itself, offering aesthetic satisfactions along with their disturbing implications. It is a film that is paramountly about cinema, about the experience of cinema, a film which makes voyeurs of us all. That is genuinely disturbing.