Movie Discussion: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960)

  • Monthly Theme: Classic Thrillerspeeping-tom-movie-poster-640
  • The Film: Peeping Tom
  • Country of origin: U.K.
  • Date of U.K. release: May 16, 1960
  • Date of U.S. release: May 15, 1962
  • Studio: Michael Powell Theatre
  • Distributer: Anglo-Amalgamated/Astor Pictures Corporation
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: $135,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Michael Powell
  • Producer: Albert Fennell
  • Screenwriter: Leo Marks
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Otto Heller
  • Make-Up/FX: Arthur Lawson
  • Music: Brian Easdale
  • Part of a series? Yes, this is the second film in Anglo-Amalgamated’s “Sadean trilogy,” preceded by 1959’s Horrors of the Black Museum and followed by 1960’s Circus of Horrors.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. British genre actress Anna Massey (Frenzy, The Vault of Horror, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. British movie star Moira Shearer.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “What made this the most diabolical murder weapon ever used?”
  • The Lowdown: First up, the movie that destroyed director Michael Powell’s film career in the UK. Peeping Tom, reviled upon release, has been reassessed and is now considered a masterpiece that rivals Hitchcock’s Psycho (released the same year). The movie follows Mark, a neurotic thrill-killer who photographs and records the deaths of his victims. But his burgeoning relationship with a feisty new lady friend complicates things…

If you haven’t seen Peeping Tom our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Kristine: Okay, here’s the deal: I know this film has the fame, but I was unfamiliar and I did no pre- or post-viewing research. So all my theories are my own, and I am prepared for you to debunk them or have you tell me, duh, everyone knows that. You want to hear my theories? 

Sean: Yes. But first, did you recognize Helen as Babs (a.k.a. Sack ‘a Pataytahs) from Frenzy?

Kristine: No. But now I do. Can I just say that I hated hated hated Helen and was so mad that Mark killed Vivian, the awesome stand-in, and didn’t kill ugly-face Nosy Parker Helen. I was writhing in hate from my couch every time she was on screen. Hated. 

Sean: Can you elucidate all the ways she sucks? 

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Sad li’l ginge

Kristine: 1) She’s a ginger.

Sean: Gasp. 

Kristine: 2) She’s a potato-faced Nosy Parker.

Sean: But you loved Babs in Frenzy, and this is the same actress. I don’t understand this vehement hatred.

Kristine: Well, I am a complicated woman.

Sean: I mean, are there any real reasons you hated Helen? 

Kristine: Seriously, she was a pushy Nosy Parker, and I don’t approve of someone calling her own mother “darling.” 

Sean: I loved her mom. 

Kristine: And I hate people who insist on seeing your art and the immediately are like, “What does this mean? Explain it to me! I don’t get it! I like to be told what I am seeing!'” 

Sean: Hahaha. 

Kristine: Right? Right?

Sean: I have a different opinion, but I think you should bust out your theories and then we’ll get to me.

Kristine: We will get to you, Sean. We will deal with you. 

Sean: Yes, we will. 

Kristine: Okay, Theory No. 1: So, this is 1960 and Mark is in his 20s and has a German accent, which puts his childhood in the ‘40s in Germany. I think his sadistic psychiatrist father is a Nazi, and the psychological wounds that Mark bears are somehow metaphors for the wounds that Europe – and specifically the Jews – bore after WWII. I mean, “the effects of fear on the nervous system” and incessant monitoring and the dehumanization of “the subject” is Nazi Medicine 101, right? I also feel like Mark’s pathology – to document in kind and continually revisit and fetishize the texts in which HE is the victim/subject – is a mirror of the Jewish response to the atrocities they were subjected to. Like, it must be revisited lest it be forgotten and also that sometimes a pain is so great that it becomes the only lens (pun not intended) through which one can see oneself. So that is Theory No. 1. Are you wowed by me or rolling your eyes all “no shit”? 

Sean: No eyerolls. I am in between. I think this is interesting. I definitely picked up on Mark’s Hitler Youth appearance and agree that it inevitably colors all of the proceedings.

Kristine: Do you think Daddy was a Nazi? 

Sean: I am more bound up in the Freudian incestuousness of the Daddy stuff, but I certainly can entertain a reading in which he is the ultimate Evil RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority].

Kristine: I just found out the screenwriter was Jewish and now I am 100% convinced that I am correct about all matters.

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The fingering

Sean: Ok, let’s go with that. How does this theory pan out for the movie as a whole? What then is the ultimate idea being toyed with here? 

Kristine: It’s your basic tale of psychic trauma. It’s about the wound which cannot heal and therefore consumes us.

Sean: Gotcha.

Kristine: Why does Mark stay in that house of horrors? WHY does he replay the “home movies” over and over? Also, remember how his injury/illness ends up infecting and destroying others (vis á vis Mark’s murders). Even how he is hiding out in his own home, pretending to be a tenant when he in fact owns it… There is something very post-WWII about that. Lots of Germans tried to hide their ethnicity and blend in after the war. I realized one of my earlier points was wrong: of course he wouldn’t be growing up in Germany, since he grew up in the English house. But I still maintain his father was a Nazi.

Sean: Though why make the protagonist so Aryan if he’s meant to stand in for the Jewish people. Wouldn’t the women that he kills work as better stand-ins? 

Kristine: The Aryan appearance is visual shorthand for Nazi, like you said. And no to your second question, because this movie isn’t about the women. Like I said, it’s about how a psychic wound can consume a person [Mark] and become the only lens through which they interpret themselves and see others. He can only temporarily “get over” what his father did to him by becoming his father (“He has his father’s eyes”), if even for a short while. And he becomes his father by terrorizing and killing these women, the way his father terrorized and “killed” Mark himself – the true self of Mark, anyway. Capisce?

Sean: Sure. Though Mark also strongly identifies with his victims, as is evidenced by how he commits suicide. 

Kristine: Ok, anyway…

Sean: Theory 2? 

Kristine: Okay, less of a theory and more of a thought…  So I see that this is considered the British “version” of Psycho (the “making of” documentary on the DVD is titled “A Very British Psycho”) and obviously there are connections between Hitchcock and Powell. I like envisioning a world where young Norman Bates and young Mark Lewis (because they would be basically the same age, right?) are international pen pals. We should do a book of their imagined correspondence. These are clearly sister – or should I say brother? –  films. You’re the Hitchcock expert here. You want to speak on this?

Sean: I mean, I don’t want to derail from your theories, but I do have thoughts. I guess my main thought is that this is the movie that Hitchcock never could have made, because Peeping Tom is critical of the sadistic, penetrating gaze. Hitchcock could never, would never critique his own sadism in that way. Think about this movie’s attitude towards voyeurism as opposed to say, Rear Window

Kristine: True. Interesting… 

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“I like the size and shape of that thing…”

Sean: I read the whole scene between Mark and Vivian as Powell commenting on the power dynamics of being a director. He seems to be aware of the inherent sadism and control present in the relationship and is uneasy about it. Hitchcock revels in that sadism (“Torture the women!” et al). And thus I think it’s no surprise that Hitchcock created a very charismatic antagonist in Norman Bates, while Powell made such an unlikable and anti-charismatic character in Mark. This might be colored by my personal feelings about Peeping Tom, because I find Mark to be unbearable and horrid to spend any time with.

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: I think even entertaining the similarities between Peeping Tom and Psycho forces us to confront that one of the major subjects of horror cinema is voyeurism. Moments of looking and acts of surveillance are at the center of the horror narrative, in a large amount of the most popular subgenres (but especially the slasher, giallo or serial killer subgenres). I mean, the very first shot of Peeping Tom is an extreme close-up of Mark’s eye, which immediately begins to focus our attention to the subjects and themes of the film: looking, voyeurism and the mastery of the gaze. Who controls the gaze? What does looking mean? What kind of an act is it? This all obviously metanarrative and even postmodernist, considering the nature of cinema itself – we the audience look, just as characters like Mark or Norman Bates look. A lot has all ready been said about that doubling of audience and “monster” by everyone from Mulvey to Clover and on and on. Scorsese said, “I have always felt that Peeping Tom and [Fellini’s] say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates.” Looking back over the movies we’ve watched for the blog, voyeurism and the politics of looking seems to be one of the major themes. But Peeping Tom, significantly, fits into that strain of horror films that are themselves about media, and the experience of consuming and creating it. In The Ring we’ve got the cinematic gestalt as lethal in and of itself – cinema as haunted space, as toxic, as uncanny and/or supernatural. So there the act of looking, of being the spectator or voyeur, is a masochistic act, an act of self-annihilation. In [REC] – and the entire craze of found footage films across the board – cinema becomes a way of documenting “real” horrors. It’s the inverse of the The Ring, in a sense, where instead of the media document being a supernatural contagion, it becomes a semantic device that, in some way, gives “meaning” to the fates that befall the characters… They’re the contemporary equivalent of the mysterious word carved into the tree at the site of the vanished Roanoke colony – “Croatoan” – they’re the message left behind that must be deciphered. I can see the parallels between that and the home movies that Mark obsessively watches. Those home movies are the Croatoan of Peeping Tom, the remains of a misunderstood past that Mark watches again and again as if trying to decipher or gain mastery over them. Ottis and Henry similarly revisit documents of their crimes in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, becoming voyeurs to the violent spectacles they themselves have authored. This even keys in to one of your least favorite tropes of horror cinema – the female photographer. But as we’ve discussed before, The Stepford Wives, Inside, The Omen and many other films we’ve watched examine photography as a mechanism for mastering images, for controlled viewing, for creating meaning. Body Double, a straight Hitchcock homage, nonetheless tackles the pornographic subtext of Hitchcock’s films head on. There’s a straight line from Norman Bates watching Marion Crane undress for her shower to Jake Scully’s telescope and Holly Body’s porn films. (And remember that, in Peeping Tom, Vivian is literally the stand-in, the body double…) And think about the uncanny eyes of the gialli we’ve watched (particularly the killer’s eye in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage peering through the gash-marks she’s made in the door, leering at a terrified Suzy Kendall) or the unknown killer’s eye in Black Christmas – the ONLY real way in which we ever see him. He IS the all-seeing eye, practically disembodied. The cannibal family in The Hills Have Eyes surveil the Carter family for the first third of the movie. In fact, our only awareness of their presence comes from their surveillance tactics, where we see what they see (á la the opening sequence of Carpenter’s Halloween). I could go on and on – PulseSawRepulsionInland EmpireSuspiriaPicnic at Hanging Rock and many more of the films we’ve watched take voyeurism on as either a major or minor theme. But Peeping Tom makes a fundamental – if unsubtle – assertion about the politics of looking by having the viewfinder of Mark’s camera resemble the crosshairs of a rifle. Even the way in which this effect disrupts the image of the female victim, breaks her into quadrants, is interesting – after death she can only be reconstituted by the footage itself, which reasserts her body as whole. Though now she exists only in the space of cinema.

Stop! In the Name of Ugh
Stop! In the Name of Ugh!

Kristine: Yeah. The Body Double stuff connects directly to Peeping Tom also because Mark is a kind of pornographer. Remember when he first arrives at the shop and stops to regard all the pinup/cheesecake postcards he’s created? That idea that Mark destroys these women but freezes them in amber by making an “immortal” record of their deaths is really disturbing. Even when Mark is in the shop, trying to blend in with the wallpaper while that pervy “gentleman” haggles with the shop owner about the price of pornography, he fans out the newspapers on the counter so that the image of his first victim is refracted and repeated. That kaleidoscopic effect really struck me, and also reminded me about Mark is controlling her image even there. But what I really thought was interesting is that in the scene with the models – Lorraine and Milly – they’re not these affectless objects. Milly, in particular, seems to be aware of what they’re doing and totally on board for it. Remember how she’s all, “Come on, Sonny. Make us famous!” and is weirdly bragging about how her fiancé almost murdered her when he caught her with another man (who was himself married, by the way).

Sean: Yeah, Milly is fascinating, especially because she seems completely aware of how media works, that it’s all about her objectification. “Can you fix it so the bruises don’t show?” she asks Mark, in reference to the marks her male lover/abuser has left on her body. Spectatorship and male sadism are inextricably linked together in Peeping Tom, and the women are weirdly aware of it. Milly is a co-author of her own image, it seems like, or at least an associate producer.

Kristine: She’s pretty canny and jaded. She knows that all men are consumers of pornography, and acts accordingly. That’s what Mark’s snuff films are – his porn. Remember how he acts like he’s being caught jerking off when Helen knocks on his door while he’s watching his films?

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Diaphragm of the damned

Sean: True. And also he’s perving out when he shows Helen the footage of his father experimenting on him as a little boy. He tells her, “Helen, this is the first 21st birthday present I’ve ever given,” as if it’s really about her when it is actually all about this bizarre act of self-exposure. I thought it was really telling that Helen remarks about the glare off the knife’s blade on young Mark’s face in the footage his father shot. She asks, “What was the light in your eye? The camera, I suppose,” not realizing it is the murderer’s blade. That tripod/weapon/phallus was his father’s invention, not his, and as a boy he was at the business end of it. I think there’s a strongly implied subtext of sexual molestation and rape tied up with Mark and his father. And when Helen, Mark’s chaste love object, recognizes that phallic glare as something that doesn’t fit, that bears commenting on – I feel like that whole scene is about Mark trying to say to Helen, “I’ve been raped and abused.” Remember how he talks about his father, saying “He wanted a record of a growing child, complete in every detail, if such a thing were possible. And he tried to make it possible by training a camera on me at all times. I never knew, in the whole of my childhood, one moment’s privacy. He was interested in the reactions of the nervous system to fear. Especially fear in children and how they reacted. I think he learned a lot from me. I’d wake up sometimes screaming, and he’d be there taking notes and pictures and I was sure good came of it…” There are so many kinds of invasions being attested to there – cinematic invasion, medical invasion, psychological invasion…. And I’d argue a subtext of sexual invasion.

Kristine: But Helen’s too daft to get it. No surprise. In fact, she scolds him when she witnesses his act of boyhood voyeurism – spying on the kissing couple – when she says, “Naughty boy, I hope you were spanked.”

Sean: Exactly, she rejects the sadism of the male gaze, the idea that males are allowed to look anywhere, at anything. If scrutiny = punishment, then she is critical of Mark’s impulse to scrutinize and is thus, in the world of this film, heroic. Remember later in the movie when they’re on the street and a couple is kissing in the shadows and Mark stops to perversely leer at them and it is horrible?

Kristine: Why Helen would even find Mark’s company enjoyable is beyond me and speaks to her poor character and dumb tendencies. It is super obvious he is a freak from the get-go, but she acts like he’s interesting or something.

Sean: I can’t argue with that. In fact, how Mark talks to Helen is so off and so disturbed, I don’t get why she wants to spend time with him at all. Remember how he even talks about his own past in cinematic terms? He says of his stepmother that his father “married her six weeks after the… previous sequence,” as if the events of his life are just sections of a cinematic body and not an actual human life.

Kristine: So really Mark is just a cinephile, a media nerd. Someone so obsessed with film that it eclipses reality. Basically, Reddit users and Internet commenters.

Sean: Ha! Yes. What did you make of Helen as aspiring author, whose book just happens to be about a “magic camera and what it photographs”?

Kristine: Her stupid book sounds horrible. It’s also a little on the nose from a screenwriting point-of-view.

Sean: You weren’t impressed with how Helen was this like, new media innovator? Who wanted to incorporate photographs into a children’s book in this unconventional way? She’s a trailblazer!

Kristine: Um, sorry, no. If anyone’s a trailblazer, it’s Vivian, who I really loved by the way. I thought her impromptu dance number made her death all the more horrible and just such a waste of an alive, dynamic person – she was the opposite of Mark.

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Hot-footin’ it

Sean: Oh god Vivian and her amazing gold belt. She rules. It’s funny that you hated Helen, because Mark is the one I was writhing on my couch about. His infantile sexuality and entire perverted demeanor was intolerable and excruciating.

Kristine: Vivian is amazing in so many ways, and one of my favorites is how she’s one of the only people in the movie who gives voice to a certain apprehension about the director/star/camera relationship. Remember when she tells Mark, “I feel alone in front of [the camera]… I suppose stars never do.” And Mark says, “The great ones feel alone all the time” to which she sprawls out fabulously and exclaims, “Then I’m great, boy!” Vivian’s yearning for stardom but her discomfort with the technical processes feels like a breath of fresh air. Her sequence is this dynamic and energetic relief from all the sweltering perviness of the rest of the movie.

Sean: I totally agree, but it’s also crazy because the Vivian/Mark sequence – which I would argue is the movie’s centerpiece and the best thing in the picture – is also the most suspenseful sequence, where the dread and tension mounts and mounts as you keep waiting for Mark to attack her. Mark moving that coffin/trunk to the chalk-mark he’s made on the floor for Vivian earlier…. God, so horrible.

Kristine: Oh I know, and how Vivian herself uses the trunk as a pedestal and prop for her diva awesomeness, not realizing that she’s going to end up in there. It’s the worst. Mark wants her to act at playing “frightened to death,” but she’d rather act at “dying of laughter” because of her giddy realization that she’s (a) awesome (b) powerful and (c) a female version of a hustler. The fact that Mark cuts her down right at that moment when she’s realizing her power and coming in to her own is nauseating. It also points out that within a patriarchy, female power is always going to be fleeting and illusory anyway. Remember how brusque and gross and what a pig the director of the movie-within-the-movie was, calling his lead actress a stupid bitch and demanding endless takes, etc. Do you think he is based on HItchcock?

Sean: I don’t know about that – but Powell himself played Mark’s father in the home movies, and young Mark was played by Powell’s real life son. So there’s definitely some self-implication going on. The way that the Vivian scene escalates from “make believe” violence to actual violence felt like an admission from Powell about the violence and intrusiveness of the camera’s gaze, of the lighting, of all the equipment involved in filmmaking. It starts with Mark trying to “set the mood” for an acting scene, and then it goes elsewhere.

Kristine: This is a minor point, but I feel like there is also a jab in there about the nature of filmmaking and casting. Vivian is obviously incredibly talented, way more than the female lead of The Walls Are Closing In, the movie-within-the-movie, but she is just a stand-in because why? She is not a blank Barbie beauty (for the record, I think Vivian is very gorgeous, but you know what I mean). And I like how Moira Shearer, the actress who plays Vivian, gets her big dance number in Peeping Tom, even while Vivian never gets to do anything in The Walls Are Closing In.

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I’d Love Lucy…. to be dead right now

Sean: Yes, agreed. But I loved the talentless lead actress in the The Walls Are Closing In. All of her inept fainting made me deliriously happy, and I thought it was a pretty great joke that when they discover Vivian’s body, the director is like, “The silly bitch, you’ve fainted in the wrong scene!”  

Kristine: Heh. Mark’s palpable hard-on when he realizes that the film crew is about to discover Vivian’s body in the trunk gave me the dry heaves.

Sean: Vivian’s fate is the most tragic and moving thing in the picture. And to make it worse, remember how Mark “allows” her to occupy the space behind the camera, to become the director/voyeur? “I can see you, Mark, perfectly,” she exclaims, but she’s deluded – she can’t “see” or perceive what Mark really is at all. Her gaze has no authority or credibility in this world and so, for as much as you loathe Helen, you can’t deny that she’s one of the only women in the movie that has a “way of seeing” that’s respected or actually capable of perceiving truth.

Kristine: That moment when Vivian takes “control” of the camera (“I’m the best camerawoman in the business!”) is immediately undercut because Mark turns his own camera/fetish object on her. Remember he tells her he is “photographing you photographing me” and Vivian just thinks that’s brilliant? And how she defers to him by saying, “Yes sir, Mr. Director, sir.” Mark is in control of everything and she doesn’t realize what the cost of that is – of submitting to a man’s “directorial vision” is until its too late. So I see how, in that way, Peeping Tom really is a critique of the auteur, and of the “male genius.” All boy wonders are just the Grim Reaper in disguise, according to this movie. Remember when Mark tells Helen “I made them watch their own deaths. I made them see their own terror as the spike went in. And if Death has a face, they saw that too.” The face he’s talking about is his own.

Sean: God, Mark is horrid and I fucking loathe him. “You’re safe as long as I can’t see you’re frightened – so stand in the shadows, please.” The way that female terror/hysteria is such a total turn-on for him is so repulsive. His appetites….

Kristine: “Do you… do you… do you want another milk?”

Sean: Watching him skewer himself in his pudgy white throat made my heart soar. Remember after Helen kisses him, he rubs the phallic lens of his camera against his mouth? And I was dying? 

Kristine: I think the actor does a great job at making a conventionally handsome man be totally repulsive and unfuckable. 

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Suck it, betch

Sean: I guess. I cannot separate actor from character in this case. 

Kristine: If Helen kissed me I would rub kerosene on my mouth to get rid of her English pudding mouthprint.

Sean: I like Helen.

Kristine: Helen is ick nast vom. Fine for you. I hated her. Moving on. 

Sean: No. Helen is the one who covers up the lens of his camera with her hand and goes “No!” to ugly horrible Mark and refuses to let him film her.

Kristine: We both like Helen’s mom.

Sean: J’adore sa mère.

Kristine: She was creepy and awesome.

Sean: I love when Helen asks, Mom, what are you thinking about?” and her mother is like, “The price of whiskey.” And then when she goes, “I don’t trust a man who walks quietly” about Mark. The best. “Why don’t we make him a present of that window. He practically lives there.” And Helen goes, “How did you know he was there?” and her mother says, “The back of my neck told me.” 

Kristine: Lots of bon mots from the mom. What year was Psycho

Sean: Psycho was also released in 1960, same exact year as Peeping Tom.

Kristine: Okay, huh. I was going to say that I thought the neighbor character, Tony, was maybe a shout-out to Norman Bates, but probably not. I was reaching. 

Sean: Reaching around. 

Kristine: Hey, Leo Marks, the Jewish man who wrote this, also wrote a Peter Sellers WWII movie called… Soft Beds, Hard Battles. It’s a sex ‘n’ Nazis farce. 

Sean: For reals? 

Kristine: YES.

Sean: What did you think of Lorraine? “He said you needn’t photograph my face.” The way Mark gets all hot and bothered by her scar/harelip/situation?

Kristine: I mean, because I am obsessed with my theory, I see his excitement about “freaks” being part of the whole Nazi medicine thing. Or he is disfigured and ruined and scarred but it is all internal and not visible to the eye (or the lens) but her injury is literally on her face. 

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Milla Jovovich?

Sean: What was going on with her face? Was it just a fat lip? 

Kristine: I think it’s a harelip. Possibly a crazy burn scar. 

Sean: I love that moment when she turns around and talks in her low croak of a voice.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: What about Milly, the blonde bombshell?

Kristine: She was ridic. Loved her. Loved them both.

Sean: My favorite moment in the entire movie involves Milly. When he is photographing her and she strikes a wide-legged, aggressive pose on the bed and Mark is exasperated – and says like “No, Milly!” and then she corrects and adopts a more feminine, submissive pose, stretched across a tiger-skin rug.

Kristine: Ah, yes. Okay, are you ready for Theory #3? It is that this movie is all about hiding vs. being in plain view and “seeing” vs. true perception. Mark pretends to be a tenant in his own building. Mom is blind but she can “see” (intuit) better than anyone else. Lorraine appears to be a gorgeous model, but she is revealed to be deformed. But if Mark doesn’t photograph her face, will the viewer wanking to her image ever imagine? One inept actress has the lead, while the truly talented one acts as her stand in. 

Sean: Right. I like this. This resonates with me most out of the three theories you’ve put forth. Remember when Milly asks Mark, “What have you got under there – a girlfriend?” when he puts his head under the cloak of the camera? 

Kristine: Basically, “sight” can’t be trusted. Things are not as they appear. 

Sean: The leg of the tripod is actually a murder weapon… “You don’t get that in Sight & Sound.”  What do you make of this movie’s attitude towards pornography? Remember the old man who comes in looking for “views” and his delight at the visual pleasure of naked women [juxtaposed against the “innocence” of the girl coming in for a candy bar]. His appetite for pornography is portrayed as gluttonous – he needs to buy them all (and his desires are shameful right? He doesn’t want to be on the mailing list and the bag he leaves with is marked “Educational Books”). Then the shopkeeper is like, “Well, he won’t be doing the crossword tonight.” He also says “Those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls” are the magazines that sell the most copies.

Kristine: Right, and remember the prostitute at the beginning of the film? It seems like Peeping Tom is sympathetic to the ladies involved, but seems to find the men (both the “suppliers” and the consumers) pretty rank. What do you think? Like you said earlier, the film is critical of the male gaze and objectifying les femmes.

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Stop that right this man-stance

Sean: Oh, that hooker at the beginning was like, the world’s most perfunctory prostitute.

Kristine: “Two quid” in a monotone.

Sean: She was all rolling her eyes as she unhooked her garters and stuff. Dying.

Kristine: Dying. 

Sean: In that first murder scene I dug how the blade on the camera is only registered by a glow of light reflecting off of it…. before we even know what it is…. Pretty cool. The way he shines the light in Helen’s face and then later Vivian is so aggressive. When we were camping this weekend we walked the dogs at night with a flashlight. It was the first time in forever I really used a flashlight to see and I seriously started giggling with power and said to my boyfriend, “This flashlight gives me authority!” and was shining it everywhere and felt so in control. And then when we passed other people, I was so aware of how I had to divert the light away from them, how intrusive and rude it is to shine a light in someone’s eyes/face. And when I re-watched this movie, I kept thinking about that, and all the scenes where Mark turns spotlights and mirrors and lamps against these women. It seems like such a little thing, but it is so intrusive and such a violation. Remember that Helen’s mom really starts to panic when he turns his lights on her and she exclaims, “That light on my face…” and it is so heartbreaking. I’m not sure where I’m going with this…

Kristine: I hear you. Mark’s whole demeanor changes when he is behind the camera. He becomes super aggressive and it’s so horrible. I agree that when he is shining the light on Helen’s mom it is terrible. I was really glad he didn’t kill her. 

Sean: Her speech: “Instinct’s a wonderful thing isn’t it Mark. A pity it can’t be photographed. If I’d listened to it years ago, I might have kept my sight. I wouldn’t have let a man operate I had no faith in. So I’m listening to my instinct now. It says all this filming isn’t healthy and that you need help. Get it, Mark. Get it, quickly.” Her notion that the ineffable things that can’t be controlled, captured and examined are truly where power lies. I was moved by her a lot, despite how on-the-nose her “Blind lady who ‘sees’ better than everyone else” bit was. 

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: You know, we never even discussed… Did you enjoy watching this? 

Kristine: I did. It fell short of Masterpiece for me, though. Not sure why. What about you? 

Sean: Samesies. So, Michael Powell was literally drummed out of the UK film industry in 1960 because people hated and were revolted by this film so much.

Kristine: That seems crazy. I mean, I admit it has its repugnant moments, especially the scene where he and Helen are in his room and he has all the creepy home movies going and you just hear crying and screaming and have to imagine what is playing on the reels (again with the “seeing” and “not seeing” – film is a visual medium, yet we cannot see what is on the films, only the affect they have on Mark and Helen). That’s pretty rough. But offensive enough to ruin one’s career? That surprises me. 

Sean: Yep. It was like 20 years later when Scorsese personally made it his mission to rescue the film from obscurity that it was re-evaluated. I think the rerelease was in 1979.

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Pudding throat

Kristine: Interesting. Good one, Marty.

Sean: And Powell had made a string of films in UK that were considered masterpieces (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes – starring Moira Shearer, I might add – and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and was beloved, but then the entire country turned on him. And get this: the charge against Peeping Tom and against Powell was led by two lady critics who like, made it their mission to drum him out of the country. One of those two women then saw Psycho a couple of months later, walked out after 40 minutes, and resigned from her paper and stopped writing about film forever.

Kristine: Wow. I hope someone reads something I write one day and denounces the medium forever. That is amazing. 

Sean: I mean, I think this film is pretty dirty-minded. It has a lot of filthy gags, both visual and verbal. Tons of Mark stroking phallic instruments lovingly like he is beating himself off. The Freudian shit is so over the top. The movie literally ends with a fade to black and little boy Mark saying “Good night Daddy, hold my hand.” 

Kristine: Yeah, I could have done without that, frankly. 

Sean: Daddy. 

Kristine: So, onto our ratings…

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: A worthy film, but won’t keep me up at night AND It’s always about the Nazis.

The Freak’s Rating: Stylistic triumph AND Provocative and problematic.

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Scopo-FEEL YA

14 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960)

  1. Wondering if you’ve seen the Fassbinder film “Martha”? It casts the same actor as another sadistic psycho and it’s probably the closest thing to a Fassbinder-directed “horror film,” but plays like deliciously twisted dark comedy. Think you two would have a great discussion of that one.