Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Peeping Tom

Just finished watching Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). I’ve noticed that the film is often mentioned as an early and influential film regarding voyeurism and surveillance. However, I haven’t seen it discussed much in the surveillance literature beyond the fact that it’s about a disturbed individual who stalks women with a specially prepared camera with a knife in the tripod leg so he can film them as they die. The film is obviously quite Freudian (in fact, the writer and director had initially wanted to do a film about Freudian thought, but someone else was doing it so they did this instead). Mark, the filmmaker who is the murderer, was abused by his father, a psychiatrist who was studying fear and using his son as a case study by terrorizing him and coldly watching his reactions. But not only is he watching his son’s reactions, he is filming them. Indeed, Mark is subject as a young boy to constant surveillance. He says he was filmed constantly, even while he slept, and his entire house was wired for sound. In this way the film plays an interesting articulations between obsessive voyeurism (of the father) and the scientific gaze. These traits are passed down to Mark: his father gives him a camera of his own, another psychiatrist tells the grown up Mark that he has his father’s eyes, and Mark now controls his father’s house and his father’s instruments. What makes this really creepy is that Mark’s father is played in the old films that Mark shows by the director, Michael Powell, and the young Mark is played by Powell’s real son, and in the scene where child Mark is shown by the corpse of his mother—that’s his real mother (Powell’s wife) on the bed (presumably alive).

The commentary track on the Criterion DVD is by none other than Laura Mulvey. If you want a master class in psychoanalytic film criticism, watch the film with this commentary. There’s also a documentary on the writer, Leo Marks, which connects the film with the bookstore at 24 Charing Cross Road and WWII cryptography.

The film was incredibly controversial, universally panned by critics, who were shocked by its content. Carl Boehm, who plays Mark, comments in the accompanying documentary that after the press screening no one would even look he or Powell in the eye as they left the theater. The film was pulled from theaters after a week and promptly forgotten; Powell’s career ended. Apparently we know of the film today because Martin Scorsese discovered it and championed it in the 1970s as a masterpiece. Since the film is really about being a filmmaker (voyeurism and sadism and the camera), it’s an interesting self-reflexive exercise that unnerves the audience (and perhaps the early critics). It implicates us, the audience, in the voyeurism more directly than even a slasher film since it is self aware (this film keeps reminding us that we’re watching a film, since it makes us watch films in the film). The content of the film was also shocking for the time: the first shot of the film is of a prostitute being stalked by the killer; and from the underground pornography sold at the newsagents to the first shot of nudity in a mainstream British film its content pushes boundaries. The fact that we may feel sorry for this tortured man is also controversial.

Alfred Hitchcock (with whom Powell worked at one point) refused to do a critic’s screening for Psycho (which premiered a few months after Peeping Tom) because of what they had done to Powell’s film. Hitchcock thought his film was much more shocking. [This was mentioned in some of the supplemental material]

Ebert's got a discussion of the film here

Scorsese writes about the film here

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