Peeping Tom (1960) marked the beginning of the end for its director Michael Powell. Greeted with widespread critical disgust on its release, the film was pulled after only a week. Until his death in 1990, thirty years after the film’s debut, Powell was almost universally outcast. The Red Shoes (1948) was eclipsed. His reputation was stained.

Perhaps the picture so convincingly outraged critics because it suggests that appearances can be deceiving. The protagonist carries a modified camera: there is a fatal blade in one of the tripod legs and a large mirror attached to the front. While the audience knows from the opening sequence that Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm) is the murderer, it never seems to make sense. His baby face, topped with blonde hair and encrusted with blue eyes, often expresses hyper-awkwardness in social situations; he is so acutely shy that for years his tenants don’t know that he is the homeowner. Even behind his black curtain, seated in his secret cinema, watching films of his recently murdered victims, he seems at once entranced and out of place.

Peeping Tom uncomfortably deconstructs boundaries: while the aforementioned black curtain physically separates Mark’s public and private spaces, the two easily overlap. The audience knows that he “never believed in locks” and sees the veil effortlessly moved aside. Helen (Anna Massey), propelled by her own curiosity, drifts from a party downstairs into the sanctum of his hidden cinema. This spatial division allegorically stands for Mark’s psyche: as Helen crosses the physical boundary from public into private space, she arouses Mark’s attention and, in so doing, is no longer considered a tenant but instead a love interest (and a potential victim). When Helen’s mother (Maxine Audley) sneaks her way in, she too crosses a mental boundary which cannot be uncrossed: she is nearly killed as a result.

The audience is exposed to the implicit voyeurism that film possesses throughout the picture. As Helen first disturbs Mark in his home-cinema, the camera observes the pair from high above and behind a series of shelves. Passive viewers become practising peeping toms. The opening sequence actually affords the audience a level of intimacy that surpasses that which Lewis achieves with his camera, beginning, as it does, with an extreme close-up of a prostitute’s eye. Lewis cannot get so close and remain unnoticed. Presumably, as Mark enters the brothel, most viewers choose not to look away. They instead are led passively into a morally ambiguous space.

Mark’s camera plays with the notions of murderer and victim as subtly as Powell blends the roles of passive audience and guilty voyeur. As he and his blade get closer, the prostitute’s reflection gets larger and more distorted in the attached mirror. Similarly, Vivian (Moira Shearer) becomes more disorientated the closer she is brought to herself and to her death. To come face-to-face with oneself is disgusting and dangerous: as the police inspector suggests, it produces a peculiar type of fear.

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Martin Scorsese believes that Peeping Tom expresses a danger that all filmmakers face: the possibility of being totally consumed by the attraction of recording life and making pictures move. Equally, it reveals that to capture someone on film is to take a piece of them. Scorsese cites the belief of some cultures that to take a photograph of an individual is to steal a part of their soul. Filmmaking is violent: it can engulf the cameraman and destroy the subject, altering her beyond recognition.

The allegorical working of Mark’s camera enacts the general belief held by some artists that mark-making (whether on celluloid or canvas) is an aggressive action. Anish Kapoor tried to express this conception of artistic creation in his piece Shooting Into The Corner, part of his 2009 show at the Royal Academy. The cannon that constitutes Into The Corner shoots wax into a wall of the Academy, emphatically redecorating, just as Mark’s camera, when recording, eventually draws blood from the throats of his victims. Both machines, to different extents, during the creation art, act violently.

But Scorsese is right to note the potentially self-destructive nature of filmmaking. Peeping Tom ends with Mark’s suicide and it is worth remembering the origins of the phrase “peeping tom” when considering this side of the art. According to legend, Lady Godiva, the wife of Leofric, frees the people of Coventry from her husband’s taxation by riding naked through the city. She issues a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and close their windows. Only one man, a tailor, goes against her command, choosing instead to bore a hole in his shutters. His desire leads to his downfall. To use Tennyson’s words:

[…]his eyes, before they had their will,

Were shrivel’d into darkness in his head,

And dropt before him.

Left blind, he is afterwards forever known as Peeping Tom.

It’s fair to believe Powell didn’t expect to see his career “dropt before him” with the release of his Peeping Tom but he nonetheless “shrivel’d into [the] darkness” of critical disgust and professional obscurity. Did he bring a mirror of sorts too close to the public of 1960, worryingly distorting any notion of what people could and couldn’t do?

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