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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.