by John Linton Roberson
Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM is a brilliant, searing film far ahead of its time, after 40 years no less terrifying, intense and disturbing in its examination of complicity between filmmaker and audience. And a damn good classic thriller, to boot.The film concerns a nervous young man in London around 1960. He's inherited a nice building and lives on the rents, but also works as a cheesecake photographer, but is far too nervous around the girls to respond when they flirt--for odd reasons, the only one of the models he really finds attractive, when it comes up at all, is one with a perfect body and damaged face. Why is this? We also find he works in a film studio as a technician--he wants to be a director. In a way, he already is.
The first time we see him is after we have seen film of a woman being killed, from the killer's perspective, by means not seen on camera. The camera focuses instead on her face, trying to capture every moment of her fear. It's hard to look at. But not for him, not exactly. He was in fact the killer. He films women, then comes in close, and kills them with a knife in one of the legs of the tripod.
But his purpose isn't some sexual one, or at least not overtly, or indeed any of the usual motives of a serial killer. He feels guiltier with each killing, and he in fact doesn't seem to even know what a sexual feeling, even a sick one, is. One thing you do know, though, is that he's wrapped tighter than cables on a suspension bridge.
It turns out--when a woman in his building(Anna Massey, daughter of Raymond, who was most recently George Sand's mom in IMPROMPTU) attempts to befriend him, and wants to see something personal in his rather storage-space-like house, which looks like a huge editing room--that his father, a behavioral scientist(played by Powell himself), used him as a test subject(as B.F. Skinner did with his own daughter, in a different way) for experiments dealing with human response to fear. For instance(and what we see is the footage his dad made), we see him dropping a lizard on his sleeping son to film the reaction as he jolts and freezes, watching it crawl up to him. Another even more telling moment: the boy sits on a fence, looking at something on the other side. It turns out he's watching a couple necking. How do we know? Because his father is filming them. Not him, them, alongside him on the fence. And then the worst: the boy being filmed as he goes to his dead mother's bed to say goodbye.
Apparently in his apartment, he has several shelves of the footage his father made, all the abuse of his childhood documented, and he's trapped in it; he watches it often. Suddenly we realize why he always looks so sweaty, wide-eyed & scared. He is, well, SERIOUSLY fucked-up, barely a person at all, and is yet fully aware of it.
He thinks that his task to continue his father's work, and so he films women(obviously due to feelings he cannot comprehend, but has; he's like a grown little boy, in a really sad way) frightened, while he kills them. He knows what he's doing, and very apparently is hoping someone will stop him. He tries to purposely slip & get caught and yet all that happens is people get friendlier to him--except the blind mother of the above-mentioned neighbor, in a scene in which we find--and, apparently, HE finds--that he cannot kill if no fear is shown. She doesn't see the tripod coming, though she does sense something. But she controls her fear, and, looking almost relieved, he puts it away. The neighbor avoids death this way at the end of the film as well. Others aren't so lucky.
The most interesting such scene involves him, pretending to hone his directing chops, filming a dancer working as a film stand-in. It follows another very telling scene in which a director--again, very Hitchcock-like--repeatedly makes an actress fall down till she's exhausted and in pain, suggesting a certain inherent sadism in filming itself. The dancer is played by Moira Shearer(it's an in-joke, as Powell also directed THE RED SHOES) whom he asks if he can film as she does a jazz dance number--which the ballet-oriented Shearer executes, by the way, quite amazingly; Powell's editing perfectly complements what she does, and also moves things along. He kills her in a place he could easily be stopped, and leaves her right there in the same place he works, and of course she's quickly found. But nobody suspects him, at least not yet. But he says nothing, either.
In this scene, though, we see why Martin Scorsese loves this movie and in fact saved it from obscurity(more on that later)--suddenly we cut to a side shot of him with the camera, and there's an amazing fluid, intense tracking shot following him as he goes toward her--very artificial but transfixing. The LOOK of the film throughout is weird for the time--odd-perspective, swooping yet precise shots. Exactly like the style Scorcese has favored at least since LAST TEMPTATION(or like older Spike Lee). Very ahead of its time. The camera acts as a rather judgemental and active voyeur of the killer himself, in fact, probing him as hard as his camera does his victims' faces. As though it were his father, in his imagination, glaring critically over his shoulder.
The film still has the power to shock, not least of which is that, without the slightest diminishment to the victims, it also elicits pity for the killer. We see that he was made this way, but this doesn't alleviate our anger at his crimes. This isn't a NATURAL BORN KILLERS situation--these are all presented as sympathetic characters you're appalled to see die. It's not so much in graphic violence it's shocking, because as far as what you see, it's not even as violent as PSYCHO, a film it shares much resemblance with, and is superior to; it would be interesting to consider why two completely separate horror films about introverted, screwed-up-by-their-parents killers still living in their parents' houses appeared simultaneously in two countries. Even more, why Hitchcock was lauded and Powell's career was destroyed.
What's shocking, in the end, is both its ambiguity--which leaves you with no black & white comfort of simply hating him, keeping you in tension precisely by not resolving this for you--and what it's really about, the camera's power to exploit human souls, by way of their emotions. The film questions a great deal(not as radically as, say, THE BABY OF MACON) about the relationship of spectator to action. After all, he's watching girls die. YOU'RE watching him watch girls die and wondering what he's thinking that's letting him do this. And in a way, why you're letting him do this, by way of seeing the manner in which others let him, except you know what is really happening; they don't.
When watching this at some point I saw that Powell was basically challenging you throughout, "Why exactly are you watching this?" Powell, who was not normally a director of violent material, was in fact critiquing the very sort of thing that was Hitchcock's forte up to that point: the camera as sadistic provocateur and voyeur. (THE BIRDS alone gives you the impression they were sublimated vicious pranks on Tippi Hedren--he seems to take a childish glee in birds scratching her face) Difference is that Powell is wondering why you like watching that sort of thing.
Also, what's startling is there are almost no other male characters whose action comprises more than part of one scene; the film is dominated by women, an aspect of it that inspired Mary Harron to use it as a model for her interpretation of AMERICAN PSYCHO. In fact, PT is only a little less laconic than AP, and every bit as self-conscious. Nowadays that's a cliche but in Powell's time it was, well, ahead.
It's an impressive film, but destroyed Powell's career. Before that he was best known for films such as BLACK NARCISSUS, THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMANN, and this was, certainly by comparison, deemed nearly pornography--not because of the killing, of course, but because of the(in our time, rather tame) amount of female flesh, and the context--the film makes you feel guilty for watching, and this must have disturbed the censors, though it seems to argue their own side in a way. But then it questions, and would get under the skin even more, I'd imagine, in regard to the motivations of the censor, the one person through which is filtered all media, the one person who nevertheless gets to see it all.
The sense for composition and color learnt in those earlier more fantasy-oriented works shows up here. I've never seen so many bold yellows and reds in the scenery of a Technicolor(well, Eastmancolor)film and still it doesn't look tacky or lurid--tasteful is how it looks; scarily bold and yet balanced.
This film so scorched taste when it first appeared, it was almost lost. The film languished for years and when it was seen, it was a drab, ugly black & white print, cut worse than any of the film's victims. Scorsese saved it and restored the original color, so you've him to thank.A very strange film--a critique of slasher films before they even really existed. Well worth a viewing.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=1537&reviewer=151
originally posted: 03/01/02 19:54:49