Released the same year as Hitchock’s Psycho, critically panned in Britain, pulled from theaters after an incredibly short run, and reviled by its director, Michael Powell. Peeping Tom sounds like it should have been forgotten. However, the film was years ahead of its time and is a masterful piece of commentary on voyeurism and the film audience. Infamous for containing the first nudity in British cinema (a nude model’s bare breasts are glimpsed for a couple seconds), but is about much more than seedy exploitation.
Mark Lewis is film studio cameraman by day, with side job taking nudie pictures for a corner newsagent. What no one knows is ,that from time to time, Mark takes to the streets with his camera and films the faces of women he murders. This is the result of a psychologist father who experimented on the compulsion people have to gaze, or be a peeping tom, on his own son. He fetishistically films young Mark, waking him up in the middle of the night by tossing a lizard in his bed or making him listen to the sounds of women being murdered. Now, with Mark alone in the world he has been lost in the damaged inflicted on him. He befriends a young boarder in his large mansion and fights his urges to make her gaze into the camera.
Peeping Tom has some very clever camera play, especially during the murders where we see everything through Mark’s camera. And it does a very effective job of getting across the seediness of the world Mark inhabits. At the photo shoot over the newsagent’s shop, one model complains that Mark needs to hide her bruises from the camera, while another is frightened of people seeing her harelip. Powell creates exterior, physical deformities to emphasize the corruption infesting Mark. Are these women truly this scarred? Or it a manifestation of Mark’s psychosis?
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is, that despite Powell’s dislike of the picture, he weaves himself so personally into it. He plays young Mark’s father in old reel to reel footage, cast his own son as young Mark, and his own wife as the body of Mark’s lifeless mother in a funeral scene. In addition, the most elaborate murder is performed on actress Moira Shearer, famous as the prima ballerina in The Red Shoes. Powell and Shearer reportedly could not stand each other, he viewed her as an “airhead”. The film Mark is working on involves a director struggling with a red-headed flighty actress he is having to do retakes of constantly. In addition, Shearer plays the younger actress’ stand-in and is presented as an aging actress on her way out. A rather cruel, yet clever, way of Powell addressing his own problems in cinema.