Voyeurism is an amazingly supple subject for films. The whole cinematic process reeks of it - sitting alone in a darkened room, watching the actions of characters unaware of you, prying into their personal lives and innermost secrets. And many acclaimed films have explored it overtly: Rear Window, for instance, or Blowup, or last year's Monsieur Hire.
Topical promise aside, maybe Michael Powell should have left voyeurism alone. Before he went after it, he was a respected English director. Quirky, certainly, and never particularly subtle, but respected, especially his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, I Know Where I'm Going), which were among the finest British exports of the Forties. In 1959, though, the partnership broke up, and for his first Emericless film, Powell chose to collaborate with screenwriter Leo Marks on Peeping Tom the story of a young cameraman whose voyeuristic ways and precarious emotional state spell certain death for any woman he meets.
Criticized for its sexual violence and eerie psychopathology, Peeping Tom fell flat on its face, and Powell's star was shot out of the sky. Following his death last year, Peeping Tom has undergone a radical reassessment. And the film is a compelling project, although precisely what it compels is open to question.
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), the cameraman and voyeur of the title, is a disconcerting choice for a protagonist. Having survived a tortuous childhood in which his father (a renowned behavioral scientist) subjected him to cruel experiments, Mark has grown into an apparently normal young man. But beneath the surface, of course, lurks a nut case. Obsessed with the process of filming and the power of physical beauty, he combines the two with a murderous perversity - shooting footage of women as he ends their lives.
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At the same time he's filming his kills, Mark begins to fall in love with Helen, a young children's book writer who lives downstairs. Helen, who shares an apartment with her blind and perhaps prophetic mother, senses that Mark may have sniffed one too many chemical trays, but he's so befuddled and handsome that she overlooks his strangeness. They begin to see one another, she becomes interested in his films, and he becomes tormented by the idea that he will one day harm her just as he has harmed others.
Desperate obsession (The Red Shoes) and even questionable taste were hallmarks of Powell's, and Peeping Tom is dated, stagey, and often stilted, with some of the lurid prurience associated with classic B-horror movies. Boehm - who is a bland-as-can-be cross between the very young Robert Redford and middle-period Joseph Cotten - is especially wooden. But amid the overacted death scenes and psychopathic hand-wringing, Powell unloads a number of formal tricks that grant the film a fascinating multidimensionality. The murders are filmed with superimposed cross hairs and the whir of a camera motor; later, when they are screened in Mark's apartment, they are black-and-white and silent, as are the home movies that detail his father's sadistic research. (In fact Powell himself makes a brief, albeit blurry, appearance as Professor Lewis.)
Leo Marks's script supplements Powell's complex direction almost perfectly; the thematic symbiosis is extreme. Mark's day job involves focus work for a studio film production, and the scenes that occur on the set of the movie-within-a-movie are wonderfully comic. The bad acting has a different resonance, and the blustery physical presence of the director implies Powell's own. The scenes with Helen's blind mother are also fascinating for the way they challenge the common preconceptions of film as a visual art. By the time the police put a tail on Mark, the entire subject-object relationship has folded upon itself - what is at one level a common slasher film acquires grave importance.
And remember, as you're watching the film, the guy in the row behind you could have his eyes trained on your back, or your hair, or the contour of your neck in the dark.