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Peeping Tom

dir: Michael Powell
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1960

Peeping Tom is a first of sorts. It’s not the first flick about a serial killer, nor about voyeurism, nor about the killing of prostitutes.

But it’s one of the first flicks I can think of that has a character study of a sociopath with something of an explanation of how and why he does the things he does. And, oddly enough, it’s a sympathetic portrayal.

It starts with a first person point of view, where we are to understand that the camera is a character itself. He or she, we don’t know yet, approaches an old boiler of a prostitute, who squawks that whatever it is that they’re referring to, it’ll be “two quid”. She leads him up some stairs to a slum-like room, and she looks as excited by the prospect of servicing another punter as she does about filling out her next tax return.

But then the scene starts to turn odd, as we realise that the first person perspective, isn’t the person themself, but someone holding a camera as he hired the woman and followed her to her room. When she starts freaking out, we realise that whoever is doing whatever to her is also filming it.

Later we get to watch the scene again as he filmed it, and plays it back to himself on his projector, as he watches the scene with a barely restrained passion, and rises up out of his seat climactically when the crucial moment is reached.

Is this some sick shit or what?

The identity of the killer is hardly a mystery. We begin spending time with him in his messed-up world right from the start. Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) has the googly eyes and sweaty discomfort of Peter Lorre reincarnated with more hair and a matinee idol tan. For those of you too young or ignorant to know who the legendary Peter Lorre is, he’s famous for playing these almost supernaturally odious characters in flicks like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. His appearance alone and his halting German accent marked him as an accomplished actor who was never going to be playing a good guy character.

Coincidentally, Mark has a strong German accent as well, but no-one really mentions it. It reminds me of the classic scene in trashfest Universal Soldier, where the love interest asks the character ably and masterfully played by Jean Claude Van Damme “What’s your accent?” to which he of course responds, “What accent?”

Mark works at a film studio as a cameraman, working on the kinds of mindless comedies Britain was wasting valuable celluloid on in the late fifties and early sixties. Not weighty, brilliant flicks like those of Mike Powell, oh no. He also has a sideline gig taking nude photographs of local slappers for a newsagent who offers something special to men who like to, uh, watch. This is an age of restrictions and such, so the patrons of these establishments, who in our era comfortably masturbate in front of their computers whilst churning their butter to images and movies of midgets, amputees, circus animals and watersporters, have to sneak around like ninjas to get their fix.

For our handsome and deranged little sociopath Mark, the photo stuff isn’t his main kink, since the absolute voyeurism of film is what obsesses him, but he still gets a bit of a thrill. Aberration excites him, but the one element he loves, absolutely loves to see the most is women expressing genuine terror whilst being filmed.

The killing is secondary. There’s not a doubt in my mind that, like almost every depiction of a serial killer you can think of in the last 50 years, that there is profound sexual dysfunction involved, and the act itself, of killing the women with a sharpened spike attached to the camera he is filming them with, is pretty phallic as he stabs them in the throat. But the stabbing itself isn’t even what he wants.

The camera he uses has a mirror on it, so that as he approaches his victims as they work out that he means them harm, what they see is their own fear in the mirror reflected back at them. Puts a new spin on the whole “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” phrase.

Seeing their own terror makes them even more terrified, which is ultimately what turns Mark on the most.

As he strikes up a curious friendship / courtship with Helen, a girl who lives downstairs in the building he owns, he gets to explain to her how he became obsessed with filming fear. In other words, how he became such a fucked up sociopath. Mark’s famous father was a renowned psychiatrist who specialised in researching the impact of fear on organisms. You know, organisms like people’s own sons. We see grainy footage where Mark’s father (played by the director himself) experiments on his own son (played by Powell’s own son Columba) by scaring him and filming the results.

Disturbing ideas that are wrapped up within a disturbing package. In some ways, is the scientist character any worse than the actual director exploiting his son in the same way? Columba didn’t seem to mind, and praised his father in subsequent interviews, but there’s two things that make me think not everything is rosy in the guy’s life: he didn’t change his name Columba by deed poll to something less awful as a first name, like Barnaby or Haralambos, and, even more frightening, Columba’s disavowals of any evil on his father’s part sound suspiciously similar to Mark’s praise of his father as being a brilliant man and wonderful father.

Sure he is Mark, and the proof is in the pudding. Mark turns into a sociopath because of the tender ministrations of his father, we have no doubt of that.

But on top of that we can’t discount the elements of the story that have a metatextual meaning. No, I’m not talking about otherwise heterosexual men who use moisturisers or who get botox injections in their various body parts. Not metrosexuals. Metatextuals: where the elements are about the process of filmmaking itself, or explicitly about how we, film viewers, are as voyeuristic as Mark is. Sure, we’re not killers, but we watch films about killers. Sure, we don’t necessarily terrorise people, but we watch films where people are terrified. Are we that different from Mark, except for the kill-crazy rampages, of course?

Through his neighbour Helen, Mark entertains the prospect of giving up his sociopathic ways and living a normal life. He swears that he will never use the evil implement (I’m not sure whether it’s his penis or the evil camera that he is thinking of) on Helen. His attempts at courtship are entirely asexual, but he aspires to some kind of understanding that doesn’t involve killing women.

But Mark is who he is. He either can’t or won’t stop his ways, and he cares little about getting caught. Leopards have spots, scorpions have tails. When he kills an actress on the movie he’s working on, he hides her body on the set, so that when another actress finds her, he has constructed the event so he can watch her terror upon the discovery. The film endlessly works in these recursive, inward and outward-looking ways, which makes it as fascinating as any of the insanity on the screen.

I can’t begin to describe how riveting Bohm’s portrayal is. In any other flick it would be high camp. He manages to convey such an incredible barely restrained intensity in almost everything he does that he becomes increasingly more disturbing a character to spend time with, instead of less. There is nothing of him that would surface in later serial-killers-are-so-cool flicks like Silence of the Lambs and its various offshoots, because, disturbed and disturbing as he is, he’s not a sadist, which is a perversity in and of itself.

Powell went to great lengths to get this flick made, and it virtually ended his career as a director, and you can almost see why. Whereas Hitchcock had movies that were received well, and others received poorly by audiences and critics, his Psycho never got him run out of town on a rail, which is what happened with Peeping Tom. I’m not going to go into the various ways and means that the flick was labelled a film nasty that disturbed a whole bunch of critics. They and the distributors saw to it that the flick never got an audience. Whereas Hitchcock could make a flick where a cross-dressing sociopath murders people and responds to the whispered demands of his dead mother, Powell could not be forgiven for making a film about a sociopath who loves to watch. It made too many people uncomfortable at the time for them to admit what an amazing, creepy and disturbing flick it was.

Thankfully, through the magic of DVD, it isn’t lost to us and future generations. Sure it’s dated in a lot of ways, but the most amazing element is that on top of it being a great flick, it was also entirely prescient, predicting a future where people would become bored with just being voyeurs, where the real pleasure would come from watching themselves performing, knowing they’re being watched, in this entirely narcissistic loop of self-reference. Peeping Tom is such a rich experience that it gives up the more you watch it, the more you put into it, the more amazement you draw from just how disturbing the flick truly is.

The murders are the least disturbing part of it. The psychology of the watcher, and why we watch, is a far darker direction to be taken in. And that’s where he takes us, against our will, as we see our own fear reflected back onto us.

There’s a reason why this flick has been one of my favourites since I first saw it as a very freaked out kid on late night television. I hope I’ve come close to explaining why.

9 cameras set up to film my own death out of 10

--
“What would frighten me to death? Set the mood for me, Mark.”
- “Imagine... someone coming towards you... who wants to kill you... regardless of the consequences.”
“A madman?”
- “Yes. But he knows it - and you don't.” – Peeping Tom.

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