French film theorist André Bazin thought that cinema was unique from any other art form thanks to its ability to represent reality. In his seminal essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Bazin wrote that “Photography and cinema…are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism.” To clarify, Bazin did not believe that the cinema is reality. Rather, cinema provides a representation of reality that satisfies certain psychological desires of the viewer and the artist. As he begins the essay, “If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation. The process might reveal that at the origin of painting and sculpture there lies a mummy complex.”
Years later, when film was put under psychoanalysis thanks to the work of theorists like Laura Mulvey, Bazin’s hypothesis took an uncomfortable turn. If the essence of cinema is in its ability to represent reality and representation provides the artist and the spectator with the fulfillment of a certain psychological need, how can we best describe it? For Mulvey, cinema (especially that of the Hollywood variety) fulfills pleasure via the visual or “scopophilia” by providing a viewpoint that is often aligned with male protagonists who look upon passive females. In other words, cinema turns us into voyeurs whose pleasure in the visible can have sexual consequences.
It’s fitting, given the seminal status of her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that Mulvey provides a commentary for Michael Powell’s psychological thriller Peeping Tom (1960). Powell’s film is about a filmmaker whose main interactions with women involve a camera and a phallic knife concealed in the tripod. The film, given its embrace of the horror genre, invites us to look on to the women being murdered. Yet, it does not do so without forcing us to acknowledge its psychological side effect. If you indulge film’s ability to fulfill those repressed desires, you run the risk of letting your own id out of the box.
The film begins on a lower-class, London street. We’re stuck in a POV shot of a 16mm Bell & Howell (eerily, the same camera I shot 16mm on while enrolled in film production classes at UW-Milwaukee). We watch as the camera approaches a hooker (Brenda Bruce), who states her price, and we follow her to her bedroom. As she undresses, a bright light is reflected off of her face. As she notices the light, her eyes meet the lens of the camera. She becomes frightened and begins to scream just as Powell cuts to a projector, screening the film for our protagonist Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm).
The next day, Mark, camera in hand, stalks the police outside of the hooker’s apartment as they wheel her body out. He’s a handsome man, which is fairly surprising. Even more shocking is that, as the film progresses, we feel sympathetic towards Mark. He may be a killer, but he’s a haunted killer who has been “created” thanks to his overzealous, psychiatrist father (Powell himself). His father, hoping to author the ultimate study on the effects of fear on children, repeatedly tortured his son, on camera, never giving him a bit of privacy. His father took a sadistic pleasure in watching the young boy, passing the torch to Mark with a noteworthy birthday present: a movie camera.
While Powell’s film is undoubtedly a horror film, he complements the stalker plot with a romantic subplot. Mark has fallen in love with one of his tenants, a young librarian named Helen (Anna Massey). Helen is outgoing, wanting to know more about her elusive landlord. She pursues him, arriving at his flat on the evening of her 21st birthday in order to invite him down for a piece of cake. Mark, his viewing of the previous evening’s snuff film interrupted, allows Helen into his screening room. He tries to relate to her, drifting uncomfortably onto the subject of his relationship with his father, but her curiosity overlooks these initial, awkward interactions. The relationship between Mark and Helen is reminiscent of that between Norman Bates and Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (released just a few months after Peeping Tom). There’s an endearing awkwardness and, despite everything Mark has done, we want Helen to cure him of his scopophilia.
Carl Boehm and Anna Massey’s performances are essential to making this aspect of Peeping Tom work. Boehm, a German born actor, is unable to feel at home in the English language. This, however, is not a criticism; rather, it completely works in favor of his character. There’s a thrill seeker in Mark, but he’s also someone who is overly contemplative and insecure when he’s not behind the camera. Massey, particularly in the use of her eyes, portrays both a curiosity and sympathy for Mark that escalates the horror of the film. After all, if Peeping Tom was simply the story of a sociopathic filmmaker, hiding in the shadows between the murders of thinly defined female characters (including Moira Shearer, who also starred in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes twelve years earlier), it would only work on one level. By making Mark a sympathetic murderer who was formed by the destructive interaction between psychology and cinema, Powell alludes to the possibility that you, too, can become Mark. In the end, the horror of the film isn’t the product of the women’s faces we see, it’s in the self-realization that we enjoy watching it.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.