One of the most under-rated directors of all time was British director Michael Powell. Sure, some of his films have been widely respected films, such as Red Shoes, Peeping Tom, Age of Consent and Black Narcissus, but he has yet to gain the respect deserved to him. Powell was a lifelong friend and collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on a couple of different occasions. He would be one of the revolving doors of three Hitchcocks, Alfred and Alma being the first two, and the collaborator the third, in a few of Hitch’s projects.
For Peeping Tom, Powell knocked the British film industry on its ear and ended up paying for it. He took the genre of which Hitchcock was a master and blew him clean out of the water. Up until Peeping Tom, Powell was a very traditional, dour English director. If you could predict he would make this film, you knew something the rest of the world did not. Peeping Tom would ultimately end Powell’s career in Britain because of the harsh reaction to the film’s themes.
The film revolves around a serial killer who murders women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions of terror. Carl Boehm, as Mark Lewis, the placid, aspiring filmmaker, works on a film crew. On the side, he works part time taking softcore erotic photographs of women. As the film opens, we are thrown immediately into the insanity that blankets Mark’s world. He meets a prostitute, covertly filming her with a camera hidden under his coat. Powell shot the scene POV and we watch as Mark follows her into her home, murders her and later watches the film coolly in his den. He is both the participant and the voyeur.
Mark is a shy recluse who rarely socializes outside of his workplace. If this sounds cliché, remember this was filmed in 1960 and Boehm is utterly creepy. He lives alone in his dead father’s house and rents most of it out, via an agent, while himself posing as a tenant. He befriends Helen, played by winsome Anna Massey. Mark reveals to Helen, through home movies taken by his father that, as a child, he was used as a guinea pig for his father’s psychological experiments on fear and the nervous system. His father would use various stimuli, such as throwing a lizard on young Mark’s bed, to gauge the boy’s reaction. This is where some of the controversy about the film and criticism about Powell begins. The scenes of the father and young Mark are played by Powell and his son. As uneasy as the scenes made audiences of the time—that added dimension only exacerbated the harsh feeling towards the film.
In the film, Mark works as part of a film crew, and during one of the movies he’s working on, he arranges with a stand-in to make a film of her after the set is closed; and there, he murders her. The body is later discovered during filming. The police interview everyone on the set and become suspicious of Mark. He is tailed by the police who follow him to the newsagents where he takes photographs he had taken of the pin-up model, Milly. This, again, is where the film ran into controversy. There were two versions of the scene with Milly—a racy one with a little nudity, and a more straight laced one. It emerges later that Mark may have killed Milly before returning home.
Helen, who is curious about the “films” Mark makes on his own time finally runs one of them. She becomes visibly upset and then frightened when he catches her. Mark reveals that he makes the movies so that he can capture the fear of his victims. He has mounted a round mirror atop his camera, so that he can capture the reactions of his victims as they see their impending deaths. He points the tripod’s knife towards Helen’s throat, but refuses to kill her.
The police arrive and Mark realizes he is cornered. As he had planned from the very beginning, he impales himself on the knife with the camera running, providing the finale for his documentary.
The film explores a lot of ground that Hitchcock covered throughout his career, but did it in a more art house manner. Powell had been privy to the master of suspense’s methodology and philosophies. However, Powell digs deeper than Hitchcock ever did. In his biography about Hitchcock, Patrick McGilligan noted that Hitchcock was impotent. The voyeurism in his films contrasts sharply to what Powell presents. Mark is primarily an active participant. Hitchcock’s voyeurs were never that way. Norman Bates was not an active participant. He watched Marian undress, but that was his sexual gratification. Marian’s ‘disgusting femininity’, at least in his mother’s view, led to her death. She killed Marian with a knife before Norman could infect himself, that is, have sex with her. In Peeping Tom, Mark doesn’t achieve sexual gratification in the moment but, instead, in the comfort of his own home. He is not impotent, though perhaps, more rightly, homosexual. He never murders a man, not even in self-defense.
However, we may not be able to rule out impotence. Certainly not emotional impotence. Mark’s father saw to that and, in trying to relate to the opposite sex, Mark needs crutches, specifically a phallic enhancement, with which to relate to his feminine counterparts. So, while it may not be a physical impotence, it is most certainly a psychological one.
In the end, like all of us, the primary thing Mark has control over is his death, and he exercises it.