Peeping Tom

UK 1960, 102 mins
Director: Michael Powell

Thelma Schoonmaker on ‘Peeping Tom’
What’s so powerful is that you care about this man who was a murderer – so beautifully portrayed by Carl Boehm – but who has been created by his father to be a murderer. You care about him. The critics were horrified at that feeling in themselves. They thought, ‘Well, we must get rid of this film because people shouldn’t be feeling that way.’ These days, many films are made like this. Michael wasn’t even the first: Fritz Lang’s M [1931] did something like this.

I’ve just finished helping restore the movie, and I love the great detail and care that went into it to make that character someone you felt for. Michael completely changed the way he made films with this movie. A different cameraman and a different look – very much a 1960s look, even the colour, the way sets are designed, the way people wear clothes is very 1960s. It was a big thing for him, to jump ahead and make a film relevant to that time.
Sight and Sound, November 2023

Part of the exasperation, if not the loathing, prompted by Michael Powell’s ‘nice, pure, beautiful film’ (as he called it) when it first appeared in 1960 can be explained by sheer disorientation. From the title inwards, nothing that Peeping Tom delivers is quite what it promises (or threatens); if there is a logic to be traced beneath its surface of peculiar imprecision, it is that of the surviving airman (how does he survive?) in A Matter of Life and Death or of the family curse (is it really a blessing?) in ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ In other words, the film requires some indulgence from its observers in order to survive its own contradictions. Too little tolerance, and Peeping Tom is ‘merely’ about a deranged sexual pervert; too much, and it becomes – equally mysteriously – a key to the whole purpose of watching movies.

The notoriety of Peeping Tom as a horror film seems ill-deserved; it is resolutely understated, its death scenes unfashionably bloodless. The pin-ups by which the newsagent supplements his income also have the innocent inhibition of a long-departed era, less provocative than most contemporary greetings cards. ‘You won’t see that in Sight and Sound!’ exclaims the focus-puller’s colleague, waving an iconic snapshot – and, sure enough, Sight and Sound pointedly ignored Peeping Tom on first release. But today Powell’s film could no longer be interpreted on whatever pretext as a corrupting influence, an insult, or a flagrant waste of talent. Already adrift from its period, set in a London where accents and grammar still ring with the stoicism of the immediately post-war, it now reads most plausibly as compassionate fable, strangely echoing in its themes and images of possessiveness, blindness and loss another of the stories that Powell filmed without Pressburger, The Thief of Bagdad, back in 1940. That film, too, began with (and repeatedly returned to) a piercing gaze.

Much can be made of Peeping Tom’s opening shot, the eye springing open both to absorb and to attack: it can be read as both fearsome and fearful, menacing and vulnerable, both an awakening and an insight, even implying that everything to follow is imaginary, perceived only by an inner eye. Always to be found, by a sadistic stretch, in the Archers trademark (an arrow piercing the pupil of the target), the recurring Powell motif promises reward and punishment, clarity of vision offset by potential malignancy of purpose. In Peeping Tom it is promptly associated with the lens of the camera which, after thrusting at us furtively from folds of clothing, identifies us with the killer, not with his victim. Since we have no quarrel with the luckless Dora (although emphatically no reason to like her, either), nor do we know quite how she dies, it seems at first that a useful opportunity for clarification is offered by the repeat of the whole sequence behind the opening credits. Powell’s ingenuity, however, only leads to complications.

The monochrome version is not, in fact, a repeat of the initial encounter, which seems to be (but isn’t) a single tracking shot from start to finish: it is edited from a different take, while oddly repeating the glimpse (a deliberate mistake?) of the camera unit’s shadow across the shop front. This time around, Dora clutches a lamppost in passing, fails to meet a fellow lodger on the stairs, and does not appear to speak before dying. It is puzzling that, given our understanding of the camera’s position, she consistently looks us straight in the lens. But the main problems posed by this series of subtle non-sequiturs relate not to the murderer’s identity, since he sits there in front of us, but to the questions of how and why the murder was committed. It takes most of the film to produce some answers, partly because the lurid device of the camera-tripod blade – a potent enough symbol, although perplexingly unwieldy and impractical – is less important than the parabolic mirror (strenuously concealed from us until the end) in which the victims see themselves, and partly because the explanation of the murderer’s purpose proves to be no more than a clue to a range of deeper motivations.

Deliberately or not, Peeping Tom encourages distrust. What are we to make, for example, of Mark’s German accent, somehow acquired since his childhood (we hear tapes of the boy’s immaculate English) although he has always lived in the same house? What kind of an autumn evening, close to Firework Night, is still broad daylight at 7pm, and how is it that the whole business of Milly’s murder takes only as long as a postman (working unusual hours) takes to deliver a letter? Less trivially, we might wonder why Helen only meets Mark (her landlord) after she has been given, at 21, the key of the door; what might be significant about his gift of a dragonfly brooch (a reference to The Tales of Hoffmann? a comment on the emerging adult?); and when exactly it was that Mark’s ‘researches’ turned him into a killer. If Dora was the first, what prompted the escalation – and what did he film before? And crucially, since Peeping Tom contrives to be a film about sex while scarcely mentioning the subject, how does Mark’s condition relate to his lost mother, his hated stepmother, and his father’s vast collection of sound tapes?

Mark’s own answer to the riddle of his behaviour admits no sexual implication. ‘I made them watch their own deaths,’ he says of his victims, ‘and if death has a face they saw that too.’ This would suggest that Mark’s altruistic continuation of his father’s work was driven by the need to understand the ultimate fear, in anticipation of his own demise. It is invalidated by the use of the mirror in which the women would only see a wildly distorted image, in fact a reflection of how Mark sees them. Studying their deaths on film, a documentary slowly taking on the shape of a complete Powell production, Mark is distracted from his metaphysical quest by the intervention of Helen and the ‘reality’ of love, neatly if ironically signalled by the insistent ringing of a bell. He has to make a choice and, since this is Powell’s world, the film takes priority over the relationship; he brings his father’s exhaustive project to its inevitable close.

Tinkering with Freudian theories (as Powell and Leo Marks began their collaboration by doing), a more satisfactory reading might be that as a consequence of his father-obsession Mark is jealous of his stepmother and kills off her later equivalents in order to keep his father (the real ‘Peeping Tom’) to himself. As sex has no part in this relationship, any sexual behaviour – such as kissing couples or posing glamour-girls – has to be suppressed and punished. At the same time, by ‘becoming’ his father, Mark can justify a tolerance towards Helen as a potential partner/mother, while Mrs Stephens, ‘seeing’ him more clearly for being blind, also has some vestige of maternal authority over him. But the enigmas of the film, like the veil that lifts across Mark’s first meeting with Helen’s mother, safely defy explanation. The most appropriate verdict comes after Mark’s reunion with death, in the form of a splendidly ambiguous Powellian comment both on the after-life and on Peeping Tom itself ‘There’s nothing,’ says the expert, ‘to be afraid of.’
Philip Strick, Sight & Sound, November 1994

Directed by: Michael Powell
©/Production Company: Michael Powell (Theatre) Ltd
Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy present a Michael Powell production
Production Manager: Al Marcus
Production Assistants: Judith Coxhead, William J. Paton
1st Assistant Director: Ted Sturgis
Continuity: Rita Davison
An Original Story and Screenplay by: Leo Marks
Photographed in Eastmancolor by: Otto Heller
Camera Operator: Gerry Turpin
Chief Electrician: Victor E. Smith
Editor: Noreen Ackland
Art Director: Arthur Lawson
Assistant Art Director: Ivor Beddoes
Set Dresser: Don Picton
Construction Manager: Ronald Udell
Miss Anna Massey’s Dresses by: Polly Peck
Miss Moira Shearer’s Dresses by: John Tullis of Horrockses
Wardrobe: Dickie Richardson
Make-up: W.J. Partleton
Hairdressing: Pearl Orton
Hats by: Millinery Guild
Music Composed and Directed by: Brian Easdale
Percussion Number by: Wally Stott
Dance Music by: Freddie Phillips
Solo Piano: Gordon Watson
Sound Recordists: C.C. Stevens, Gordon McCallum
Sound Editor: Malcolm Cooke
Producer: Michael Powell
Associate Producer: Albert Fennell 2nd Assistant Director: Denis Johnson
3rd Assistant Director: Carl Mannin
Focus Puller: Derek Browne
Clapper Loader: Jim Hopewell
Stills: Norman Gryspeerdt
1st Assistant Editor: Alma Godfrey
2nd Assistant Editor: John Rushton
Draughtsman: Maurice Pelling
Wardrobe Assistant: Vi Garnham
Studio: Pinewood Studios

Carl Boehm (Mark Lewis)
Moira Shearer (Vivian)
Anna Massey (Helen Stephens)
Maxine Audley (Mrs Stephens)
Brenda Bruce (Dora)
Miles Malleson (elderly gentleman)
Esmond Knight (Arthur Baden)
Martin Miller (Dr Rosan)
Michael Goodliffe (Don Jarvis)
Jack Watson (Inspector Gregg)
Shirley Ann Field (Diane Ashley)
Pamela Green (Milly)
Bartlett Mullins (Mr Peters)
Nigel Davenport (Sgt Miller)
Brian Wallace (Tony)
Susan Travers (Lorraine)
Maurice Durant (publicity chief)
Brian Worth (assistant director)
Veronica Hurst (Miss Simpson)
Alan Rolfe (store detective)
John Dunbar (police doctor)
Guy Kingsley-Poynter (P. Tate, cameraman)
Keith Baxter (Baxter, detective)
Peggy Thorpe-Bates (Mrs Partridge)
John Barrard (small man)
Roland Curram (young man extra)
Robert Crewdson (tall shop assistant)
John Chappell (clapper boy)
Paddy Edwardes (girl extra)
Frank Singuineau (first electrician)
Margaret Neal (stepmother)
Michael Powell (A.N. Lewis, Mark’s father)
Columba Powell (Mark as a child)

UK 1960©
102 mins
Digital 4K

A new BFI National Archive restoration

The Small Back Room
Fri 1 Dec 18:10 (+ intro); Sun 10 Dec 18:30; Sat 16 Dec 20:45; Fri 22 Dec 18:20; Wed 27 Dec 20:30; Sat 30 Dec 15:00
Oh… Rosalinda!!
Sat 2 Dec 11:45; Wed 13 Dec 20:45
Lazybones + Her Last Affaire
Sat 2 Dec 15:20; Wed 20 Dec 17:50
The Love Test + Something Always Happens
Sun 3 Dec 15:30; Tue 19 Dec 20:20
Library Talk: The Glass Pearls
Mon 4 Dec 18:30 BFI Reuben Library
Wanted for Murder + intro by Simon McCallum, BFI curator
Mon 4 Dec 20:40
Projecting the Archive: The End of the River + intro by film scholar Dr Kulraj Phullar
Tue 5 Dec 18:20
The Phantom Light
Wed 6 Dec 20:30; Sun 17 Dec 12:30
Peeping Tom
Thu 7 Dec 20:45 (+ intro); Sat 9 Dec 15:00 (+ Doesn’t Exist magazine launch and panel discussion hosted by Victor Fraga); Fri 15 Dec 20:50; Mon 18 Dec 20:45; Thu 21 Dec 18:00; Sat 23 Dec 18:00; Fri 29 Dec 18:15
The Red Shoes
From Fri 8 Dec
The Red Shoes in the Spotlight
Fri 8 Dec 18:00
Bluebeard’s Castle (Herzog Blaubarts Burg)
Fri 8 Dec 20:40; Fri 15 Dec 18:10 (+ intro by writer Lillian Crawford); Sat 23 Dec 13:30
Crown v. Stevens + Behind the Mask (aka The Man Behind the Mask)
Sat 9 Dec 12:40; Sat 23 Dec 15:00
The Tales of Hoffmann
Sat 9 Dec 17:30; Tue 12 Dec 20:20 (+ intro by Andrew Moor, Manchester Metropolitan University); Sat 16 Dec 14:45; Sat 30 Dec 17:30
Honeymoon (Luna de miel)
Sun 10 Dec 13:25; Thu 28 Dec 20:40
Queering Powell + Pressburger
Tue 12 Dec 18:00
Experimenta: Michelle Williams Gamaker and Powell + Pressburger + Michelle Williams Gamaker in conversation with Dr Kulraj Phullar
Wed 13 Dec 18:05
They’re a Weird Mob
Sat 16 Dec 17:45; Fri 29 Dec 20:40
Espionage: Never Turn Your Back on a Friend / A Free Agent + intro
Sun 17 Dec 15:15
Age of Consent
Fri 22 Dec 20:45; Wed 27 Dec 18:15
A Matter of Life and Death
Sat 23 Dec 15:00 BFI IMAX
Black Narcissus
Sat 30 Dec 14:30 BFI IMAX

The Red Shoes: Beyond the Mirror Our new BFI Southbank exhibition immerses you in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. From 10 November to 7 January. Blue Room

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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