The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: March 18 - 25, 1999

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Shudder bug

Peeping Tom looks at the primal screen

by Peter Keough

PEEPING TOM, Directed by Michael Powell. Written by Leo Marks. With Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Esmond Knight, Bartlet Mullins, and Brenda Bruce. A Rialto Films release. At the Brattle, March 19 and 20.

Peeping Tom In its first few minutes, Michael Powell's regaled and reviled 1960 film Peeping Tom composes, among other achievements, a trenchant essay in film theory. In extreme close-up, an eye opens. A cut is made to a city street, to a woman in the shadows, and to a camera. The rest is seen from the point of view of the camera's cross-haired viewfinder: the negotiation, the walk upstairs, the disrobing, the look of horror preceded by a curious light in the eye -- then dissolve to a projector and it's all repeated again in silence and black and white for a lone viewer in the darkness. Then the title: Peeping Tom.

Freud and a generation of deconstructionists would have a field day. Cinema as sublimated sexual aggression and death wish, the camera as phallus, photography as violation, and film as ritualized voyeurism -- or as a jolly psychiatrist describes it later in the film, "scoptophilia -- the morbid gaze."

The British press that denounced Peeping Tom upon its release in 1960 probably weren't aware of such pointy-headed concepts. But they may have gotten an inkling of them from the incriminating placement of the title: it implicates both filmmaker -- formerly famed for such baroque and agreeable fantasies as The Red Shoes -- and audience in what would later come to be known as a "snuff film." Appalled, one newspaper writer suggested that "the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." And so it has, hardly touched by the different kind of stink made by a film like 8MM. Re-released in a new print at the Brattle, Peeping Tom remains a disturbing masterpiece of film psychology and pathology -- a critique and vindication of the century's foremost compulsion and art form, and a suspenseful, mordantly witty, ultimately moving entertainment.

Taking solitary satisfaction at his handiwork in Peeping Tom's assaultive credit sequence is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm, with Jon Voight's cherubic looks and Peter Lorre's creepy voice), who works as a focus puller for a movie studio and as a part-time photographer of girly pictures for a corner news shop. (In what might be a nod to Psycho, which was released the same year, a Hitchcock look-alike appears in cameo to make a purchase.) A loner except for the constant companionship of his film camera, Mark suffers the legacy of his biologist father, who used him as a guinea pig from infancy in a study of fear in children, filming and recording him continually and subjecting him to sadistic experiments (The Truman Show via B.F. Skinner).

Mark shows some of these films -- him as a child awakening to a lizard tossed on his bed, his response to his mother on her deathbed, his father (played ominously by Powell himself) cavorting with his mother's "successor," and images of his face with that mystery light in his eyes -- to his winsome neighbor Helen (Anna Massey). It's a good first-date ploy, shocking her but arousing her maternal instincts and perhaps her own morbid gaze (she is writing a children's book about "a magic camera and what it photographs"). Nonetheless, he stirs the suspicions of Helen's blind, sibyl-like mother (Maxine Audley).

The visually virginal Helen, however, does not fulfill Mark's specialized sexual needs. ("It will never see you!" he tells her, when she offers to pose for his Bolex. "Whatever I photograph I always lose.") These have a confused Oedipal origin (a scene in which he confronts Helen's mom in his darkroom is breathlessly ambiguous) and a fetishistically homicidal expression. In addition to prostitutes, aspiring actresses fill his bill, such as sportive Vivian (Moira Shearer, the doomed dancer in The Red Shoes, in a sinister allusion), an understudy on the film -- titled The Walls Are Closing In -- that Mark is working on at the studio. They find her body in a trunk while shooting on the set in a scene of ruefully funny, self-reflexive black comedy.

The rushes from that liaison fail to do the trick; meanwhile the crime causes the police to begin snooping close to home. For Mark, though, this is all according to his script, and he records the ongoing investigation blithely, for he has one more killing in mind, the images of which will be "so perfect" that even "he" -- his father, presumably, or God, or Powell, or the audience -- will be satisfied. "Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?" he asks Helen near the end. The answer to that question is almost anticlimactic, as is the origin of the flickering light that torments Mark's camera's victims. What is perhaps more frightening is that we cannot tear our eyes away.

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