It would not be difficult to do a shot-for-shot essay on today’s Killtoberfest film, both because every shot has something to say and because everything the film is saying is very clear. Unfortunately, this ground has been much covered since, and the movie definitely suffers from its own success. Peeping Tom at times feels pretty stodgy now, even cheesy, so that it’s hard to believe that it scandalized the community and seriously damaged the career of the director, Michael Powell. They must have felt that he had turned on them, the faithful pup who made such elegant, literary productions as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and A Canterbury Tale suddenly gone feral. But that same year Hitchcock would release Psycho; the coming decade would see Robert Wise adapting Shirley Jackson (The Haunting), would see Henry James’s Turn of the Screw filmed as The Innocents. Coppola’s first movie was a black and white chiller called Dementia 13. Polanski’s star rose with movies like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Was horror classing up, or were the greats slumming? Either way, the division between high brow and low brow was blurring–something Peeping Tom made explicit by depicting its protagonist using the art of professional photography to shoot pornography and murder.
The film opens with a mostly unbroken POV shot (beating Carpenter to the punch by nearly two decades), taken through a camera hidden under a young man’s coat. The shot takes us across the street and up a staircase, following a prostitute. It tightens on her face as she screams. Over the opening credits, the shot is run through a projector. As the homemade film climaxes, so does the filmmaker, rising out of his chair in a moment of ecstasy. Throughout the film–which contains shockingly few moments of actual onscreen violence–this idea of pleasure not only experienced visually but totally constructed through the act of seeing, framing, lighting, directing, and filming will return again and again, highlighted by the use of red within the frame to connect violence (blood) and sex (the red lighting of the erotica) and photography (the film-friendly red lighting in Mark’s darkroom).
A couple of examples. There’s the woman with the half-scarred face whose beauty is dependent on both framing (is the camera pointed at her right side or her left?) and perception (Mark finds the heightened contrast itself to be alluring). Then the sequence with Mark and the woman on set has him directing her, positioning her, lighting, constructing a perfect visual image to accommodate the murder. This is the key sequence of the film, because it connects Mark’s actions to the real movie being filmed earlier on the same set, and then afterwards through the device of the (red) suitcase.
These complex thematic layerings add up to nothing less than an brutal indictment of the medium itself, and especially of those who make it or consume it. Note that there is no “peeping” of the traditional variety in the movie. That’s because the peeper is you, out in the audience, getting off on the violence and the novelty. The film argues that movies themselves inevitably create in the filmmaker a dangerous power (to shape and control reality through shaping and controlling images) and in the viewer, a dangerous intimacy. Why should we feel sympathetic towards Mark, an unrepentant killer? Only the blind woman can perceive his true nature, because you and I and Helen are distracted by what we see (including the films Mark’s father made of his abuse). From the opening POV shot to the end with Mark’s mirror, Powell suggests that we identify with those whose visual set we take on, that we accept or even enjoy their perception of reality, no matter how skewed. Perhaps it’s this idea more than any other that critics objected to: that you are what you see. Scary, if you think about it.