Eyes of a Stranger: Voyeurism and Horror in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

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Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) and his beloved camera.

Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is universally regarded as the quintessential movie psychopath. Nowadays, he’s simply an indispensable member of the greatest onscreen characters of all time. Psycho’s importance becomes obvious when we consider that its filming is about to become the topic of a feature called Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi with Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, and Jessica Biel that will hit the theaters come February 2013. Yet there is another criminally underrated movie nutcase who found his way to the big screen the same year as Norman Bates, and he deserves mention with the best of them. We’re talking about the loose-cannon protagonist from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom.

Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) is a plain Jane cameraman, or so it seems. At daytime, he works at a studio and is generally respected by all of his colleagues. Behind his more or less unimpressive façade, however, he has a rather dark secret. His father abused him as a child. Mark was the subject of psychiatric and behavioral experiments. Each night, his begetter woke him up, so as to scare the living hell out of him and then meticulously record his every reaction. The horror seared into the boy’s memory.

As an adult, he goes about his own, fairly bizarre hobbies. By using false pretenses, Mark convinces women – either extras or prostitutes – to let him film them. While the camera is running, he points the lens right at their faces, only to shove a knife attached to the tripod through their neck. Afterwards, he watches these short films in his projection room at home, because he wants to indulge himself in the fear in the eyes of his female victims.

Peeping Tom caused quite a scandal when it came out in 1960. Up to that point, Michael Powell was a widely acclaimed British director and considered one of the most important filmmakers of the ongoing 20th century. With his partner Emeric Pressburger, he had been part of the ‘Archers’ tag team responsible for several classics, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. After their split in the late 1950s, Michael Powell chose a rather daring subject for his first own directorial work – one that certainly rivals Psycho.

The thriller effectively ended his career as a filmmaker. After the release of Peeping Tom, Michael Powell was done in the industry. The same held true for his leading man Karlheinz Böhm. The actor had risen to stardom in the previous years by playing the role of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef next to Romy Schneider in the Sissi trilogy of historical romances, and he was firmly established in the audience’s minds as the head of the Danube Monarchy. Nobody wanted to see Böhm, considered every mother-in-law’s dream at the time, as a perverted voyeur and killer of women, so that his promising career stalled as well.

Upon its release, Peeping Tom received disastrous reactions by critics and viewers alike. Many perceived the movie as vulgar and sick. That was then. In the meantime, however, a number of noted filmmakers, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola among them, have caused a change of heart as far as Peeping Tom is concerned. The thriller is generally acclaimed as a masterpiece these days, for both Michael Powell’s direction and Karlheinz (or Carl, as he is called in the credits) Böhm’s convincing performance as a sicko.

What has triggered this startling transformation in the court of public opinion? First of all, other than a horror story, Peeping Tom is, comparable to by Federico Fellini, essentially a film about filmmaking itself. It self-evidently demonstrates the nuts and bolts of shooting a movie. Mark approaches his victims through the frame of his lens and thus shows us how to go about camerawork and lighting and how to create dramatic shots and angles. As a longtime director, Michael Powell naturally knows how to cut his audience to the quick. The special blow-off is the exploding spotlights during the murders that served as an inspiration to Martin Scorsese when making the fight sequences for Raging Bull.

The similarities between the two are remarkable. In both cases, the protagonists behave like cavalier predators. They suddenly lunge at their victims, only to annihilate them stone-cold. One of them does it in the ring, the other with the camera in his hand. For Mark Lewis as well as boxing world champion Jake La Motta, punishment and destruction are the only possibility to act out their sexuality. None of them is truly able to open to bare himself to his fellow human beings other than by means of violence and perdition.

Michael Powell’s shocker is a movie about a pathologically deranged main character. This is nothing noteworthy in itself, since Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates was also abused emotionally at a young age and has a split personality. Yet Peeping Tom adds a totally new component to the mix: voyeurism. True, Psycho lets us vividly participate in the killings, too. However, the difference is that Mark Lewis practically gloats over seeing his victims suffer, first live and then on the silver screen, whereas he himself never even appears in a blurred manner or as a shadow in a single one of his short films. By experiencing his actions first-hand, we are turned into both eyewitnesses and his accomplices.

At heart, Michael Powell only anticipated in 1960 what we live to see in the modern global internet age on an everyday basis. Depictions of violence almost seem to have become normalcy, be they fictional or bred from reality. At the same time, we’ve grown to be so callous that watching such scenes doesn’t even make flinch anymore. Roughly half a century ago, things still looked a little different in that regard. Back then, a movie like Peeing Tom triggered a true shockwave – in a double sense.

Similar to Psycho or M by Fritz Lang, the shocking moments in Michael Powell’s film haven’t lost in effect after such a long time, even though it doesn’t look as appalling and horrifying to contemporary viewers anymore. Quite the contrary, nowadays Peeping Tom finally receives the recognition it deserves. The thriller’s deluded protagonist Mark Lewis only turns into a person when he uses his camera.

The tripod is an extension of his body. He basically melts into one with it, just as Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver becomes one with his weapons and firearms. Yet there’s a subtle difference between the two characters. One slaughters defenseless, innocent women with his instruments, while the other uses them to embark on a killing spree in order to save a teenage prostitute.

Michael Powell casting himself in the role of the abnormal father is another of the director’s tricks in Peeping Tom. He stages himself as a Demiurge, who both controls his protagonist’s world and has the power to completely unhinge it at every second. By using exploding light bulbs, the filmmaker has also managed to create of the truly great moments on celluloid. The image has effectively burned itself onto the imaginary retina of cinematic history.