Psychological Caricatures of the Modern Era Peeping Tom (1960) . Michael Powell

When Peeping Tom first released in 1960, Powell was vilified in the press. No one was ready for Powell’s provocative study of the perverse mind, and the lauded film director was reduced to a mere studio outcast. His handful of pictures after 1960 were so painfully controlled that his career as a virtuoso film master might as well have ended along with Peeping Tom. Arthur Astruc proposed the usage of the camera as a pen in 1948, but little would the cinematic universe come to expect a grotesquely truthful grasp of that language just 12 years later. It’s an inevitable curse that Peeping Tom would suffer a similar fate like its protagonist’s victims.  

The opening shot of Peeping Tom signals an awakening. It expounds the power of the eye, the curiosity beyond our vision, and the emotions that are within. Perhaps Powell was touching on the complexities within the “seeker” that is the eye, or in the case of the peeping tom, his camera. Powell’s opening shot of the eye can also be interpreted as a signal for the audience’s attention to dissect the minute details of Peeping Tom, especially when Powell teases with the foreshadow of a murder and the conscious choice to utilize a prostitute as the victim. The prostitute is a seeker waiting to be sought after while the peeping tom is a seeker, awaiting to prey.

Powell foreshadows the death of the prostitute by placing her beside a window of of a severed mannequin.

Powell foreshadows the death of the prostitute by placing her beside a window of of a severed mannequin.

The peeping tom, Mark Lewis, works as a camera assistant on movie sets and moonlights as an erotic photographer for some extra change.  Mark travels around with a movie camera of his own but his private equipment is elusive to his fixations. Due to Mark’s traumatic childhood, he is attracted to expressing his fears and anger through infliction upon his victims (all women), who might represent a rendition of how he views a certain step-parent.  Mark’s weapon of choice is a camera that exposes its tripod leg to reveal a piercing spike, much like the compass instrument used for technical drawing. 

He would film his subjects with his camera and expose his weapon with intent so that he could attempt to capture a “perfect” kind of fear. To be exposed to a camera equates to the exposure to light, and the gateway towards the most fragile emotions. However brutal Mark’s murderous antics were, he isn’t attracted to murder, yet, murder is just part of his process to attain optimal fetishism.

 

Powell’s film was made close to 60 years ago but Peeping Tom couldn’t be more relatable than contemporary times. In the 21st century, the convenience of mobile cameras are an intimate response to its user. Today, we have the unprecedented ability to use a camera as a “weapon.” It is used to expose, shame, and frame, or to simply present a subject of interest. When voyeurism and discreet public filming are part and parcel of the process, the act of using a camera as a weapon becomes nonchalant. 

Powell’s Peeping Tom elevates the psychology of the seeker, enhancing the fear of the camera in the modern world. Mark Lewis’s fetish wasn’t at all cinematic but perversely humanistic as proven with modern terror threats of decapitations, and the act of sharing the aftermath to a traumatic incident. Just like Mark Lewis, sharing and capturing trauma seems to be part of the human agenda. The intricacies behind Peeping Tom shows that Powell was indeed attempting to expound the characteristics behind a personal camera with a cinematic one. Mark’s fear of being photographed only magnifies the notion of anxiety and hypocrisy towards the camera as a weapon. The wielder doesn’t flinch but does so when roles are reversed. 

Peeping Tom was ahead of its time but its truth resonates to be prevalent with modern anxieties.