Peeping Tom effectively ended director Michael Powell’s career, but unpacking its motives for murder reveals the movie’s visual poetry.
In Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans, young Sammy Fabelman goes to the movies, only to be left terror-stricken by scenes of a train crash. (The movie is 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth and, even now, that crash remains intense and imposing.)
Sammy’s attempts to get over the fright lead him to crash his model trains and, later, to film the destruction. In fact, this isn’t just Sammy’s origin story as a film-maker, but Spielberg’s.
While the content and carnage couldn’t be more different, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom similarly offers up storytelling as therapy. In it, twisted protagonist Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) films the women he kills, in an endless recreation and release of childhood trauma.
Critics in 1960 were disgusted by the film’s lurid sex-and-slasher storyline – and because Powell cast his own son as the young Mark Lewis (and himself as the abusive father).
Writing in The Spectator that year, Isabel Quigley called it, “the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing”. Her review condemns “children’s terror used as entertainment, atrocious cruelty put on the screen for fun”.
Peeping Tom’s disregard for moral codes was problematic, but more so its portrayal of the human need to gaze as something sinister. The film creates an inescapable vortex of voyeurism, “with the audience becoming complicit in the act of murder” (BBFC).
From critical repulsion to its now masterpiece status Peeping Tom is evidently powerful cinema. If there’s a question that can help unpick the film’s dark art, it’s this: why does Mark Lewis kill at all?
Peeping Tom’s man-made murderer
Peeping Tom offers some ready-made reasons for Mark’s killing spree. The first is that he’s a man-made murderer, the result of horrific experimentation by his scientist father.
Note that, in this doomed pairing, it’s not Mark who’s deranged, but his dad.
A biologist, Professor Lewis uses Mark to create a catalogue of growing childhood, filming the boy’s every reaction to stimuli, no matter how intrusive:
- He frightens Mark to film his fear, at one point even throwing a lizard onto the sleeping boy
- He makes Mark say goodbye to his dead mother on camera
- And he films Mark’s early voyeurism (the camera’s presence implying dad coaches this behaviour to further his research).
Mark’s killing spree, then, is a continuation of his father’s work. He has a compulsive need to capture on camera the true face of fear and, like his dad, uses disturbing manipulation to coax it out. Later, he tells housemate Helen Stephens (Anna Massey):
“Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear.”
Like his father, Mark disorientates his victims – sometimes with bright lights, sometimes with the glare and images from a mirror placed above his camera. He then reveals his secret knife – but, the real fear comes from the victim seeing her fear, magnified and made monstrous, in the mirror.
Clearly, the Mark we meet is forever frozen in childhood. He kills, essentially, because he’s been groomed to.
Killing in the name of the father
Like the legend of the ‘original’ Peeping Tom, Powell’s film frames voyeurism as both crime of compulsion and punishment for the perpetrator.
Mark describes his father’s abuse as a catalogue of growing childhood, and research into how people become peeping toms. There are two distinct results of this hideous experimentation: his father’s professional success, and Mark’s compulsion to look … and to kill.
The tragedy is that Mark suspects his curse has cured others. “I am sure good came of it – for some people,” he tells Helen … as the camera pans over the many books his father wrote. Later he asks a psychiatrist about a cure, but is dismayed to find it takes years.
Mark grows up grieving the loss of his mother, and lacking his father’s love. In adulthood, he mimics these early patterns of intimacy by frightening and observing others.
His film-making reveals a sexuality defined by fear, disgust and exclusion. When Helen kisses him, Mark responds by kissing his camera. When he thinks about killing (and, indeed, his father’s voice), he suggestively caresses his camera instead.
Mark’s documentary is a continuation of his father’s film-making – but it also reflects his only model of adulthood. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (also 1960), Norman Bates resurrects his abusive mother; in Peeping Tom, Mark becomes his father.
Killing reanimates his father and those twisted chains of parental love. The film ends with this impossible contradiction, as the young Mark’s recorded voice murmurs in the dark: “Goodnight, daddy. Hold my hand.”
Why does Mark only kill women?
Scientific or not, what Professor Lewis does is calculated torture; like most child sex abusers, he commits abuse under cover of home.
Mark, however, goes further to find his victims. Notably, they’re all women (like children, perhaps the implication is they’re an easier target).
There is, though, more than a hint of sexual sublimation to Mark’s victims, who are either sex workers or ‘threateningly sexual’. If Vivian seems the outlier, historically female actors were routinely dismissed as prostitutes. There has been professional crossover, including in the exploitation of female dancers.
However, Mark doesn’t sleep with the women he kills. This is no surprise given his role as peeping tom – a voyeur driven to sexual excitement by watching without permission.
At the moment of frenzy he unsheathes a substitute phallus – the knife – and achieves “penetration” with that instead. In keeping with his voyeurism, the kick comes from taking part in the act without consent … and from a distance.
Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Mark keeps his women in distinct categories: virgin and whore. Helen, the women he loves, is virginal in that he’ll never film, frighten or kill her.
That’s too bad for Dora, Vivian and Milly – or any woman unafraid to show or sell her sexuality (and, by implication, who doesn’t belong to just one man).
The other possibility is that Mark sees himself in the women he covets; they stand in for his childhood self. Hence when he watches Milly in the camera, he drums his fingers like she does. As Helen fiddles with her dragonfly brooch, Mark mirrors her movements. That mimicry is significant.
The mirror trick in Peeping Tom
Peeping Tom unveils its murder mechanism in bits and pieces, but the big reveal is the distorting mirror that reflects victims’ fear back at them. It’s a stunningly cruel and disturbing concept, most powerful for its fleeting appearance at the end of the movie.
Along with Mark’s female mimicry (see also The Silence of the Lambs), it’s part of the narrative’s broader use of doubling and repetition:
- Helen children’s book, about a boy with a magic camera, parallels Mark’s distorted perception and perversions
- Mark sees the world through his camera, Mrs Stephens through touch and instinct. Like Mark, her ‘tripod’ (walking stick) has a ‘blade’ at its tip
- Mark stabs women in the throat and films their final, frightened moments. He dies the same way.
Another reason that Mark kills, then, is because the narrative functions as a mirror, too.
When Mark returns to film the police bringing out Dora’s body, he’s not the only spectator. The watching crowd is horrified … but also craning for a better look. One man doesn’t even think Mark’s presence is unusual, merely asking: “Which paper are you from?”
Evidently, there are times when we excuse looking at horrific material, for instance, when we filter it through news reporting. However, if that suggests we use distance to mediate disturbing content, the film’s gathered crowds have no shame in gazing directly on tragedy either.
Of course, Mark goes much further: he creates the spectacle in the first place. Yet the film shows seemingly normal people similarly compelled to look on death. If we consider tabloid news and horror movies (and, increasingly, social media footage), sometimes we even thrill to it – just like Mark.
The picture paradox
Mark Lewis lives a double life as upright citizen and merciless killer. Even his public persona is split between dual careers: he’s a studio camera operator and, behind closed doors, a soft porn photographer.
The store where he works has its own double identity. As a newsagent’s shop, it sells those very newspapers that profit from Dora’s murder – plus the odd postcard, pack of smokes and chocolate bar. For men in the know, however, it also sells X-rated photos of women.
In fact – just like Mark – the newsagent creates the spectacle. He hires the models, supplies the back room, and pays Mark to snap the pics.
There’s an endless hypocrisy in the horrified society caught on camera in Peeping Tom. We’re meant to revile Mark’s voyeurism, but the film reflects back at us our compulsion to consume tragedy (and sex).
Similarly, female sex workers are pushed to the margins and murdered – as though their lives are worth less – while men trade in women’s bodies from the comfort of the shop downstairs.
Peeping Tom’s horror lies in not letting the viewer off the hook. When Mark stalks and kills his victims, we see them the way he does: face-on, through his camera viewfinder.
Filming Vivian’s death
Its horrors aside, there’s a visual poetry to Peeping Tom: Mark’s pencils falling in slow motion, for instance, and scene transitions linked by pouring liquids.
The soundtrack’s dripping tap as a countdown to death is equally memorable. So is the comedy-horror of the ‘silent movie’ music that signals Mark’s rising desire.
Mark and Vivian’s studio scene likewise brims with hypnotic symbolism, and draws together the film’s various currents of meaning.
- Vivian’s dancing is poignant for lots of reasons, but especially because Moira Shearer also danced for Powell’s acclaimed 1948 ballet film, The Red Shoes
- The way she’s caught in car headlights on her way to meet Mark foreshadows the bright lights of the murder scene
- Note how Mark marks the place of her death: ‘X’ marks the spot
- Vivian’s warm-up music functions as a ‘youth code’. She immediately feels its beat – as does the young policeman who, when her body is found, starts clicking along compulsively
- Her ‘private dance’ for Mark has sexual undertones. The moves are sensual and full of freedom (so is music’s animalistic beat)
- However, we can still hear the dripping tap under the music
- Vivian’s grave is almost always in shot. The trunks are background props, but Mark slowly steers one ever closer to the centre of the room
- When Vivian says, “they can only hang you once,” Mark’s agreement suggests he has the same idea. No matter how many times he kills, there can only be one punishment
- Mark puts on the red light to indicate recording is taking place. It signals his brazenness, but also the sexual undercurrent (i.e., compare “red light district”)
- He thinks of the women who arouse him as sex workers. At the moment of Vivien’s death, the camera cuts away – to a blazing red light.
The final allegory
Vivan’s dance signals the final reason why Mark Lewis kills on camera: because the story is an allegory for cinema, the pinnacle of the human need to gaze.
Martin Scorsese, talking about Peeping Tom, describes film-making as mania, and links the compulsion of looking as voyeur to the way directors see and are driven to capture the world.
As such, the murders mimic the (supposed) belief in primitive cultures that photographs steal the soul – with Mark becoming a literal grim reaper.
Either way, looking is central to this story, from its unnerving opening shot of the murderer’s eye, to its narrative sewn together by cameras and mirrors. And in between? We have Mrs Stephens, who is blind and thus – like Mark – has her own way of making sense of the world.
In fact, her blindness allows her to truly see Mark. Notably, when she reads his face with her hands, he asks: “taking my picture?”
With hindsight, the critical response – and moral censuring – of Peeping Tom seems unfair. If anything, the film was ahead of its time; its final sequence even speaks to our video-driven era.
With the police at the door, Mark films their entrance in real time, before turning the camera on himself and dying with childish terror and dramatic flourish. It’s quite the selfie.
As for the frightening perversion of a madmen filming his kills in great and graphic detail, well, we were watching along with him, from beginning to end.
Peeping Tom (1960), directed by Michael Powell
What to read or watch next
- 8MM (snuff movies)
- The Fly, Flatliners, Hollow Man (science horror)
- The Omen (camera as weapon)
- Split (serial killers and scarred women)
- The Silence of the Lambs (mimicry)
- The Nanny, Pyscho (1960s, horror)
Picture credit: Kristine Andra