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Peeping Tom (1960) - Michael Powell

Themes: child abuse - documentary - fear - horror film - metafilm - psychological horror - psychoanalysis - serial killer - slasher film - scopophilia - visual - voyeurism

Director: Michael Powell

Critics and defenders: Laura Mulvey - Martin Scorsese

"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." --Derek Hill, "Cheap Thrills," Tribune (London: April 29, 1960), 11.

"An extraordinary movie with an extraordinary history" --Laura Mulvey

After its release, Powell was ostracised by the film world, and never regained his former success. His offense, it seemed, was to have made a horror movie that was genuinely horrific. However, in 2004 the magazine Total Film named Peeping Tom the 24th greatest British movie of all time. [Jan 2006]

Peeping Tom (1960) - Michael Powell [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Milly just before ...
Peeping Tom (1960) - Michael Powell [Amazon.com]


Peeping Tom is a 1960 psychological horror film by the British film director Michael Powell. The film takes its title from the character "peeping Tom" the voyeur in the tale of Lady Godiva, and is an horrific tale of voyeurism, serial murder and child abuse.

The film was written by the World War II cryptographer and polymath Leo Marks, and starred Carl Boehm and Anna Massey. The story revolves around a young man who murders women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions of terror.

Powell was already an experienced director, famously in his partnership with Emeric Pressburger, but Peeping Tom was both his first real horror film. After its release, Powell was ostracised by the film world, and never regained his former success. His offense, it seemed, was to have made a horror movie that was genuinely horrific. However, in 2004 the magazine Total Film named Peeping Tom the 24th greatest British movie of all time.

Some film critics have perceived this film to be the predecessor to the slasher films that would follow in the succeeding decades. In fact, Peeping Tom was released to theatres shortly before Alfred Hitchcock established the Slasher Film genre for American audiences with Psycho. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peeping_Tom_%28film%29 [Mar 2005]


Scopophilia is obtaining sexual arousal and gratification by secretly observing others engaged in sexual intercourse. It is a synonym for voyeurism.

Laura Mulvey on Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom - Laura Mulvey

Peeping Tom was made in 1959 by British director Michael Powell. It is not only an extraordinary movie but it has an extraordinary history. On its release, it received such devastating reviews that it has slowly, over the last 30 or so years, been recognized as one of the British cinema's most interesting films and, more generally, as one of the great films about cinema. Michael Powell himself held that the reception of Peeping Tom contributed to the collapse of his own career at the time. In his words, the distributors 'canceled the British distribution, and they sold the negative as soon as they could to an obscure black-marketer of films, who tried to forget it, and forgotten it was, along with its director, for 20 years.' Powell's own favorite among the many insults slung at him was: '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.' This, alongside: 'The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing.' Or quite simply, 'Ugh!'

Gradually, Peeping Tom acquired a cult reputation, but prints were hard to come by. It has been critics, archivists, and enthusiasts who have worked to put the film back into circulation, initially through restricted screenings at festivals and retrospectives. Martin Scorsese, who has loved Powell's films as along as he has loved the cinema (that is, since childhood), paid for a print of Peeping Tom to be brought to the New York Film Festival. Although it can now be seen on British television, the 1994 Criterion laserdisc issue (here on DVD for the first time) might be considered to have been the re-release of a film that was denied release in its own time, in its own country.

Why was the film such a critical disaster' The story reaches both back into the history of British film culture and forward to new developments in film criticism which have attempted to account for its shock effect. Peeping Tom, as its title implies, is overtly about voyeuristic sadism. Its central character is a young cameraman and thus the story of voyeuristic perversion is, equally overtly, set within the film industry and the cinema itself, foregrounding its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female). The cinema spectator's own voyeurism is made shockingly obvious and even more shockingly, the spectator identifies with the perverted protagonist. It is this relentless exposure of cinematic conventions and assumptions that has attracted the interest of feminist film critics, and the recent application of psychoanalytic theory to film theory clearly reveals the film's psychoanalytic frame of reference.

Peeping Tom is a film of many layers and masks; its first reviewers were unable even to see it at face value. Entrenched in the traditions of English realism, these early critics saw an immoral film set in real life whose ironic comment on the mechanics of film spectatorship and identification confused them as viewers. But Peeping Tom offers realistic cinematic images that relate to the cinema and nothing more. It creates a magic space for its fiction somewhere between the camera's lens and the projector's beam of light on the screen.

Michael Powell has always disturbed boundaries and muddied safe demarcations. During the 1930s and '40s, this most English of directors welcomed the cosmopolitan influences brought to the British film industry by European refugees. Powell had started his life in the cinema in France, working for the great American silent director, Rex Ingram. His later collaboration with Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, through their company The Archers, produced his most original and successful films, including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Tales of Hoffmann. But the story of The Archers is like a microcosm of the trials and tribulations suffered by independent producers who attempted to preserve their creative autonomy within the British film industry. Peeping Tom's portrait of Pinewood Studios is a farcical, bitter, almost vengeful picture of an industry's total complacency in the face of creative and economic decline. Powell, knowing that The Archers represented the best of British cinema, deeply resented their marginalization.

Powell always identified with the 'fantastic' strand of English culture, and succeeded better than anyone in adapting it for the cinema. The 'fantastic,' or the 'gothic', not only aims to disturb its reader or spectator; it disturbs the boundaries of cultural tradition. It stands in opposition to British realism and merges with the European fantastic, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen, and also hovers on the edge between popular and high cultural traditions, marking the uneasiness of English culture, split as it has always been along class lines.

Peeping Tom is a summation of Powell's life in the cinema, perhaps particularly his polemics and his disappointments. The film also suggests that there is always more to cinema than meets the eye. Powell's project was to make visible on the screen the invisible, the intuitive, and the hidden in human life through films that were 'composed' out of all the aesthetic elements of the cinema. It is the spectator's task to decipher the hieroglyph that the voyeur may see but cannot understand.

Groundbreaking filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey is Professor of Film and Media Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her essays have been collected in Visual and Other Pleasures (Macmillan, 1989) and Fetishism and Curiosity (British Film Institute, 1996).

I believe this text was first featured on the liner notes to the 1994 Criterion laserdisc release

Scorsese [...]

`Peeping Tom'' essentially finished Powell's career, although he made more films. By the late 1970s, however, Scorsese was sponsoring revivals and restorations, and joined Powell on the audio commentary tracks of several laser discs. Indeed, Powell and Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, fell in love and married, and she assisted him in writing the most remarkable directorial autobiographies, A Life in Movies and Million-Dollar Movie.--Roger Ebert

Amazon review

Amazon.com review
Michael Powell lays bare the cinema's dark voyeuristic underside in this disturbing 1960 psychodrama thriller. Handsome young Carl Boehm is Mark Lewis, a shy, socially clumsy young man shaped by the psychic scars of an emotionally abusive parent, in this case a psychologist father (Michael Powell in a perverse cameo) who subjected his son to nightmarish experiments in fear and recorded every interaction with a movie camera. Now Mark continues his father's work, sadistically killing young women with a phallic-like blade attached to his movie camera and filming their final, terrified moments for his definitive documentary on fear. Set in contemporary London, which Powell evokes in a lush, colorful seediness, this film presents Mark as much victim as villain and implicates the audience in his scopophilic activities as we become the spectators to his snuff film screenings. Comparisons to Hitchcock's Psycho, released the same year, are inevitable. Powell's film was reviled upon release, and it practically destroyed his career, ironic in light of the acclaim and success that greeted Psycho, but Powell's picture hit a little too close to home with its urban setting, full color photography, documentary techniques, and especially its uneasy connections between sex, violence, and the cinema. We can thank Martin Scorsese for sponsoring its 1979 rerelease, which presented the complete, uncut version to appreciative American audiences for the first time. This powerfully perverse film was years ahead of its time and remains one of the most disturbing and psychologically complex horror films ever made. --Sean Axmaker


See also: film (documentary) within film, film about making films, documentary of his own life, study of fear, watching your own death, blindness of mother reminds me of blind Karl Malden in The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971), psychoanalysis, ugly (women with disfigured face), nude pictures

Peeping Tom (1960) - Michael Powell [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Leo Marks (1920 - 2001)
Leo Marks wrote the script for Michael Powell's intelligent and highly controversial Peeping Tom (1960), the story of a serial killer who films his victims while stabbing them to death. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Marks [Mar 2005]

Psychological horror
Later in the 1960s the genre moved towards non-supernatural psychological horror, with thrillers such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) using all-too-human monsters rather than supernatural ones to scare the audience. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom was a notable example of this genre. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Mar 2005]

Slasher film
Halloween is generally considered the first of a long line of modern-day "slasher" movies, though some film scholars (and cult movie fans) say the credit for this goes to either Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho or Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween_%28movie%29 [Mar 2005]

The genre may have had its origins in three early 1960's horror films, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast, and, most notably, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slasher_film [Mar 2005]

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