‘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.’ The colourful rejoinder of a Tribune film reviewer in 1960 having just seen Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom for the first time. It’s just a single example from a deluge of less-than-stellar reviews for one of the earliest progenitors to the slasher genre. Its appalling reception did irreparable damage to Powell’s career; eventually contributing to the end of arguably the finest director this country has known.
Michael Powell made a habit of making films that deviated from the norm of British cinematic convention. During the ‘40s and ‘50s when realism and bleakness were the modus operandi, he and his collaborator, Emeric Pressburger, were pioneering the use of Technicolor to make vibrant, gothic, borderline fantasy movies such as A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes. Wholly unique (but always unmistakably British) pictures that influenced a handful of notable directors.
Martin Scorsese, who was captivated by The Red Shoes at just the age of nine, cites Powell’s cannon from the ‘30’s through to the ‘50s as ‘the longest period of subversive film-making in a major studio, ever.’ One of the most significant contributors to the horror genre, George A. Romero, may never have become a filmmaker had he not seen The Tales of Hoffmann.
It would be specious to hand Peeping Tom exclusively over to the horror genre; it’s a much more complex beast. The horror, mixed with black comedy and psychological thriller sensibilities, make for a deeply unsettling look into voyeurism, obsession and loneliness. It’s easy to imagine the furore Michael Powell’s film would have stirred over 50 years ago.
Peeping Tom begins with a murder from the perspective of the main character, Mark Lewis (a young cameraman) and whether we like it or not, Powell involves us in the act as well. We see the stalking of a young woman on the streets of London through the eye of a camera as it creeps menacingly towards her, until eventually she is looking directly at it – at us. Her face contorts in fear, her dying expression is revealed and, despite not seeing it, the audience can conclude that she has been murdered. And so the film begins.
It is interesting that while his first solo picture effectively put a stop to his career as a director (it was a challenge just to find a black and white copy of it at the time), months later that year, Afred Hitchcock saw a resurgence in his after the release of Psycho: a film with numerous similarities to Peeping Tom.
However, time makes appreciators of us all and Peeping Tom has forged a cult following among film fans spearheaded by Powell’s number one advocate, Martin Scorsese, who, when speaking of the movie, says ‘I have always felt that Peeping Tom says everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two.’ In a world increasingly dominated by social networking and mass surveillance, Powell’s first person delve into voyeurism and the hazard that comes from artistic obsession is perhaps even more relevant now than it was 50 years ago. (8)