He was one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time and, along with long-time collaborator Emmerich Pressburger, responsible for some of the most prestigious films ever made including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). Then in 1960, Michael Powell’s career came to a screeching halt in Britain with the release of a film about a sexually repressed voyeur that critics likened to sewage: Peeping Tom. Only three months later, legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock released a film with similar themes of Freudian sexuality and voyeurism. But unlike with Powell and Peeping Tom, Hitchcock’s career was catapulted to an even higher level of prestige with Psycho, a film that garnered critical praise, several Oscar nominations, and massive box-office.
So, what happened? Why did Peeping Tom end one career while Psycho made another go from legendary to mythic? To this day, Psycho is easily available in multiple editions while Peeping Tom was released once on DVD in the United States by The Criterion Collection but has been out of print for over ten years and never been renewed. It’s had a few releases in Britain but certainly not on the level of Psycho.
Peeping Tom was the brainchild of writer Leo Marks (I am not the first to note the similarity between his name and the name of his main character: Mark Lewis), a man that Powell, in volume two of his extensive autobiography Million Dollar Movie (1992), called, “an ideal creative partner. He knew nothing about films or the theatre but a very great deal about men and women. He was malicious, inventive, and unshockable.” (Powell p. 389) Marks’s history gives us quite an insight into the true nature of the film.
Marks’s father owned a rare book shop in London and one day, eight-year-old Leo was shown a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” a story largely about codes and clues. His father even wrote the price of the book inside its back cover in code, which young Leo was able to break. He was hooked on codes and codebreaking from that moment and went on to head a codebreaking agency during World War II. According to Marks, General Eisenhower commended their agency at the end of the war saying their efforts shortened the war by three months, saving thousands of lives.
Because Peeping Tom was created and written by a code breaker, along with collaboration and guidance from Powell, certainly no slouch when it comes to visual codes and symbolism, the film is an elaborate puzzle box that can be viewed in a multitude of ways. But in the interest of time and relative brevity, we will explore three main points of commonality between Peeping Tom and Psycho and how the two films broach each subject. Because Psycho and its history are far more familiar, our focus will be more on Peeping Tom’s background and the themes within Psycho being a point of reference for comparison.
The Indecipherable Code
Marks took his interest in codes beyond the war and applied it to writing poetry, his interest in psychology, and of course to the writing of the Peeping Tom screenplay. He felt that all codes could be broken with one exception: “the only indecipherable code in the world is a woman,” he said in a BBC documentary about his work. And this is our first clue in breaking the code that is Peeping Tom.
It is also our first similarity to Psycho. In both films, women are not only a complete mystery to the male protagonists, but they activate their homicidal impulses. For both Mark Lewis (Austrian actor Karlheinz Böhm, credited as Karl Boehm) and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), women set off powerful and opposite emotions that they have no idea how to reconcile: lust and fear. Both easily objectify women. This is more overt in Peeping Tom. Mark is a pinup photographer, or at least that’s what we are shown in the film, but it is implied that he also photographs these women nude. I imagine Mark’s pictures of Milly (Pamela Green) being some of the pictures in the lurid magazines that Norman Bates keeps hidden from his mother in a moment removed from the final cut of Psycho. This element is far more subtext in the film than in Robert Bloch’s novel when Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles in the film) examines Norman’s bedroom and the contents of his bookshelf:
“She scanned the shelves rapidly. Abnormal psychology, occultism, theosophy. Translations of La Bas, Justine. And here, on the bottom shelf, a nondescript assortment of untitled volumes, poorly bound. Lila pulled one out at random and opened it. The illustration that leaped out at her was almost pathologically pornographic.” (Bloch, p.201)
Even in the film’s final cut, Norman clearly also objectifies women, but when he does so, the powerful conflicting emotions of lust and fear set off the insanely jealous “Mother” side of his personality. Therefore, Norman’s actions spring more from psychological confusion than Mark’s, whose acts are the measured and dispassionate behaviors of a sociopath. The murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is purely one of Mother’s jealousy. She is driven mad that her son would possibly abandon her for another “love.” The murder of Arbogast (Martin Balsam) and the attempted murder of Lila Crane both spring from a dutiful son attempting to protect Mother as well as Mother making attempts at self-preservation.
Mark, on the other hand, only fears women that he cannot objectify. There are two in the film: Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) and her blind mother, Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley). Helen’s power over Mark is simple and pure love; and because of it, she can convince him to leave his camera behind as they go out for the evening. He eventually shows reciprocation by refusing to photograph her. “Whatever I photograph, I always lose,” he says. Mrs. Stephens’s power over Mark is knowledge. She suspects that he is up to something and, in the film’s best scene, he all but confesses his motivations to her and to us. She understands him in ways that he barely understands himself, and that is terrifying to him. Her final warning, “you’ll have to tell someone. You’ll have to!” is a chilling warning that echoes in Mark’s mind. But the pinup girl Milly, the prostitute in the opening scene Dora (Brenda Bruce), and actress/dancer Vivian (played by Powell regular Moira Shearer) hold no interest for Mark because he is able to pose each like a doll but unable to see the person beneath the façade he has imposed on them. It is easy for Mark to dispose of a doll, but the thought of killing a person stays his hand.
Sympathy for the Devil
“I became convinced that all cryptographers are basically voyeurs and I wanted to write a study of one particular voyeur from a little boy to the time that he died. I wanted to show what made him a Peeping Tom and scatter throughout that as many clues, visual clues as I could find in the hope that the audience would want to discover the clear text of this man’s code for themselves.” — Leo Marks
In Peeping Tom, the first thing we see is Mark’s opening eye, followed by the eye of his camera, and then, in the opening scene, we follow the point of view (POV) of the camera’s eye all the way to the murder of the prostitute, Dora. We are fully aware that Mark is a killer from the first moments, and yet, we are asked to sympathize with him.
Peeping Tom was hardly the first film to make such demands on its audience, Fritz Lang’s monumental film M (1931) comes to mind, but no other film up to that point asks for so much sympathy for its depraved lead. Mark is depicted early on, through a series of home movies in which his father (played by director Michael Powell) torments young Mark (played by Powell’s son Columba) as a victim, a guinea pig in his father’s cruel experiments in fear. As with Psycho, there are hints of incest in Peeping Tom, a sexual desire for the overbearing parent. The fact that it is not only incest but homosexual incest in Peeping Tom, no doubt gave the British critics of the time another reason to bristle. Mark has something of a reverse Oedipus complex where he desires the love and approval of his tormenter father, but intensely hates the woman his father married after his mother’s death. Her greatest crime? She allowed a shot of he and his father to be out of focus, motivating an obsession with perfection that permeates into every facet of his life: his pin-up photography side hustle, his on-set job as a focus puller, and of course his murderous activities.
He films each murder and the following investigation; if the “take” is ruined or imperfect for any reason, he needs to kill again in order to get his shot. In Mark’s great scene of confession to Mrs. Stephens, he pounds his fists against the blank screen on his wall where he has just watched an imperfect shot of his most recent murder. He holds his hands up against the empty screen in anguish, posed like the crucified Christ to express the extent of his pain over the lack of perfection, crying out that “it’s no good” and he has to do it again. Perhaps, he is sabotaging his own shots out of an unadmitted desire to kill again. Still, we feel Mark’s pain because we have all understood failure.
Moments like this raise some of the psychoanalytic questions of the film. As Leo Marks noted, “I was interested in psychotherapy but also in codes and discovered that whilst psychotherapy is the study of the secrets a person keeps from him or herself, codes is the study of secrets nations keep from one another.” Because Leo Marks had this interest, the film is naturally Freudian, and Freudian psychology at its core is all about breaking the codes of the psyche. Above all, the film is asking the viewer this question: what secrets are you hiding from yourself? An uncomfortable question indeed.
These interests held by writer Marks and director Powell parallel the same interests in Psycho’s screenwriter Joseph Stefano and director Alfred Hitchcock. Psycho is of course also a very Freudian film, dealing with the Oedipus complex and the overwhelming guilt Norman feels over murdering his mother and her lover. We are also asked to sympathize with our killer here, but upon first viewing, we are not supposed to know that Norman is the killer. We are to perceive him as the victim of a maniacally overbearing mother who still holds an unnatural amount of sway over her grown, yet loyal and dutiful son (as Mark’s father does over him). We know that something is “off” about Norman, but we can’t exactly name it until the truth is revealed and exhaustively explained by Dr. Richman (Simon Oakland) at the end of the film.
This explanation is another element that, I believe, softened critics and audiences toward Psycho at the time while pulverizing Peeping Tom, which gives no explanations for Mark Lewis. Even worse, Peeping Tom implicates viewers and reviewers as not only voyeurs (that had been a regular component of cinema since the beginning), but as participants in Mark Lewis’s crimes in a way that Psycho does not.
Partners in Death
And this may be Peeping Tom’s greatest crime to 1960 British critics: the fact that we as viewers are guilty of voyeurism by the very act of watching a film accuses us of approving the kinds of behaviors in which Mark is involved.
In this aspect, Peeping Tom has more in common with previous Hitchcock films like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) than with Psycho. James Stewart in both Rear Window and Vertigo is constantly watching or following the unsuspecting persons (though Mark Lewis has admittedly different reasons than Stewart’s characters). One of the memorable lines from Rear Window has Thelma Ritter as Stella comments, “we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.” In both Rear Window and Vertigo, we constantly see characters looking, we see what they see, and then we see the reaction of the character to what both character and audience have just seen. Peeping Tom takes it a step further by putting us in the voyeur’s shoes (and effectively behind his eyes) with its prototypical use of what became a horror mainstay: The Killer POV.
In Psycho, the killer POV is used only once when Norman spies on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) through the peephole he has created between his parlor and Cabin 1 of the Bates Motel. This is an incredibly disturbing moment and raises all kinds of problems for us in sympathizing with Norman. But it also happens minutes before the shower scene, which is so powerful, it all but obliterates this from our minds, allowing us to turn our allegiance to young Mr. Bates as he dutifully clears up Mother’s mess. And once again, we have no idea that Norman is the killer at this point. As noted before, we know Mark is a killer before the opening titles of Peeping Tom.
The killer POV in Peeping Tom serves an entirely different purpose from almost any other use of it on film. In most giallo and slasher films, the killer POV is generally used as a method of concealing the identity of the killer as so many of those films are whodunits. Here, however, it implicates us as participants in unspeakable acts. Film critic Danny Peary in his essay on Peeping Tom in Cult Movies gives us this chilling insight: “…Powell sees the filmmaker as being guilty of rape. Filming/photographing someone is an aggressive act whereby you capture on film a moment in time (and personal emotions) that the filmed person can never have back.” (Peary p.255)
Take that into consideration with Mark’s method of murder. It involves photographing a woman at the moment of death, capturing their expression of fear on film, and then watching it projected afterward. There is an implication that by watching a movie — any movie — we are participating in this act of violence; and that is what made Peeping Tom so monumentally distasteful to critics and audiences at the time: Powell was accusing us all of the most heinous of crimes. As Peary writes elsewhere in the same essay “Voyeurs like us are in compliance with filmmakers who place brutal pornographic images on the screen for our gratification. Powell won’t let us plead innocent.” (Peary p.254)
Even worse, Powell and Marks never give a complete explanation for Mark Lewis. We are forced to work it out on our own. This is actually one of the greatest strengths of the picture and one of the only weaknesses of Psycho — that aforementioned exhaustive explanation at the end of the film worked in 1960. It was a necessary relief from the shocking revelation of Lila Crane’s discovery a few moments before. It also served the purpose of appeasing the Production Code. Now, the lengthy monologue just doesn’t play very well. Peeping Tom gives no relief of explanation that would exonerate us of our guilty participation in Mark’s (and perhaps Powell’s) crimes.
Both Psycho and Peeping Tom are remarkable films, very deserving of that rare status of “great movie.” With these films, both Hitchcock and Powell were prestigious filmmakers essentially making cheap exploitation pictures with a great deal of style, substance, and technical mastery, which in turn have influenced both exploitation films and prestige pictures to this day. Psycho is given much-deserved credit for changing horror forever. It helped bring the genre out of the European castles and into the house next door. Even more, it influenced a generation of filmmakers who went on to create its greatest successors like Halloween (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Peeping Tom has a legacy too, though one less discussed. After being pulled from British theaters less than a week after its release, it was mercilessly edited and released in the United States in 1962 to little audience. The film would have been lost to history had it not been for a small cult that sought it out. One of the most ardent and influential members of that cult was Martin Scorsese who championed the film and brought it to the 1979 New York Film Festival to great acclaim, paving the way for its reemergence and reevaluation as a true classic.
Influence is sometimes a nebulous thing: it is direct and indirect. Some may have been influenced by filmmakers who had been influenced by Peeping Tom without ever having seen the film itself. But as I watch the movie, I see its influence on the films of directors as diverse as Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dario Argento, William Lustig, Abel Ferrara, and Martin Scorsese. I can see it in the sadism for perfection in art in Color Me Blood Red (1965), the vibrant color palette and imaginative lighting of Suspiria (1977), and the grimy, sleazy, neon-lit beauty of Maniac (1980), Driller Killer (1979) and Taxi Driver (1976). I find story and thematic points of similarity in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and Scream 4 (2014) in which both killers film and watch back their crimes.
It is a tragedy that Peeping Tom effectively ended Powell’s career in Britain, though he did go on to make several more films in other countries, it also handed us a legacy of great films both in and out of the horror genre. Fortunately, both Powell and Marks lived to see their collaboration vindicated and declared a classic, even shown alongside other Powell and Pressburger classics on BBC television beginning in the late 1980s. And considering its initial reception, that’s a twist no one could have seen coming.
A Very British Psycho. Dir. Rodley, Chris. Channel Four Television Corporation; An Antelope Production, London, United Kingdom. 1997
Bloch, Robert. Psycho. A TOR Book Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., New York, NY. 1959, 1989
Howard, James. I Live Cinema: The Life and Films of Michael Powell. Ink, Inc., San Bernardino, CA, 2013, 2017
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. ReganBooks an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. 2003
Peary, Danny. Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful. Gramercy Books, Random House Value Publishing, Inc., New York, NY. 1981, 1998
Powell, Michael. Million Dollar Movie. Published in the US by Random House, Inc., New York, NY. 1992, 1995
Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. Open Road Integrated Media, New York, NY. 1990
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