Fear, like happiness, has its anniversaries, and 1960 was a good year for watching frightened women’s faces: first Peeping Tom and then Psycho. The second movie is far more famous and more violent, but unsettling only in the ways Hitchcock intended. People walked out of Peeping Tom, distinguished critics were disgusted (Dilys Powell wrote that the director, her namesake, could not ‘wash his hands of responsibility for this essentially vicious film’), and Michael Powell’s career went into a slump. You can see the film on a Criterion Collection DVD with an excellent commentary by Laura Mulvey, or you can walk out yourselves from the Curzon and other cinemas, where it is now showing in a restored print. Martin Scorsese, a great admirer of the film, says it is about the ‘madness of making movies’, a view not entirely at odds with all the disgust, just more interested in comparative madness.
The film itself looks alternately stiff and stylish. People speak posh and actorly, the way they did in British movies before the 1960s took hold. The leading ladies have red hair so that we will make the appropriate associations between them and imagine we have diagnosed an obsession when we haven’t. The killer, although born and raised in England, has a mysterious German accent which appears to have two sources, one much more interesting than the other. First, the actor, Karlheinz Böhm, who later appeared in several Fassbinder movies, is German; second, Powell can’t stop thinking of Peter Lorre. The effect is not subtle but it is compelling. Böhm doesn’t look anything like Lorre – he looks like a nicely brought up, slightly spoiled male model – but he keeps pulling these wonderfully eerie faces, staring off sideways, rolling his eyes, and generally making like a movie psychopath. There’s no suspense, and no psychological coherence: he’s just creepy sometimes and sometimes not. But the portrait suits the movie well. It’s not meant to feel creepy; it’s meant to make us feel how much in love with creepiness it is, and how much we may share this love.
Böhm is Mark Lewis, an assistant cameraman at a film studio with a hobby and an ambition, although the full scope of both only becomes clear quite late in the movie. He is making a film of his own, and it involves filming murders and their aftermaths, crowds gathering, detectives showing up, bodies being carted off. He also, we know from the start, has to do the murders himself to make sure he gets the right camera angle. Well, no doubt he has other reasons as well. The film opens in colour on a moody studio street at night. A prostitute (Brenda Bruce) is looking into a shop window full of plastic legs and torsos and faces. We see a man half-conceal a movie camera in his duffle coat, and then through the lens of this same camera we approach Bruce, get her price (‘It’ll be two quid’), follow her down an alley, into a building, up some stairs and into her room. She starts to undress, and then, as we approach her, still through the lens, a look of surprise starts up on her face, which turns into a look of momentary panic, followed by a look of terminal terror. She screams. In the next scene our man – we haven’t seen his face yet, though we soon will – is watching his movie at home in black and white.
Later we learn that Böhm’s victims – including Moira Shearer, who deserves better than this shallow role and an over-signalled death – all have the same look on their faces. It’s not just the look of someone who’s terrified or thinks she’s going to die, even knows she’s going to die. The detectives are puzzled, and so are we, but not because we don’t think we know what’s happening. Böhm’s murder instrument is a knife sheathed in one of the legs of his camera tripod. He tilts the leg towards his victim – we think for a moment he might be planning to poke her to death – then whisks off the leg end and reveals the knife. There would be many ways of reacting to this unpleasant threat – rolling out of the way, running for it, lashing out at the instrument, grabbing some sort of object in defence – and freezing in terror seems the least likely. We are right to entertain such mundane suspicions – and not to tell ourselves, as Hitchcock memorably told Ingrid Bergman, that it’s only a movie – because there is more, something we don’t see until late in the film. It’s not just that the tripod has a knife, it’s that the camera has a mirror mounted on it and held up to the victim. She sees not only the threat to her life and the fact that someone is filming her, but the fear on her own face, and that is what freezes her. She dies, so to speak, of her own fear of dying. And the filmmaker takes this very special sort of snuff film home.
All kinds of narrative apparatus surround this story. Mark’s father, unlike Powell’s film, was essentially vicious, and used his son as a child in innumerable ghastly experiments – no wonder the lad is a bit damaged. Anna Massey plays the ingénue who lives in the same house as Böhm, and falls for him, partly no doubt because she is completely oblivious to the Peter Lorre impressions he keeps putting on. He won’t kill her because he likes her, but he has to keep telling her not to look frightened or he will do her in. There is a sneezing psychologist who conveniently tells us, just like one of those explainers in Hitchcock, that a peeping Tom is one who suffers from scoptophilia, defined by our sneezer as ‘the morbid urge to gaze’. It’s true that Mark’s father photographed the boy watching lovers necking in the park, and that the grown-up Mark is drawn to glimpses of others’ sex lives and moments of undress – true too that he works part-time for a newsagent who produces and sells naughty pictures. But he’s not really mainly a voyeur, or not in the obvious sense. He’s a person who can’t live without a camera, whose life is not the film he is living but the film he is making, the film he can watch the rushes of each night before he starts on the next day’s episode. There is a fine moment when he and Anna Massey are going out to dinner, and she suggests he leave his camera behind. He is bereft at the mere thought: how could he let go of his transitional object, who would he be without it? We feel for him, not because we’re all murderers but because we all need props now and again, and sometimes more often than that.
Is this the madness of making movies, or watching movies? In part, no doubt, it is: the prop no longer supports life, it is life. But this is an easy moral to draw, and Peeping Tom is not an easy movie. It troubles us not just because its main character is troubled and murderous, or because we spend so much time looking at the world through his eyes and through his lens, and not even because we’re all voyeurs in the dark, in the nosy cinema or in front of the prying TV – although we surely are that. What’s most deeply troubling about the film is its combination of fear as entertainment, of pleasure from the sight of fear in others, and the sheer lure of the machinery of moviemaking, the whirr of the camera wherever Böhm takes it, the glittering lights in the studio, the ladders, the scaffolding, the crews, the sealed-off rooms, the repeated takes, the elaborate sets, the impatient director, the incompetent star. In other films about filmmaking, like Singin’ in the Rain or The Bad and the Beautiful, this is all part of the fun, a pile up of glamour, which the (imaginary) finished film can only triumphantly increase. But Powell has done something far more remarkable. He has turned glamour into threat. The glamour itself is signalled in the film by the gestures of a movie-struck detective, who can’t believe he is getting so close to the land of dreams. What he doesn’t know, and we do, is that this world is a murderer’s playground, and in this film it seems all too beautifully suited to this use, almost unimaginable for any other purpose. This is what Stanley Cavell calls the effect of the uncanny in film: the sense that some locations, not in reality dangerous, can be made to invite danger when they are filmed, so that terrible things seem ‘as natural to the place as the conventional events we might expect there’. The conventions of the film studio may seem pretty mysterious to start with, of course, and what early viewers of Peeping Tom didn’t like was what Powell was doing with the mystery.