Friday, 26 November 2010

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) Review

There's a famous story concerning the censorship of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) that goes a little something like this...

Hitch, aware of the trouble the MPAA would have with the film, had a cunning idea up his sleeve. The censorship board consisted of five members - upon first viewing three members insisted that they had seen a nipple and knife penetration in the infamous shower scene, but in fact the scene contains nothing of the sort, as recognized by the remaining two members. Hitchcock sent the print back the very next day, unchanged, and the majority approved the scene to be suitable for audiences. The two remaining members however, who has previously passed the scene, this time saw nipple and knife penetration. The point Hitchcock was making is that often the mind can see what it wants to see - the idea of fear can often work as a more powerful stimulant than a film containing supposedly explicit material. The board knew of the films reputation and had simply imagined the more lurid content. In many ways this simple story says everything we need know about the dangers of cinema as a voyeuristic tool, and the ability it has to implicate an audience member with a fantasy not happening onscreen, but in their mind. It indulges us.

On the other side of the pond, British treasure and filmmaking legend Michael Powell was about to lose everything over a voyeuristic masterpiece named Peeping Tom - another spectacular case of mind over matter, that this time put those very board members in the frame. Basically reversing the formula of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Peeping Tom sees the killer with the camera and the victims as helpless citizens. Psycho was a roaring public success because it allowed the viewer to enjoy a dark slice of the macabre from an outsiders perspective. But Peeping Tom was one of the most controversial films of all time because it put the audience in the place of the voyeur (killer). The opening sees a P.O.V. shot from a concealed camera as Mark (Karlheinz Böhm) picks up a prostitute on the street. The camera is hidden in his coat and we see the event unfurl from his depraved eyes. In this scene Powell places the audience in the shoes of a man about to commit murder. The camerawork in this scene is hugely inventive and innovative - we slowly move towards the victim who crawls backward, terrified - until she lets out a piercing scream (above image). The scene is soon replayed in Mark's studio, through his projector. The murder film plays out in black and white and Powell's camera zooms out of that image, enlarging it, while Mark - comfortably sitting in his seat admiring his work, is made smaller. As Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies essay, this shot "shows us a member of the audience being diminished by the power of the cinematic vision". Mark is as much a member of the audience as we are - except he suffers from scopophilia, a form of voyeurism that finds the 'looker' gaining sexual pleasure from peeping at erotic objects...

It is to Powell's credit that we both loathe and sympathize with this man. We do not sympathize with him as a sociopath or a murderer, nor do we derive erotic pleasure from 'looking'. However, we do see the events of the film through his eyes, and I didn't turn away. I was drawn into this seedy world. The experience of watching murder through Mark's eyes was an interesting one. A captivating one. So, what does that make me? The fact that I understand this mans desire to look in private places? That's essentially the deal you strike with a film upon entering the cinema. For a short while you'll be invited to spy on the lives of people you'll never meet, never know, never truly understand. You'll watch them in their most intimate of moments. We, as a collective audience, do not suffer from scopophilia. But we do have a desire to watch and, in the 21st century, be watched. Cameras record our every move it seems, and reality TV is bigger than ever. George Orwell was right and films like Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006) express the danger of 'looking' with an all too relatable eye. That film, as much as Michael Haneke's Caché (2005) forms a fascinating companion study to Peeping Tom. Whenever a filmmaker challenges our desire to 'look' (also seen in Haneke's Funny Games, 1997) we must step back from the experience and attempt to understand it. Powell did this better than anyone. The film (photographed by Otto Heller) has a saturated, pornographic colour scheme. It indulges itself in blood reds, dank greys and haunting blacks - as well as blinding whites and spotlight greens. It is this use of colour that also draws us deeper into the film, and somehow makes it more appealing. A key scene sees Mark persuade an extra (Moira Shearer) to stay behind (Mark is a focus puller at a movie studio) and shoot some of her own scenes. At first he lurks in the shadows, turning spotlights on her as she uneasily looks for a sign of Mark. She calls out his name, frightened, as the bright lights illuminate her, in vibrantly different shades. The Technicolour works beautifully in this scene. It is perhaps the most colourful of all the sets in the movie - the most aesthetically pleasing, inviting, exciting, alive and captivating. The scene is incredibly tense and as Mark edges towards his victim, unsheathing the blade that hides in the leg of his tripod, we begin to see fear write itself across her face. We stare at her, unable to look away. We are about to witness another murder. But will we look away?

It is later revealed that Mark put the body (a brief cutaway would hint he chopped her up) in a blue box - comically, the prop for a scene in the morning shoot. Mark claims that the most frightening thing in the world is fear itself. He finds pleasure in people feeling it. He finds more pleasure in photographing them feeling it, and showing to them their own fears, before they die. Perhaps that was Powell's point all along. Perhaps in a twisted way he was Mark, sat in the directors chair - showing us fear, so that our fear may be recorded. It may not have been photographed visually, but the record of the films controversy stands as testament that it was fear that terrified us most of all, back in 1960. Peeping Tom is as unnerving, terrifying and engaging as it was the day it was made. If anything, it's more relevant. Because now there are security cameras in every shop, train station, street corner... we are never, ever alone. There's always someone spying on us when we walk home, do the shopping, fill in the paperwork at our jobs. Maybe somebody, somewhere, is watching you a little closer than you care to imagine. You may loathe that prospect, like you loathed Mark. But could you live without it? Could you live without the prospect of wandering into the cinema to spy on somebody's life, all the time being watched by somebody unknown to you? A voyeur? Do you sympathize with that need or emotion? Funny thing is... I think you do...

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