(Searcher) Peeping Tom: An Underrated Psycho

Over Thanksgiving Break, I watched the 1960 film Peeping Tom, which revolves around a man who stabs women with his camera tripod while filming their deaths. The main protagonist, Mark Lewis, is a soft-spoken photographer and filmmaker living in London. He views life through the lens of the camera, and he films almost everything under the guise he is making a documentary. But Mark also films the women’s murders he commits and secretly records others’ reactions to his crimes. He then develops and watches films of his actions and their consequences; Mark attributes filming his crimes to wanting to capture the fear of his victims’ faces as they die.

The film, directed by Michael Powell, explores themes of voyeurism and scopophilia, or the pleasure drawn from looking at an object or person. While I was watching the movie, I was constantly reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies (most of which contain related voyeuristic themes) and upon further investigation, I found that Hitchcock and Powell shared many similarities. For example, both Hitchcock and Powell were British directors, inspired by the works of filmmaker Fritz Lang. Hitchcock released Psycho in 1960 — the same year Powell released Peeping Tom. Both Psycho and Peeping Tom have serial killer protagonists who have suffered maltreatment from their parents during childhood, and the protagonists of both films target young, beautiful women as their victims. The two filmmakers were even friends! However, while Psycho went on to make Hitchcock a household name, critics slammed Peeping Tom, and Powell’s career suffered blows as a result of negative reception to the film. Sadly, Powell’s career never seemed to recover, and he went on to make only a few more films after the release of Peeping Tom.

In the last few decades, critics have praised Peeping Tom and redeemed Powell’s status as a filmmaker. Martin Scorsese, for one, said in an interview:

“[Peeping Tom says] everything that can be said about film-making, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two. Peeping Tom shows the aggression of it, how the camera violates.”

Scorsese and other Powell admirers recovered and restored a print of Peeping Tom in 1979, and with its newfound praise and re-release, the film went on to reverse its reputation and become an integral film in British film history. I thought that the initial negative reception was unfair to Powell and his film, as I found Peeping Tom to be an intriguing commentary on voyeurism, whether it be Mark and his victims or the protagonist and the audience. Clearly, the film is named after the trope of the peeping tom, a voyeur who secretly watches others. Throughout the film, Mark fulfills this trope by using his camera to violate others, both literally and figuratively. In a way, the audience is also uncomfortably complicit in the protagonist’s gruesome actions by continuing to watch his crimes. The voyeuristic relationship between film and viewer reminded me of another Hitchcock film we watched in class, Rear Window; like Jeffries in Rear Window, we cannot do anything but sit by, be complacent, and simply watch as a crime is being committed before our eyes. I would recommend Peeping Tom to anyone who enjoyed Psycho, Rear Window, or any other Hitchcock films, and I also enjoyed this interview from Martin Scorsese about Peeping Tom:

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