Peeping Tom - Michael Powell - UK 1960 - Karl Bohm - Anna Massey - Moira Shearer
Viewed: Curzon Soho - 6 12 04 - Ticket price £6 double bill with Blow Up.
Contemporary reviewers saw Peeping Tom as a sordid very unpleasant film. A nasty story about a killer (Mark) with a penchant for skewering prostitutes. Even the fact that the part of Mark was played by Karl Bohm, a German, thereby lending the protagonist the persona of a stereotypical proto-Nazi, did nothing to redeem the film for the critics. (Interesting to conjecture if the reason for casting Karl Bohm, who is very good, was prompted by anticipation of criticism of the film on moral grounds, and the casting was an attempt to partially deflect this by not having a Brit play the part of a driven upper middle class killer. Or was there some other reason such as none of the eligible Brit actors of the day wanted the part. If the latter it is a good example of perceived moral contagion, the way in which an actor avoids playing a role because of fear that attributes of that role might be assigned either to his real life or his acting career in general).
In fact, seen now, the story line is a flimsy vehicle, extreme in form but lacking in any substance simply a pretext for a film project. The project is a spatial exercise looking at the limits of what we can understand from what we apprehend, a red and sometimes wry satirical meditation the meaning and nature of truth.
Claims are made sometimes by film makers (and others) that the object of the process of filming/recording is get to, to apprehend the truth of the subject, to penetrate a subject so deeply that the nature of its truth is revealed: that camera and recording technologies in accessing the spontaneous can split people open so that their inner psychic functioning can be seen. That we somehow have access to others’ states of mind. Similar such claims were made by the Inquisition - that their techniques of interrogation and torture opened up the very mysteries of the errant soul so that the-truth-for-the-heretic could be clearly exposed by the Inquisitors. Delusion. All delusion avers Powell here.
Mark, using a killing apparatus, the sharpened spiked leg of a tripod with 16mm running camera attached, impales his female victims through the jugular in order to understand the exact nature of fear which he records and will be able read in the expression on their faces at the instant of their cognizance of their own death. Mark is never satisfied with the results of his filming as each time ‘the moment of truth’ always seems to elude him and evade his apprehension (unlike for example the officer in charge of the killing apparatus in the Penal Colony who feels the elation of his subjects) . At the core of Peeping Tom is the idea of using technologies of reproduction - film and tape - as intensifiers of experiential situations, as intensifiers of moments of truth. What Powell shows in Peeping Tom (which is ultimately a metaphysical parody) is that these various technologies alienate us from direct connection with our own experiences; that technologies of mechanical reproduction do not lead into zones where truth is immanent. In relation to ‘an other’ these technologies in reaffirming victim-nature, the other’s victimness is multiplied as they become objects of desire whose destiny is to be the mechanically re-lived retrieved projected fantasy of the perpetrator. Mechanical systems of image reproduction whether of picture or sound take us further into our own projections and distance us from others. Here, there is no ‘truth’ in or of, sex, fear, death, loneliness etc. except the truth of our own desires. This is Peeping Tom, the retinal image, the eye, the big close up of the eye the opening shot of the film. The only character in the film (Helen’s mother) who can ‘see’ things that can be known is blind and has no retinal images to project.
Peeping Tom ravishes the eye, abuses the retina of the viewer to the point where the film’s narrative form is submerged underneath a sea of highly visual detail. It is a submarinal liquid experience, a film of undulating surface, of dense closely patterned planes, of red that wash through the film in the detail of its sets, costumes and lighting. The red lights of the dark room, the red lights and costumes of the prostitutes, the deep red decor of Marks flat and the red hair of the principle actresses. The film has a fluid restless deadly quality which dissolves both the story line and the cod psychology of the back story into a vacuous irrelevant gaseous matter.
Peeping Tom also describes the full arc of the worlds invested by Powell, perhaps it represents the last world he discovered. Many of Powell’s films were about worlds - superficially both real and make believe worlds. Real world in The Edge of the World - his first film as director about the abandonment of St Kilda - about the end of a world, the vibrant sociable world of a remote island; Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus are about displaced worlds that are real (in some sense) but fantastical. Red Shoes creates the meeting point of a real world and an unreal domain, artificial in the sense that it is construed by the demands of performance. In Red Shoes the two worlds, both narrow and self contained in their concerns, coexist driven by compulsion. Each though only exists for the other and there are no outside frames of reference, two worlds mutually inclusive are locked together in a contrapuntal tension, like the dancer and her shoes.
In Peeping Tom it seems that Michael Powell had come at last a place where the world has finally closed down behind the eye. In Peeping Tom, except for the vision of the blind woman there is no other world other than Mark’s movie of fear. Everything is subsumed into this - which is why the mis en scene works as it does - like a watery grave - everything is part of Marks’s movie which is made in isolation from the rest of the world. Mark is alone with his projections which are leading him straight down the road of his own death with no escape possible (not even Anna Massey dressed in colour coded blue outfits) In Peeping Tom, Powell seems to have come to the end of a certain logic inherent in film making in which it is necessary to understand that all images threaten to slide towards or degrade into acts of solipsism.
Adrin Neatrour 7 12 04