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Peeping Tom was made in 1959 by British director Michael Powell. It is not only an extraordinary movie but it has an extraordinary history. On its release, it received such devastating reviews that it has slowly, over the last 30 or so years, been recognized as one of the British cinema’s most interesting films and, more generally, as one of the great films about cinema. Michael Powell himself held that the reception of Peeping Tom contributed to the collapse of his own career at the time. In his words, the distributors “canceled the British distribution, and they sold the negative as soon as they could to an obscure black-marketer of films, who tried to forget it, and forgotten it was, along with its director, for 20 years.” Powell’s own favorite among the many insults slung at him was: “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.” This, alongside: “The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing.” Or quite simply, “Ugh!”
Gradually, Peeping Tom acquired a cult reputation, but prints were hard to come by. It has been critics, archivists, and enthusiasts who have worked to put the film back into circulation, initially through restricted screenings at festivals and retrospectives. Martin Scorsese, who has loved Powell’s films as along as he has loved the cinema (that is, since childhood), paid for a print of Peeping Tom to be brought to the New York Film Festival. Although it can now be seen on British television, the 1994 Criterion laserdisc issue (here on DVD for the first time) might be considered to have been the re-release of a film that was denied release in its own time, in its own country.
Why was the film such a critical disaster? The story reaches both back into the history of British film culture and forward to new developments in film criticism which have attempted to account for its shock effect. Peeping Tom, as its title implies, is overtly about voyeuristic sadism. Its central character is a young cameraman and thus the story of voyeuristic perversion is, equally overtly, set within the film industry and the cinema itself, foregrounding its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female). The cinema spectator’s own voyeurism is made shockingly obvious and even more shockingly, the spectator identifies with the perverted protagonist. It is this relentless exposure of cinematic conventions and assumptions that has attracted the interest of feminist film critics, and the recent application of psychoanalytic theory to film theory clearly reveals the film’s psychoanalytic frame of reference.
Peeping Tom is a film of many layers and masks; its first reviewers were unable even to see it at face value. Entrenched in the traditions of English realism, these early critics saw an immoral film set in real life whose ironic comment on the mechanics of film spectatorship and identification confused them as viewers. But Peeping Tom offers realistic cinematic images that relate to the cinema and nothing more. It creates a magic space for its fiction somewhere between the camera’s lens and the projector’s beam of light on the screen.
Michael Powell has always disturbed boundaries and muddied safe demarcations. During the 1930s and ’40s, this most English of directors welcomed the cosmopolitan influences brought to the British film industry by European refugees. Powell had started his life in the cinema in France, working for the great American silent director, Rex Ingram. His later collaboration with Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, through their company The Archers, produced his most original and successful films, including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Tales of Hoffmann. But the story of The Archers is like a microcosm of the trials and tribulations suffered by independent producers who attempted to preserve their creative autonomy within the British film industry. Peeping Tom’s portrait of Pinewood Studios is a farcical, bitter, almost vengeful picture of an industry’s total complacency in the face of creative and economic decline. Powell, knowing that The Archers represented the best of British cinema, deeply resented their marginalization.
Powell always identified with the “fantastic” strand of English culture, and succeeded better than anyone in adapting it for the cinema. The “fantastic,” or the “gothic,” not only aims to disturb its reader or spectator; it disturbs the boundaries of cultural tradition. It stands in opposition to British realism and merges with the European fantastic, such as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Hans Christian Andersen, and also hovers on the edge between popular and high cultural traditions, marking the uneasiness of English culture, split as it has always been along class lines.
Peeping Tom is a summation of Powell’s life in the cinema, perhaps particularly his polemics and his disappointments. The film also suggests that there is always more to cinema than meets the eye. Powell’s project was to make visible on the screen the invisible, the intuitive, and the hidden in human life through films that were “composed” out of all the aesthetic elements of the cinema. It is the spectator’s task to decipher the hieroglyph that the voyeur may see but cannot understand.
Filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey is the author of the groundbreaking 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." A Collection of her more recent writings has been published by the BFI as Fetishism and Curiosity (1996).