The first shots of Peeping Tom switch from an extreme close-up of its lead's eye to the viewfinder of his hidden camera. The camera's owner is propositioned, follows the hooker back to her room and murders her. Then we see it all over again, only now the character is watching the film of his exploits. This is a Michael Powell film, right?
Yes, and that's just what people asked when it came out nearly 50 years ago in 1960. After Alfred Hitchcock made his way to Hollywood with 1940's Rebecca, allowing Powell to set himself up as the finest British director working in Britain. Granted, he received much of his critical adulation in retrospect, but he was still a popular enough draw in the UK, starting with his "quota quickies" and carrying through his more major features with Emeric Pressburger. Pressburger didn't write the film; instead, ingenious World War II cryptographer Leo Marks -- he devised simplified coding transmissions that were strong while being convenient enough to transmit for short messages -- wrote the screenplay. Pressburger's absence, though, did not earn Peeping Tom the pure outrage that greeted its premiere.
Admittedly tame by modern standards, Peeping Tom is nevertheless an incredibly dark psychological thriller that must have shocked audiences back in 1960. Its protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a jittery, withdrawn young man, murders women and films his crimes to play back at his leisure. He works with a film crew by day and aspires to be a proper filmmaker in his own right. He's like that kid in American Beauty, always filming in the creepiest of manners, though Lewis is less annoying and more psychotic.
He lives in his father's old house and rents out a room, posing as a tenant so he never has to deal with anyone asking for a landlord. He tends to skirt right past the boisterous rented room, but one night Helen (Anna Massey) follows him up to his own room and charms her way inside. She pities the strange man but is also interested in his filmmaking and asks to see one of his tapes. Scrambling for something that doesn't directly implicate him in a murder, Mark breaks out the most sadistic home videos ever created, of his father's psychological experiments on him as a child. The father wanted a document of the nervous system's response to fear, so he wired his house to spy on his son at all times and tormented the poor boy throughout his childhood.
So, the film is a Freudian examination of a son's relationship with his father. His father gave his son no love, only psychological torture, and in turn the psychology community hailed the man's experiments as brilliant. Therefore, not only has the boy been irreparably scarred, his father's example has been hoisted up by intellectuals; his torment gave his father a legacy. So, Mark perpetuates the cycle, torturing women, killing them and filming them, all in the efforts to build a legacy for himself as a director.
But Powell and Marks delve far deeper than an Oedipal surface level. When Lewis kills his victims, he attaches a large mirror to his camera, so his victims can watch themselves die. In this way, Powell gets to the root of the title: this film is about sadistic voyeurism, but it implicates more than just its characters. At his day job, Mark sits and watches a director curse at an actress and give her demanding orders as his camera pushes in to capture false pain. Powell uses this juxtaposition to point out a simple truth: we as the audience routinely line up to see depictions of death, and many cinematic slayings have become comical or thrilling to the audience.
Powell makes plain the truth of cinema, that those who create it are aggressive and demanding at that those who consume it pay money to insert themselves into someone's life, even if that someone is fictional. He also points out the inherent misogyny of cinema: Mark only targets women, and the on-set director screams at a young woman as he shoots her clichéd character. Mark's mother died when he was young, and his father casually filmed the funeral to study the boy. Six weeks later, he re-married, filming her with the same objectivity (in this case literally as an object), a tool to bring out some response in the boy. This theme is only exacerbated when you take the movie and compare it to that other 1960 psychological thriller by that other British director, Hitchcock's Psycho. Mark Lewis certainly compares to Norman Bates -- both skittish, sexually repressed young men driven to murder and insanity through years of child abuse -- but there is one key difference: Norman was raised by his mother, Mark by his dad. Hitchcock of course had numerous hang-ups with women, and much of his cinema was his way of coming to terms with his issues. Psycho, as much as Vertigo, allowed him to get inside his own mind. Powell, on the other hand, featured strong female leads in acclaimed works like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and he savages the mindset that marginalized and tortured women for perfectly acceptable entertainment.
That hatred of the cheap cinema around him informs the farcical nature of the film's portrayal of the movie studio. These people are all on their high horse making tacky pictures with no originality or craft, and greats like Powell & Pressburger's Archers were simply lumped into the same group by those who didn't understand their genius. Martin Scorsese later said that this, along with Fellini's 8 1/2, said everything that could be said about directing, that Fellini captured the glamor while this brought out the aggression and sexism. At one point, Mark refuses to film Helen because "everything I film, I lose." At the end of the scene, he looks into the camera eye, an ominous sign. With this film, Powell lost nearly everything; the British reception was so poor, so hysterical -- check out this page which mentions how some reviews were so harsh that the writers didn't even bother with facts before launching tirades -- that Powell never recovered. He made a few other films here and there, including an Australian film that somehow paired him with good old Pressburger in a non-Archers production, but he never enjoyed his prolific rate of creation again.
There's nothing bloody or exploitative about Peeping Tom (it attacks the exploitative nature of other filmmakers), so why the reaction? And despite his glorious use of Technicolor, Powell injected some darker sides into his work: The Red Shoes ends in tragedy, Black Narcissus concerns a group of missionaries who go insane, even A Matter of Life and Death presents "heaven" (or at least a non-hellish afterlife) as dull and bureaucratic compared to the lush beauty of life. Perhaps critics, the people who line up to see movies the most, didn't like what the film had to say about them. Art in The Red Shoes is a means of power, our basic form of humanity; in Peeping Tom, art via filmmaking is the outpouring of humanity's worst attributes.