“How would I look on your camera?”
“Not you. Whatever I photograph, I always lose.”
Each and every night, the whir of the film projector can be heard in Mark’s room. It is a solitary sound for a solitary young man, it is the only sound that matters because it means Mark is where he belongs: watching the women, their faces, their mouths, their eyes, and their terror play out before him on the silver screen.
Each and every night.
While films about serial killers were not exactly new in 1960, two films made their mark that year as bringing a new level of all-too-human terror to the silver screen, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and its lesser known U.K. cousin, PEEPING TOM. In horror film criticism, there has been much written about the male gaze. PEEPING TOM is a textbook example, and yet perhaps something more.
Our film opens with a man, whose face is not seen but who has a camera around his neck, approaching a Soho prostitute. The shot then changes so that all we see is what his camera sees, he looks her up and down, and follows the prostitute to her flat, always keeping her in the crosshairs of his lens. As she starts to undress, he adjusts the camera and starts moving in, closer and closer. The prostitute, seeing something we don’t, begins to scream and her terrified face is recorded for posterity as the killer closes in.
We then cut to a small movie screen, where black and white footage of the crime is being replayed for the viewing pleasure of the killer/cameraman. It soon becomes clear this killer is Mark, a mild-mannered photographer who goes nowhere without his camera. When not practising erotic photography for hire, he is a cameraman for a movie studio.
But his hobby of watching women through a camera lens, and then capturing their expression of sheer terror as they are killed, makes him a wanted man, and as police probe the series of mysterious murders, the best/worse thing that can happen to Mark does—he finds a young woman who loves him. In addition to being a masterfully shot and edited film with compelling acting by the entire cast, what makes PEEPING TOM a work of genius is the way in which it is a rich visual essay on the fetishistic gaze and how it can isolate human beings.
Powell presents scene after scene in which characters are either staring at photos (including those of nude women) and watching film footage, are behind the camera, or in front of the camera. The subject of the gaze is usually female beauty and sex or fear and violence. Watching it, the viewer can’t help but think who’s watching who, why, and who is really in control here—the moviemaker, the subject or the audience?
A good example of this layered approach to the concept of gaze is an early scene where Mark peers through a window into an apartment where a 21st birthday party for his future love interest, Helen, is taking place. She spots him and invites him into the party, but he declines, presumably because he doesn’t like crowds and Mark retires to his own apartment in the same building and sits in the dark, watching an old movie.
Helen interrupts his viewing with a rap at the door and an offer of birthday cake. He rushes to put away the film as if he had been caught masturbating. She enters and they chat, but Mark is awkward until he sits her down and starts his projector. He shows Helen a film his father took of Mark as a young boy watching a couple kiss in the park. He then shows her a film his father took of Mark being awakened in his bed and the subsequent fright he feels as his father puts a lizard in his bed.
It gets stranger as Mark attempts to photograph Helen watching the lizard film, a look of fear and disgust on her face. They then watch a film showing Mark at the death bed of his mother, followed by swimsuit footage of his new mother, and finally the moment Mark received his own camera, just before his father and new stepmother left on their honeymoon. Mark’s father was a scientist, a man who who wanted a video record of a child growing up so Mark never knew a moment’s privacy. On top of that his father wanted to learn about how children respond to fear.
Mark’s “origin story” ends when another person attending the birthday party comes in and beckons Helen back to the fun. She invites Mark, who declines. He is left staring at the piece of birthday cake she brought him earlier, isolated once again in his own mind, layer upon layer.
But PEEPING TOM is also an effective thriller. While it’s no mystery to the viewer as to whom the killer is, there is a question as to exactly how Mark’s victims are being slain (which is explained during the film’s climax), as well as the question as to whether Mark can overcome his compulsion to kill after meeting Helen? Can he be cured? Mark is a compelling psychological study. He has been warped by his upbringing, and yet he knows it and can’t seem to do anything about it.
After a slain actress is found in a trunk at the studio where Mark works, the police investigation intensifies. But Mark doesn’t seem to mind, and even films police interrogations of studio staff, explaining that he is making a documentary. Of what, he won’t say. A co-worker says to him, “Mark, are you crazy?” to which he replies, “Yes, do you think [the police] will notice?”
Another example is when Mark is confronted by Helen’s mother, a blind woman who spend her evenings on the sofa drinking whiskey. She doesn’t like Mark, a man who walks “too softly” and who peeps in through her window—the latter she knows because she can “feel” Mark’s gaze. It makes the hairs on her neck stand up, and when she shakes his hand, she can feel his pulse and tell when he’s lying.
Every night she hears him turn on his film projector, eager to watch … something. She asks what is it he’s so eager to watch? The projector plays and she can’t see Mark’s footage of his latest victim playing across the screen, a terror-stricken, beautiful face. But he can’t bear to kill her and she tells him, that all this filming can’t be healthy and that he needs to get help, quickly. “What’s troubling you, Mark? You’ll have to tell someone. You’ll have to.” Powerful stuff.
The horror of PEEPING TOM comes from the fact the viewer is forced to accompany Mark in his murders, sees what he sees—the masks of fear on his victims’ faces. We can’t look away. After all, we don’t want to miss any of the movie, right?
And there is morbid food for thought in the notion that we can’t look away, isn’t there? It was one thing to make the point—that as cinema-goers, we all are voyeurs—to shocked film audiences in 1960.
Cameras are ubiquitous, with many people photographing and shooting video of the minutiae of their daily lives. Children are growing up seeking validation from an unblinking lens. There is video content of anything you can imagine, and some real life things you can’t, available at the swipe of a finger.
Everyone is watching everyone else, often alone in the dark. Like Mark.