In spite of its very energetic reappraisal and various analyses, Michael Powell’s career destroying masterpiece, Peeing Tom (1960), is a film whose musical eccentricities and sound design contain hidden depths. For a film that appears on the surface to be almost excessively Freudian, this was normal yet, when looking at some of the detailed reappraisals and even some of the high-end re-evaluations of its narrative by the likes of Roger Ebert, Peeping Tom‘s musical score very rarely gets more than a fleeting mention. This, in hindsight, is highly surprising chiefly because its musical score is responsible for the film’s most disturbing and overall effects upon the audience.
Powell’s film follows the exploits of a disturbed young man, Mark (Carl Boehm), whose troubled childhood has lead him to obsess over filming the final moments of the murder of women at his own hands. While Peeping Tom is explicitly about the visual relationships possible because of cinema, many of the arguments over its thematic content have largely stemmed from its vast uses of different methods of filmmaking. Martin Scorsese in particular is on record as naming it as one of two films (the other being Fellini’s 8 1/2) that surmise the troubles and work of being a filmmaker while Ebert is more interested in its relationship with its audience.
This reading will of course focus more on the analysis in Ebert’s vein, if only because the cinematic narrative presents a stronger reading for a leaning towards voyeurism rather than simply a satire on the horror film directors of the day. The first interesting relationship to consider is the different modes of perception that are caught on camera during Peeping Tom. By delineating the film into three separate categories, the music can then be examined and contextualised properly.
These three modes are as follows:
- The regular mode of viewing where Powell’s camera follows the life of Mark in a typical cinematic way.
- The irregular mode of showing first person footage, whether from Mark’s general perspective or actual footage from Mark’s camera itself.
- The post-modern mode, mixing both the previous modes together to show the characters witnessing Mark’s recorded footage.
Because of this split within the film, the musical score becomes psychologically complicated for the viewer and the analyst. This is before even taking into account the general musical complexities of the score. Composed by Brian Easdale and performed by the technically accomplished Gordon Watson, the score seems partly like a deliberate technical challenge for the solo pianist and takes up the majority of the sound world. Describing it in this way perhaps begins to hint at where this analysis may venture; that of the logistics of silent film scoring.
For a filmmaker with such a back catalogue of lavish orchestral scoring, this aural choice screams of ulterior motives. While Mark simply must capture the moment of fear and realisation of impending death of the women he photographs, his camera never picks up their vocalisation of this moment. Their screams are lost in his memory which is instead pervaded by memories of his father’s psychological experiments on him during his childhood.
While the first mode of the film does seem to have a more baroque style of piano scoring, hinting at the melancholic tragedy of Mark’s life, when the film switches to the second or third mode of viewing, the subtle hints within the score that the piano was for a silent film come to the fore. Easdale’s music no longer scores Powell’s film but instead, vitally in understanding the horror of experiencing Peeping Tom, his music is in fact scoring Mark’s films. By doing this, the irregular mode of viewing implicates the audience in Mark’s actions and, similarly to Ebert’s analysis of the film, suggests that the viewer is the voyeur just as much as Mark is.
This may perhaps explain some of the harsh criticism of the film at the time, especially from the more stuffy end of populist film journalism who no doubt disliked being implicated in the trappings of a mere genre film. And yet, by including the third mode of viewing within the film too, Powell also gives them a get-out clause; a release and relief from the pangs of moral consciousness that the implicated in twisted murders often require. By showing the characters in various moments of viewing Mark’s films and showing the music to repeat in its silent film-esque representation of jeopardy, Powell shows the inner working of the trick. Sadly, the critics were probably too busy being outraged to notice such a subtle method of audience manipulation.
The complex piano score isn’t by any means the only musical content effecting the relationship with the viewer. Powell makes sure that even his characters are uncertain as to the effects of music upon Mark’s films. In the famous dance sequence with Moira Shearer, the music takes a completely different turn, showcasing a diegetic radio blasting out some enjoyably period tropica music. While this scene seems to suggest little more than a ruse to get Shearer’s character on her own, the sound hierarchy of the scene tells of much more going on psychologically within Mark’s world.
As he starts to enact his rather twisted plan, this diegetic music inexplicably fades out. There’s no explanation given within the visuals of the film; the sound simply zones out. It is however replaced with the piano music that has gradually become a leitmotif for an impending murder which proceeds to get louder and louder. This music’s presence begins to suggest that Mark is actually scoring his snuff films in his own head, making a number of sections within the score come under that ever complex description of meta-diegetic. With the film providing many moments of disembodied voices, this relationship isn’t too much of a stretch in the reading; if his past is haunting him with voices that the viewers can hear, surely the viewer can also hear his cinematic autuerism deciding on his own musical scoring?
Take your seats for a “dark-hearted, midnight fantasia of ecstatic sadism, voyeurism and psychosis”!
The progenitor of similarly controversial reflexive works of cinema such as Haneke's Funny Games (1997) and Belvaux's Man Bites Dog (1992), Michael Powell's horror film Peeping Tom (1960)was met with critical outrage and box office failure upon its initial release. However, the film has subsequently been embraced by modern audiences as a dark-hearted, midnight fantasia of ecstatic sadism, voyeurism, and psychosis.
Eschewing the documentary-style realism of British cinema popular in the early 1960s in favour of garish Technicolor, Peeping Tom centres on filmmaker Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a quiet, unassuming young man who, when not crewing as a focus puller at a nearby movie studio, obsessively works to complete his own nightmarish project: a documentary film composed of the reactions of women as he murders them. Powell's film (written by former WWII cryptographer Leo Marks) is a complicated web of filmic reflexivity whose central idea of exploring fear and death through the creation and viewing of images is reflected in Mark's elaborate choice of weapon — the spiked leg of a tripod attached to his 16mm camera, upon which he has also mounted a mirror so that his victims are forced to watch their own contorted faces as they expire. This reflexivity is highlighted in the very first sequence as Powell quickly seeks to implicate the audience in Mark's crimes by innovatively using a subjective camera to establish identification with a voyeuristic killer. As Mark meets a prostitute and is led into her apartment, we are encouraged to share in his anticipation and his excitement.
Another undoubted reason for the shocked response to the film was its daring to present a perverse murderer as a character worthy of an audience's empathy. Mark's life is shown to be, quite literally, a study in sadism, and his murderous endeavours a consequence and extension of the fear experiments that his psychologist father had performed on him as a child — in doing so creating a kind of Frankenstein's monster for the era of psychoanalysis. Again, the film plays reflexive games with the viewer by having Powell himself cameo as Mark's father and his own son, Columba Powell, as Young Mark. The director's boldly transgressive intent is plain to see in scenes such as when Mark, bored with his part-time job as a "glamour" photographer, discovers that one of his models has a large scar across her face, causing him to become feverishly aroused. The scene is at once fearlessly unsettling and humorously playful. Unlike the comparable character of Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), who starts out sympathetic and is slowly de-familiarized to the audience, Mark Lewis becomes ever more humanised, sympathetic even, as Peeping Tom unfolds. Powell's unwillingness to morally condemn Mark could explain why Peeping Tom struggled to find significant distribution while Psycho, which was released only a few months after Powell's film and is a much more explicit film in terms of its violence and its bloody aftermath, was a massive box office success.
The film's detrimental effect on the career of its director has been well documented. Falls from grace are seldom gradual, and while only a few years earlier Powell was one half of Britain's most revered filmmaking partnership alongside Emeric Pressburger (together they created a run of classics including A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)), Peeping Tom was only Powell's second film after the partnership ended, and its disastrous reception meant that work became scarce — his remaining directorial career amounting to three unremarkable features and some work for television. It is tempting to speculate whether the critical opprobrium directed at Peeping Tom led to a loss of confidence at a vulnerable time for Powell. After all, why run the risk of exposing something personal in a sincere effort to locate and push the boundaries of cinema, only to be almost universally scorned for it? With Peeping Tom, Powell attempted to openly discuss unacknowledged and disturbing aspects of cinema, but neither critics nor audiences were willing to accept shared responsibility. It is this raw, confessional aspect that makes Peeping Tom all the more disturbing and why, even though today the film can seem creaky and dated in certain respects, it has attained status as a classic of British horror cinema.
Peeping Tom is a seamless melding of art and exploitation; the sexually perverted sibling of Fellini's 8½ (1963). I will conclude with the famously vituperative words of critic Derek Hill from his original 1960 review of the film, "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain." There can surely be no better recommendation to see Powell's savagely beautiful film.
— Mark Chapman
Mark Chapman is a filmmaker, photographer, and lecturer based in Newcastle upon Tyne. His moving-image work has been selected for numerous international film festivals, receiving several awards and nominations. In February 2010, he was selected (with his film Funny Onion) to attend the Berlinale Talent Campus at the Berlin Film Festival. For Home Movie, he was shortlisted for the BBC New Filmmakers Award as well as awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Copenhagen Short Film & Animation Festival and a High Commendation from the Royal Television Society. As a photographer, he has contributed to magazines such as ID, Screen International, Sight & Sound and Aesthetica. He also works as Lecturer in Media Production at Newcastle College and is Production Associate at Third Films.