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"All this filming. It's not healthy."
--Mark's neighbor in Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom

1960. Anglo-Amalgamated; a Michael Powell Production. Directed by Michael Powell; screenplay by Leo Marks; photographed by Otto Heller. With Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

Mark Lewis, assistant cameraman at a London film studio, part-time taker of pornographic pictures, and amateur documentary film-maker, has begun murdering women. He kills them, literally, with his camera and films the attacks and the murders. He also surrepititiously films what he can of the police investigation. At night he carefully screens and edits the footage. This is his great documentary, his life's work. Mark leads the police closer and closer so that he can film the denouement, his own imminent capture and suicide.

At every turn, the film refers to eyes, photography, spying, filming, and recording. Camera references pop up all over the place. The audience cannot forget for long that whoever in the movie is spying on whoever else, we are spying on them all. We come to hate those flickering images that Mark watches, but what are we doing ourselves? A lot of people hate this movie, and it certainly does leave you with the queasy feeling of having been both the violator and the violated.

This results, I think, from the what we could call the film's paired-cameras strategy. Peeping Tom puts photographic devices into groups of two, and sends us ricocheting between them, like images bouncing back and forth between facing mirrors. It's so disorienting we are sometimes not sure which film we're watching, and sometimes we watch two at once.

At times, we see both cameras on the screen, contained within the story of the film. "From one magic camera which needs the help of another" says a note from the nice girl who tries to save Mark (she's written a children's book about a magic camera and wants Mark to take the photos for it). There's a scene after hours in the film studio, where Mark films an actress friend with his 16mm portable and she turns the big 35 mm camera toward him, "photographing you photographing me." We see an old film Mark's father (a behavioral scientist and relentless recorder of Mark's childhood traumas) has made of Mark learning to use a movie camera. Mark films the detective photographing the crime scene.

But at other times, we realize with a start, only one of the pair is onscreen; the second camera is the one that's photographing Peeping Tom. At these times the movie seems to reach out of the screen and encompass us viewers. The very first shot of the film is of an eye popping open. Could it be our eye? The lens of Mark's murderous camera moves right toward us, as though it would reach out and touch its twin, the lens of Powell's camera. Later, the light of Mark's projector shines directly into our eyes. We're connected with what's happening on the screen, not just observing it. In its own way, Peeping Tom is a 3-D movie.

Here's the clearest example, though it takes a minute to explain. We see the first murder twice. Mark approaches a prostitute and follows her to her room; we see this as it is happening, but we see it through the view-finder of the concealed camera that Mark is using to film the scene. Immediately afterwards we see the whole thing (the identical footage) again, this time in black & white and without sound, as Mark watches the film back in his room. (Another matched set here, actually: camera and projector, filming and exhibiting. I'm reminded that in the early days of the cinema, the same machine both made the film and played it back, and the cameraman and projectionist were often the same person).

Seeing this murder the first time is shocking, but the second time is obscene. Knowing what's about to happen makes it worse, and the fact that someone's terror and death have been recorded and can be "enjoyed" at Mark's convenience seems incredibly perverse. But to me the most unsettling moment happens as we are watching Mark's 16mm film over his shoulder. As Mark's film moves closer to the petrified victim, making her face loom larger and larger in his frame, Powell's camera moves back at exactly the same pace from the screen on which Mark's film is being projected. These opposing camera movements pin the woman between them, so that her face stays the same size and in the same place, simultaneously advanced upon and retreated from. The effect is vertiginous--the surroundings moving in two different directions while this poor screaming woman is impaled by two acts of being filmed. Our own film, Peeping Tom, is as guilty here as Mark's home movie. Photography itself, not just one deranged amateur cinematographer, stand revealed as instruments of aggression and violence.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein