Friday, 11 April 2014

Review of Peeping Tom (1960)

Man is marked, as a species, by his need to document. Even the earliest cave-paintings are attempts, however crude, to make immortal a moment in time and to relive it forever. It was only natural that we should invent the movie camera, as it is the ultimate documenting machine, and it is even more natural that we should incorporate sound into the films; the more that is being documented, the better. The camera as a symbol has been around since the early days of cinema, such as in Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and even a film as recent as Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo highlights how a man can become obsessed with photographs, projecting his own images and fantasies onto them. Indeed, living in the “selfie” generation that we do, where a USP of a phone is how many megapixels it has, we can see that this obsession with documentation is not slowing down. It is simply something that defines us as human beings.

Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” is about documentation, and the attachments a man can have to a camera. The opening scene, which was obviously an influence on John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, sees the subject of this film, Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) follow a prostitute with a camera concealed in his coat. We take the perspective of the camera, and follow her into the room where Mark murders her. The next day, Mark returns to the crime with his camera again, filming the police looking for evidence, the body being placed into the ambulance. A man in the crowd spots him and questions him. He claims to be with a newspaper; the Observer.

It is clear from the outset that Mark is lonely. His eyes have a habit of bulging, and they reminded me of Peter Lorre’s portrayal of the paedophile in Fritz Lang’s M, another film which tried to make us understand the mind of a psychopath. His manner is awkward and his voice is clipped and strange, yet people are drawn to him, and he is not exactly unpopular. Women seem to like him, and one person at the film set he works for keeps badgering him about a collaborative project. But he likes to spend his nights alone, watching and rewatching the footage of his murders. It becomes apparent that his ultimate goal is to photograph the exact moment of death, by concealing a knife in the tripod of his camera. We learn about Mark, and his cruel treatment at the hands of his father, but we never truly pity him; he’s just too evil for that.

Pay close attention to how Mark is framed; more often than not, it is either next to or hunched over a camera. One key sequence sees him taking a woman called Helen (Anne Massey), who he is genuinely, emotionally interested in for a date. She requests that he leave his camera at home, but he is reluctant, and clutches onto it for dear life. It has become an appendage to him, a third eye. Indeed, we learn to view it as a distancing tool. Mark is clearly a person who has trouble with emotional attachment, so he steps back behind the camera, distances himself from his subject, and acts how he wishes.

Perhaps this explains our fascination with cameras; it allows us to be removed from what is in front of us.

Powell’s direction helps immeasurably; there are a lot of bold colours on this film, and a lot of reds, and a number of moments see a person being startled by having a light shined on them. One thing the film is very good at doing is showing how intrusive the act of having a camera put on you actually is; we like to document, but we do not necessarily like to be documented. Powell milks these little moments from Leo Mark’s brilliantly objective screenplay cleverly, and for a film that is so heavily involved in the nature of film-making, it is fitting that the film is as meticulously directed as it is. He is also careful to place the camera just a little bit too close to his material; we feel as though we are intruding, and as though the light is being shined on us in turn.

I cannot help but observe that whilst the film does seem rooted in its time, it is undoubtedly more relevant than ever. As I have said, we are living in a time now where we are all basically film-makers. Home movies are becoming more and more prevalent, such as the 7 second “Vine” videos which litter Youtube, the ready availability of pornography, the Snapchat phenomenon. We simply like to film things. To this end, this film is a cautionary tale. If we all like to document things, then it stands to reason that some of us will want to document the darker impulses of the human behaviour. In an age where the Internet makes the most gruesome and terrible videos imaginable accessible to all, this film is a necessity. 

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