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Hermetic, secretive, intensely shy Mark Lewis's life revolves around photography in the controversial psychological horror film Peeping Tom (1960). He works as a focus puller at a movie studio, moonlights as a pornographic photographer in a room tucked behind a newsstand and spends his free time endlessly watching black and white home movies. Lewis is afflicted with scoptophilia, the morbid desire to gaze. But watching is not enough for Lewis. He finds his greatest satisfaction filming and then murdering a succession of beautiful women with a dagger hidden in his camera's tripod legs.
Lewis meets a sensitive, inquisitive tenant in his father's building, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), who seems interested in the lonely man. She is sympathetic when Lewis shows her home movies in which his scientist father (played by director Michael Powell) filmed him night and day and experimented on him to study the effects of fear on the child (played by Powell's own son Columba). The pair develop a mutual attraction, but Stephens' mother (Maxine Audley) suspects something unsavory in Lewis.
Mark Lewis was played by the German-born actor Karl-Heinz Boehm, the son of the conductor Karl Boehm. Powell found in this shy, humble actor the perfect brew of suppressed emotions. Boehm first came to Powell's attention in a popular film trilogy about the Austro-Hungarian royal family (Sissi (1956), Sissi - die junge Kaiserin (1957), Sissi - Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin, 1958) in which he starred alongside Romy Schneider. Originally, Powell wanted to cast Laurence Harvey in the role but the actor's enormous recent success in Room at the Top (1959) brought him some hard-to-refuse offers from Hollywood - The Alamo (1960) with John Wayne, Butterfield 8 (1960) with Elizabeth Taylor - that he quickly accepted, making him unavailable for Peeping Tom.
The script for Peeping Tom was penned by Leo Marks who recalled in Michael Powell: Interviews, "I wanted at some stage or other to do a study in scoptophilia. The idea of a young cameraman who uses his camera as a method of murder and as a symbol of murder came at the same time as thinking about doing a subject about peeping toms. I'd been introduced to Michael Powell because we wanted to do another subject altogether which was the life of Freud. But we soon discovered that another producer [John Huston] had acquired the rights and Powell said have you anything else that might interest me? So I told him the whole theme of Peeping Tom, and he listened in silence - and he has a habit of looking into the middle distance when he's interested - I didn't know it at the time, I thought it meant that he was bored - but it always means he's concentrating, and he stared into the middle distance and then he said, 'That's mine, go and write it.'"
In his autobiography, Powell remembers of Marks, "Leo was an ideal creative partner. He knew nothing about films or the theater, but a very great deal about men and women. He was malicious, inventive and unshockable." They even named their central scoptophiliac character "Mark" in homage to Marks.
Despite being the director of some of the most visually exquisite and unique films in the history of cinema including Stairway to Heaven (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), Powell was nevertheless attacked upon the release of Peeping Tom for its sadism and shocking subject matter. He was already viewed with suspicion by the British press, but Peeping Tom virtually destroyed Powell's career. The release of the film was unfortunate, not only due to the British critical community's extreme dislike of the film. There was also television siphoning off a good part of the British film audience. The taste in cinema was leaning toward the Free Cinema documentary film movement, and the Kitchen Sink Realism popular in theater and novels also illustrated a trend for realism diametrically opposed to the lurid colors and psycho-sexual excess of Peeping Tom.
Powell's bizarre, unforgettable film has since become a legend for cinephiles and academics interested in feminist applications and the film as a reflection of the psychology dimensions to cinema. Generations of film goers have also responded to Powell's psychological intensity and creepy content. Though the film was drastically cut during its initial 1960 release, it was restored by one of its most famous fans, director Martin Scorsese in 1979.
Many have read the film's disturbing quality as a direct result of the complicity Powell creates between Lewis and the film audience. The enjoyment Lewis derives from watching the pain of the women he films, is not unlike the enjoyment a movie audience would get from watching a film. Lewis's halting shyness and the suffering he undoubtedly endured at his father's hands also makes for an uncomfortable emotional connection between the killer and the audience.
Powell also saw some similarities between Lewis and himself. As he told director Bertrand Tavernier in 1968, "I myself, who am thrilled with technique, always mentally cutting the scene unfolding in front of me in the street or in life, I was able to share his anguish." He also added, "I don't think there is anything more frightening than a camera, a camera which is filming and which is watching you."
In his book, Million-Dollar Movie, Powell reprinted the critical reviews of the time to show the level of disgust expressed by English critics.
"Neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta -- has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression" vented Len Mosley of the Daily Express.
The Observer's Caroline Lejeune crowed, "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom."
Derek Hill at the Tribune topped even those with "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer."
And though British critics were hard on Powell, the French loved it. And many have compared Peeping Tom to the films of Alfred Hitchcock like Psycho (1960) and Rear Window (1954) which also centered on characters who derive an unhealthy pleasure from looking.
As for Powell, he once called Peeping Tom "...the most sincere of my films...a very tender film, a very nice one. Almost a romantic film." At the same time, it was, in his own words, the film that "truly ruined me: after it, it was impossible to get funds for other projects. The fact that Peeping Tom is accepted today as "Doctor Powell's Testament" changes nothing."
Producer/Director: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Leo Marks
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Production Design: Arthur Lawson
Music: Brian Easdale
Cast: Carl Boehm (Mark Lewis), Moira Shearer (Vivian), Anna Massey (Helen Stephens), Maxine Audley (Mrs. Stephens), Esmond Knight (Arthur Baden), Bartlett Mullins (Mr. Peters), Shirley Anne Field (Diane Ashley).
by Felicia Feaster