In a strange way, Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom reminds me of the Lewton/Tourneur Cat People from 1942: both centre on a human ‘monster’, whose monstrousness was passed onto them by a parent (Irena in Cat People inherits her mother’s lycanthropy, Mark in Peeping Tom is the creation of his biologist father’s constant experimentation with fear); both try to escape their curse when a new relationship (Irena’s marriage, Mark meeting Helen) reminds them of all they’re missing by not being ‘normal’; and when they fail to become ‘normal’, both lapse with renewed vigour into their monstrousness, with tragic results. In both cases, the still new-seeming sciences of psychiatry and psychology utterly fail to help (in Cat People, the lascivious Doctor Conway tries to seduce, rather than cure, Irena; in Peeping Tom, the police bring in a psychologist, but he’s more interested in the ‘extravert’ film director, than the introvert killer who comes to him for advice). The main difference, of course, is that Peeping Tom’s Mark is not a supernatural monster, but one created by human means. In him, the cold, experimental eye and camera of his father has become a symbol of the abuse he suffered as a child, and which, like so many of the abused, he takes up in adulthood as his only way of dealing with a world he’s been made utterly unfit for.
Mark’s goal in life is to complete the documentary his father was working on, and so show the ultimate results of Doctor Lewis’s experiments on his only child: that it has made him into a serial killer, intent on filming the moment of terror as it appears on his victims’ faces before they die. In a way, this is Mark’s only way of getting revenge on a father who, though dead, is still a dominating presence (his initial response to being asked who owns the house he lives in is that it’s his father’s, even though he’s long since inherited it).
I feel Peeping Tom is the wrong title for a film that’s not really about voyeurism: Mark isn’t hiding behind his camera, he’s using it as the only way he knows of interacting with the world. The camera completes him; its lens is the perfect metaphor for his own disconnection from the world of normal human relationships. (Something heightened by the fact that Mark, an English boy born in the house he’s still living in, is played by the Austrian Carl Boehm, his accent as much a signifier of social alienation as it is for the Serbian Irena in Cat People.)
The only person to see through Mark is Helen’s blind mother, played by Maxine Audley, who sleeps in the room beneath Mark’s cinema, and hears him watching his silent movies every night. She instantly dislikes him — a man shouldn’t creep around in his own house.
Peeping Tom is infamous for effectively ending Michael Powell’s career, after the British critics tore him and his film apart — not because he so explicitly mixed psychological aberrance, cinema, and the saucy-minded prurience of early 1960s Britain, but because he dared to invite his audience to see that his lead character wasn’t just a monster, and perhaps thereby see themselves in him. The film’s sin was not to exploit its audience’s prurience (film critics of the time were surely used to that), but to see beyond it.