Precious Bodily Fluids

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)

This one is textbook, one that teaches itself. We get the opening image of an extreme-closeup of an eye, a nod to Vertov, then followed up very shortly by a POV from, yes, a man with a movie camera complete with the target aimed at his gazed-upon prey. (A good critical exercise would be examining this film without recourse to voyeurism and scopophilia. There is always an excess in a text that surpasses its focus or its most obvious reading.)

When we first pass by the woman in the opening scene, the shot/target aims low, at her legs. Fittingly, when we see the cop carrying her body downstairs subsequently, she’s entirely covered by a blanket, save for her legs. In death, as in life. The climactic (as ’twere) opening credits do a lot with a little, particularly through the subtle, stable sound of the projector throughout. Struck shortly after by the effect of Mark stopping at the door of a shop, spying on the pornographic photos on the door, before revealing upon entering that he is employed there. The “dirty old man” customer reveals that Mark’s obsession is only significant by degree. Scopophilia stands as part of the male condition in Peeping Tom, with women cursed to be looked at and whatever else that entails. Mark’s foreignness sets him apart from the rest of society, perhaps problematically. He’s an accented character, German, which, in this 1960 British context, evokes something (perhaps) of an earlier wartime ideology. Mark even has an Aryan look to him, and it isn’t until the film is nearly over before he interacts with a character speaking with a similar accent: the psychiatrist who is obsessed with his father’s work. Mark’s disgust with and attraction to any kind of grotesquerie (the model’s lip, Helen’s mother’s blindness) further associates his disorder with Nazism.

The similarities between Peeping Tom and Psycho have been well documented, but note that in Peeping Tom, the film begins within the realm of the id, in Mark’s cave where he lives out his fantasies. (He also relives his childhood traumas there.) In Psycho, we don’t make it downstairs to the horrific realm until the film’s penultimate scene. Like Normal Bates and Marion, Mark offers Helen a drink–milk, arguably the most primal of beverages, connoting something maternal as well as excessive.

Also: one-eyed film director, Helen’s mother as blind alcoholic, (inter)mediating, technology & desire, phallic rise of tripod leg, Mark self-soothes by soothing the camera, the tactile (projected) image, tabooed erotic tension between Mark & Helen’s mother, Helen’s desire for Mark rather than (stable) Tony, and the *slow motion* shot when items fall from Mark’s pocket while he spies on police investigation.

This entry was published on June 2, 2014 at 3:20 pm. It’s filed under 1960s Cinema, British Film, Michael Powell, Photoessays and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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