It’s a largely circulated folk legend that some Native American tribes believe if you take a person’s picture, you take a part of their soul. While I’m not inclined to believe that a part of the soul is actually taken into a photograph, an image captured on film does encapsulate the essence of the subject, and transforms this essence into something that is personal and ephemeral as well as universal and timeless.
In Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), an aspiring filmmaker and prolific serial killer, seeks to capture the most primal human emotion on film: fear of death. What sets Mark apart from the majority of serial killers is that he appears ambivalent to the prospect of being caught. He chooses victims that are easily connected to him, and doesn’t care that he is seen with them right before they die. His sole concern is to film his obsession. In the middle of his project, he befriends and eventually begins courting a young woman who is a tenant in his building, Helen (Anna Massey). Helen is an outgoing young woman, who’s intrigued by the introverted Mark. As Mark and Helen’s relationship grows, Mark reveals how his father was a famous psychologist who would film experiments conducted on Mark as he grew up. His father’s most famous experiment was to induce fear in Mark and film his reactions. This seems to have sparked Mark’s adult, fanatic obsession. Helen lives with her blind mother, who seems to be the only one who suspects that something is not quite right with Mark. As the film progresses, it becomes harder and harder for Mark to hide his project, and he eventually is found out.
It is easy to look at Peeping Tom through the lens of feminist criticism. After all, Laura Mulvey’s primary thesis is that mainstream cinema is shot through a male gaze. When Mark kills his victims, we are shown the camera’s point of view, the look of abject terror on the female victim’s face as she is being stabbed to death by the raised leg of a tripod with a knife at the end.
The visual metaphor here is obvious. The male gaze demands its sacrifice, and the women seem eager to be that sacrifice; none of the victims attempt to fight back despite the fact that it’s not hard to flee from a man who’s wielding a camera with a tripod. The only woman who fights back is Helen’s mother, whose blindness frees her from the captivation of Mark’s camera.
Despite this rather easy feminist reading of the film, I feel the analysis is incomplete. Yes, obviously misogyny plays a role in the crime, but there is more to Mark’s serial killings. First, what is the point of Mark’s crime? The film hints that it might be sexually based—the name Peeping Tom, the discussion of scopophilia and voyeurism—however, beyond this circumstantial evidence, Mark does not seem to gain any sexual pleasure from his crimes. His crimes are hardly voyeuristic; all of his victims know they are being watched. He seems completely bored with shooting pornography, and there is nothing sexual about the way he kills his victims. Rather, it appears that Mark is trying to rationalize the fear that he experienced from his father’s experiments, his socialization was one based on voyeurism and fear, therefore he connects to people through the fear of death. This is why his relationship with Helen seems so odd; they have no real connection. More than anything, it serves as a way to humanize him, make him appear more as a victim of his father’s experiments rather than a complete psychopath.
Helen is the archetypal “beauty” figure, she can see past Micheal’s beastly nature to the man beneath. Still, because Mark cannot photograph Helen, he can never truly get close to her. She stands as a mythic figure to him, his salvation that is within sight but never within grasp. [BEWARE SPOILERS] In the end, Mark comes full circle and commits suicide as the police surround his apartment by running towards his knife-tripod hybrid as the movie camera rolls and other cameras snap him in his flight towards death. The mirror that has shown his victims their faces as they died reflects his face; Mark was his own subject all along.
At its core, Peeping Tom is about how film is a two-way mirror; not only does it show the subject but it also reflects the filmmaker. Mark films his victims to try and overcome his own fear of death, but in the end his film only reflects how he cannot escape his overwhelming phobia. The entire project culminates in his final shot, a perfectly timed spring towards death, impaled on his own tripod. Film is a medium that attempts to make the ephemeral permanent, and yet in the end it serves as the ultimate testament to our impermanence.
By Theo Estes 3/21/11