A Peeping Tom is No Psycho: Voyeurism in Powell’s PEEPING TOM and Hitchcock’s PSYCHO
24 November 2013
In 1960, two respected filmmakers released their latest horror films, both films with a central theme of voyeurism: Michael Powell released Peeping Tom (UK) and Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho (US). Peeping Tom released first and was trashed by critics, ruining the career of the once renowned Michael Powell. Psycho released three months later and was an immediate sensation, solidifying Hitchcock as the “Master of Suspense.”
So, why were two films with so much in common—genre and theme—treated so differently by critics and audiences?
On theory is that Hitchcock, who was friends with Michael Powell, watched Peeping Tom’s release closely. When Hitchcock saw how critics panned Peeping Tom during the film’s press release, Hitchcock cancelled the press release for Psycho. Audiences were affected by critics’ reviews of Peeping Tom before they saw the film, whereas Psycho’s audiences had no preconceptions/misconceptions about the film before they saw it for themselves. Undoubtedly, this is a significant difference between each film’s arrival, and most likely did impact each film’s welcoming. Yet, this is not the only reason Peeping Tom was panned and Psycho celebrated. How each film handled the shared central theme of voyeurism is, likely, what caused one to falter and the other to thrive.
In short voyeurism traditionally means the act of watching others and attaining sexual satisfaction from that watching. Typically, the voyeur watches intimate moments, often, but not exclusively, sexual acts. Yet, the observed acts are not nearly as important as the satisfaction the voyeur receives from watching. Importantly, the voyeur watches in secret; satisfaction attained during a voyeuristic experience is only satisfying because the voyeur believes those he/she is watching do not know the voyeur is peeping.
While both films have serial killer voyeurs, and both include voyeurism as a central theme, Psycho does not emphasize its inclusion of voyeurism; Peeping Tom does. In Peeping Tom, the terms voyeurism and scop[t]ophillia (a sometimes synonym for voyeurism) are both mentioned directly by a psychiatrist. Moreover, voyeurism is actually defined by the psychiatrist. Michael Powell, along with screenwriter Leo Marks, is being quite direct here. The duo is not allowing his audience to realize his voyeuristic intent; they are forcing it on viewers.
Shortly after the psychiatrist defines voyeurism for viewers, Mark (Karlheinz Bohm) has a confrontation with Helen’s (Anna Massey) sightless mother, the blind seer of Peeping Tom. Mrs. Stephens (Maxine Audley) brakes in to Tom’s apartment, and into his film workroom. Mid confrontation, Mrs. Stephens stands near a wall as Mark’s latest work (Vivian’s (Moira Shearer) death) is projected on that same wall, meaning the film plays right in front of Mrs. Stephens. Mark watches the film eagerly, and Mrs. Stephens continually asks what is playing, which he ignores. When the film cuts to black, Mark throws himself against the wall, insisting it cut to black too early, which devastates him. Mrs. Stephens wants to know what it means that the cut to black came too early, asking, “What did you miss?” Mark replies with, “Opportunity.” This, again, is Powell revealing a bit too much. Opportunity is exactly what is missing here. The opportunity for the audience to put the voyeuristic pieces of Peeping Tom together for themselves and have their own voyeuristic experience with the film.
Mark jumps back, with Mrs. Stephens now against the wall. He shines his light on her, which she somewhat recognizes, although blind. This light has both literally and figurative significance in the film. Literally, Mark needs the light because he thinks he is about to film Mrs. Stephens. Figuratively, the light represents what Powell continuously tries to do, shine a light on voyeurism. The film works exhaustedly to make a connection between the protagonist as voyeur and the audience as voyeurs. The audience of Peeping Tom are not only voyeurs because they are watching large portions of the film through a voyeur’s eyes (such as when the audience watches through Mark’s camera), but also because all audiences are voyeurs; watching people (even fictional characters on screen) who don’t know they are being watched, particularly in any intimate moments, and obtaining satisfaction from the viewing is a loose definition of voyeurism. Thus, even when the audience is not watching the action from Mark’s perspective, they are still voyeurs. The repetition of the shining light draws more and more attention to this very realization. Most likely, Powell wanted his audience to see the parallel between themselves and his protagonist.
And, if by this point in the film they have not yet realized the parallel, the film’s climax certainly brings it into focus. Unlike Psycho, which is, essentially, a murder mystery, the audience knows who the killer is in Peeping Tom from the beginning. However, the audience does not know all the details of Mark’s methodical murdering. During Vivian’s death the audience learns Mark holds something in his hands which his victims see before they die, and this object terrifies his victims. But what could this object be?
Turns out, the object is a mirror because, according to Mark, he wants his victims to see their own death, making the experience more horrifying, which makes the expression on their faces as they die even more frightened. This is very interesting because the audience now realizes to what extent Mark is a voyeur. Previously, the suggestion was Mark’s victims were looking at him, with a camera in front of his face, as they died, which means he would know his victims saw his camera-shielded face as he committed these acts. However, the mirror changes all that. Now the suggestion is the victims are looking at themselves as they die, not Mark. Furthermore, this means Mark forces his victims into becoming voyeurs in their final moments, which is, actually, unfathomably disturbing. But, is, less dramatically, what Peeping Tom does to its audience. Audience members are forced to be voyeurs and realize themselves as voyeurs just as Mark’s victims are forced into watching their own deaths.
This mirror is the reason Mrs. Stephens survives. As a blind woman she could not see her own death, which means Mark could not watch her watching herself dying. He would get no satisfaction from her death; his voyeuristic needs would not be met, and so she lives. Yet, with voyeurism a central theme in Peeping Tom, and Powell’s insistence on highlighting audience members as voyeurs, Peeping Tom becomes as unsatisfying for the audience as Mrs. Stephens’s death would have been for Mark. The film is not suggesting the audience members are Mark, or that they are peeping toms, but the film does highlight the act of secretly watching intimacy to obtain satisfaction. When that secrecy is gone, so goes the satisfaction.
Hitchcock understood this. He does not draw attention to voyeurism in Psycho the same way Powell does in Peeping Tom; Hitchcock approaches this central theme indirectly with subliminal messages. Conversely, Powell, both literally and figuratively, shines a spotlight on it. And, while Peeping Tom is a strong film, cinematically, it is not the sensation Psycho is because of the way it communicates with it audience, specifically the way it communicates voyeurism.