In the present post-modern milieu of contemporary culture, where layers of irony are heaped together not unlike Russian dolls, self-referentiality is almost to be assumed; a meta-generic function of sorts that has slowly seeped into all other contingent forms. With this in mind, Peeping Tom’s playfully self-aware aesthetics of phallically endowed video cameras and the libidinally invested power of the image have, perhaps, succumbed to a certain temporal draining that so often accompanies commendable films via the inevitable saturation of familiarity and time. However, unlike most modern films where self-reflexivity is often seen in no more radical terms than the linear timings of a crosscut edit, Peeping Tom’s carefully orchestrated visual and narrative deconstruction is quite potently and unwaveringly transgressive.
The film centres upon Mark, a professional camera operator by day who also runs an amateur photography business by night, shooting revealing photos of young women who, within the film’s own internal codes of desire (and surely this is part of its overall commentary) find themselves seemingly seduced by the camera’s powerfully virile gaze. As a psychopath, Mark’s own transient masculinity is shown to be psychologically rewired into the phallic economy of the video camera and its concomitant systems of sexually charged representation. A process which is detailed explicitly within the film, as we see his childhood psyche warped by his father’s bizarre psychological experiments that are all meticulously filmed and documented.
There are two psychological layers to be observed here, a quality that renders the picture gladly rewarding of repeat views. On one level a cleverly constructed psychological thriller within the Psycho mould; on another, a critical meta-narrative on the issue of spectatorship itself, where the complicit relationship it upholds with the implied violence of the screen is forcefully examined and probed. This psychological duality brings a playful depth to the onscreen imagery, one where, the more one is familiar with the rules and regulations of cinematic representation; the more one is able to delight in their irreverent and systematic deconstruction.
Like all films that maintain a strict visual economy, its discipline is rewarded by pre-conditioning certain targeted responses from the audience. In one scene, by forcefully conflating the object of the camera with the phallus, a young actress’ attempts to reverse the representational tables on Mark by daring to film him and wield the phallic gaze for herself, conjures the peculiar symbolic power of both the transgressive and obscene. A response that can only be understood in relation to the film’s own internally pre-programmed codes of power and desire.
There are other dualities to Peeping Tom that are more peripheral, yet in their own way command a unique sense of gravity. For a picture which demonstrates such apparent mastery in subverting and transgressing certain cinematic codes and conventions, there are, in contrast, moments of quite spectacularly stilted dialogue and acting. This disjunction between visual economies creates a unique psychological texture for the film; that of a precariously unbalanced diegesis that, when combined, adds to an overall sense of spectatorial unease and discomfort. This response has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, the film succeeds so effectively in unsettling the carefully aligned codes of our relationship to the screen, that its reception in 1960 was one of the quite dramatically scandalous. So much so, that its director Michael Powell was effectively forced into exile from the UK film industry.
It seems an unfortunate fact of cinema that radical acts of aesthetic prescience are so often regarded with indifference at best, or, claims of obscenity at worst. Perhaps, as with other art forms, the obscene is simply that which disrupts the complacency of the centre, calling to attention certain internalized pleasures that have through repetition ascended to the cultural heights of the divinely unquestionable. In these terms, Peeping Tom should be seen as a much needed self-corrective measure, reminding us of the bizarrely perverse dynamics intrinsic of the cinematic-spectatorial relationship. For this alone, it deserves to be remembered and celebrated.