The restructuring of visual narrative in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom
David Liu | 12 December 2009
The spectator identifies less with what is represented, the spectacle itself, than with what stages the spectacle, makes it seen, obliging him to see what it sees.
Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Cinematographic Apparatus”
Since the advent of cinema, narrative manipulation has been central to the innovation and forward progression of the medium. Just as written narratives can be interpreted and shaped in many ways to fulfill an author’s storytelling purpose, so visual narratives can define and illuminate the essence of a filmmaker’s artistic motives. In this light, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom(1960) stands as one of the most fascinating experiments in the restructuring of narrative by purely cinematic endeavors.Through various techniques ranging from the film-within-a-film method to elliptical editing flourishes, Powell fleshed out a template for self-conscious psychological cinema that can be seen in films as varied as Alfred Hitchcock’s late-career output and the contemporary works of Michael Haneke. In it innovative marriage of camera and cameraman, Peeping Tom deconstructs voyeurism as an inevitable extension of cinema as an art form. By employing the recurrent motif of narrative reframing, director Michael Powell contextualizes the art of filmmaking as an exercise in self-reflexivity, using multiple visual perspectives to implicate both the director and the viewer as participants within the fragmented psyche of its principal character.
By opening Peeping Tom on a series of radically different shots leading up to the credits sequence, Powell announces his intent to engage the audience in multiple cinematic perspectives throughout the film. The first two shots play off of each other: a quick shot of an arrow hitting a bull’s eye, followed immediately by an extreme close-up of a human eye. While this uncomfortable juxtaposition may well suggest an attack on the viewer, it also serves to establish the notion of the camera being a mirror through which the audience experiences fear on a visual scale. Any evocation of claustrophobia is abruptly eliminated as the film cuts to a stately long shot of a poorly lit street with a colorfully dressed prostitute standing to the right of the frame; a shadowy figure enters from the lower left corner, stopping in the middle of the road. The film then cuts back to a large close-up, this time of a camera lens presumably resting inside the newcomer’s coat. This time, it is theoretically Powell’s camera gazing into another camera – a mechanical replication of the previous shot of the human eye, one that draws a parallel between the latter and the camera as an organ of vision in its own right.
Powell’s camera then zooms into the dark lenses, and the sequence that follows establishes a motif that runs throughout Peeping Tom“:we are now “inside” the camera and advancing toward the prostitute, moving along with the unmistakable gait of a human being. In other words, the perspective shifts from a detached view (ours) to a representation of the world as seen through one of its characters’ eyes (Mark’s). Framed in grainy 16mm film and embellished with a sinister set of crosshairs, we come to realize that this is how Mark Lewis sees the world, in a handheld camera style reminiscent of cinema verite. As Mark follows his victim up a flight of stairs and watches her begin to undress, his voyeurism becomes transferred to the viewer. A climactic murder sequence ends abruptly as the film cuts back to a close-up of a film projector, followed by a view of the back of Mark’s head (ours) as he watches his own film in black-and-white. Powell then cuts to a closer view of the film (Mark’s perspective), accompanied by title credits that seem to insinuate that “Peeping Tomis as much the product of its lead character’s vision as it is Powell’s.
The reframing of narrative in Peeping Tom serves to highlight the complex way by which Powell depicts the relationship between filmmaker and film, camera and audience. Film professor Catherine Zimmer, in her essay “The Camera Eye: Peeping Tom and Technological Perversion,” describes the immediate aftermath of the self-reflexive opening sequence as essentially a character defining moment:
What is most crucial to note in the characterization of Mark as spectator of film is that he is not “simply” a spectator, in the sense of one who goes to see a film in a theater and who has no explicit access to that film except through the image one sees…Mark sits right next to the projector, operating himself. [he] thus comprises in himself all the crucial roles in the circuit of cinematic phenomena: director/cameraman, projectionist and spectator, and does so all in one location, even in one shot. (Zimmer 45)
In a succession of nine shots over three minutes, Powell introduces the film’s self-conscious subject – one man recording moving images and then reveling in their power, which is to say the art of filmmaking – through three instances of reframed narrative perspectives: the director’s, Mark Lewis’s and our own. All three are framed as spectators of some sort, albeit to altering degrees and distinctive qualities. We as the audience bear witness to a murder, but our understanding of it is limited to the footage we are allowed to see – that is, how much Powell is willing to expose as the film’s ultimate image-maker.
As Peeping Tomprogresses, narrative reframing takes on even bolder dimensions, culminating in actual characters assuming positions behind the camera and influencing its action and purpose. In one of the film’s key sequences, Mark treats downstairs tenant Helen to a viewing of one of his father’s archive recordings, a product fraught with disturbing psychological inclinations and suggestions of an abnormal childhood. The film reel opens on a young Mark as he rubs his eyes in discomfort, climbs a fence to witness a young couple kissing on a faraway bench and frequents his mother on her deathbed. Its creator is revealed to be a renowned scientist interested in abnormal psychology; the films are ostensibly voyeuristic in their own right, which is to say Powell successfully injects a new narrative perspective into the film in the form of Mark’s father. As the film crosscuts between the increasingly alarming black-and-white footage on-screen and a slowly panning medium shot of Helen mired in growing apprehension, Powell’s direction attains a curiously intrusive nature of its own. We as the viewers are transformed into unflinching witnesses of Helen’s predicament, plunged into a nightmarish past that literally and figuratively belongs to Mark. The climax of the sequence is jarring in its revelation: in the penultimate shot of the home video, Mark’s father steps from behind the camera, and we see that it is none other than Michael Powell himself. The commanding visionary behind “Peeping Tom”becomes the auteur of his own lead character’s dark upbringing, lending the film an inescapable, pervasive atmosphere of cinematic self-reflexivity.
While the visual narrative of Peeping Tom begins to careen back and forth between the intimacy of Mark’s stark 16mm roaming and Powell’s dignified movie mise-en-scene, the line between spectator and character becomes increasingly blurred. Working as a focus puller in a major film studio by day, Mark Lewis arranges to shoot a scene with Vivian, one of the stand-ins on the studio’s upcoming big-budget film. In a bravura sequence forty minutes into the film, Vivian dances to an escalating swing number to prepare for her turn in the spotlight. Two spectators capture the scene: one is the director’s camera, floating along its crane to encapsulate a top-down view of Vivian’s movements, while the other is Mark’s 16mm lens, ostensibly grounded in a slightly low-angle shot as it pans and captures Vivian in its crosshairs. The contrast is immediately striking, as Powell’s camera feels free and expansive while Mark’s feels suffocating and limited. Finally, Mark offers Vivian the chance to stand behind a cinematographic contraption and film him for a change. The ensuing exchange further illustrates the film’s self-conscious emphasis on framing and mirror images:
Vivian: Oh, I can see you, Mark. Perfectly.
Vivian: Now what are you doing?
Mark: Photographing you, photographing me.
Their banter is followed by another ritualistic murder on Mark’s part. However, this interaction also reveals a side of his character that seems to take on greater stature as the film progresses. Despite being a willing spectator to his own creations and those of his father’s, Mark cannot refrain from putting himself behind some kind of camera at all times; in other words, the act of creating images seems to give him strength. In this sequence, Powell sheds further light on his lead character’s psychological fabric by briefly putting him at the mercy of another individual’s camera-eye.
One of the most interesting instances of narrative reframing in Peeping Tomcan be found in the characterization of Helen’s blind mother, whose sensory intuitions seem to make up for her lack of vision. Powell makes this clear in a pair of side-by-side shots about an hour into the film, in the midst of a conversation between Helen and her mother.
Mrs. Stephens: Which studio does he work at?
Helen: I don’t know. I’ll ask him – if he’s free. Shall I bring him in and introduce you?
Mrs. Stephens: I feel as if I know him.
Helen: Now, darling.
Mrs. Stephens (sits up suddenly): He’s here.
In an inexplicable touch, Powell zooms in quickly on a close-up of the mother’s face, an impassive countenance illuminated by unseeing eyes that appear to glitter in anticipation. The film then immediately cuts to a shot of the curtained window, where Mark Lewis stoops silently watching them. For a second, Peeping Tom seems to switches to a blind person’s perspective as Helen’s mother silently acknowledges Mark’s arrival – but how is this possible? What is Powell trying to say here? In essence, there seems to be a curious synergy, as well as an opposing force, that exists between Mrs. Stephens and Mark Lewis. One lives vicariously through his camera and develops an imagination based on recorded images, while the other thrives on her intuitive sensory perception because she cannot record images – neither biologically nor synthetically. In a later, pressing sequence, she ‘photographs’ Mark by running her hands over his face, and concludes with troubling finality: “All this filming isn’t healthy.” By introducing Mrs. Stephens’ blindness as a therapeutic counterpoint to Mark’s visual obsession, Powell creates a fascinating contrast between the two characters, one that again reveals more about Mark’s character and further adds to the film’s cohesiveness. For Mark, vision isn’t just something that is essential; it’s debilitating and destructive, an idea that Powell sets up in one single sequence by contrasting Mark’s enslavement to images with Helen’s mother’s blindness, which is displayed as more acute and understanding of the situation than even the filmmaker himself.
Mark Lewis’ status as an emotionally troubled filmmaker imbues Peeping Tom with a sense of heightened reality that grows increasingly metaphysical even as its character descends further into madness. The film introduces Mark as a small-time pornographer before revealing that he is actually a crew member working for a big-name studio. Whether he is at toiling at his day job, venturing around town or just editing footage in his personal dark room, the 16mm camera never leaves his side. It is an inextricable extension that binds him down; many of his interactions with other individuals, especially those that we already witness courtesy of Powell, are reframed through Mark’s own lenses. Tellingly, when asked about the nature of his private filmmaking project, Mark Lewis calls it a “documentary.” The stark, unflinching nature of the black-and-white murder films, as well as those of his formative years, provide a realistic and radical departure from the stylized visuals that mark the apogee of Powell’s directorial signature.
Although it serves as a highly effective method of telling the story of Peeping Tom, it is remarkable that Powell rejects orthodox narrative reframing where the audience should expect it most, and also that this sequence would mark the film at its most effectively subversive. In the film’s affecting denouement, Helen’s ‘curiouser and curiouser’ attitude leads her directly to Pandora’s Box. As she views what are presumably the incriminating video documentations of Mark’s murders, we are only allowed to see a close-up of Helen’s face. By consciously rejecting the reframing device he used previously throughout the film and rigidly restricting the camera to our perspective of Helen’s face as she watches the old films, Powell forces the audience to gaze into a principal character’s eyes, as if it were the camera were a mirror itself. Here, her facial expression is not recorded by Mark’s camera (as he refuses to do, fearing that the fear he sees would drive him to kill her), but by Powell’s himself. In the end, we are never shown what transpires on Mark’s projection screen, but the sounds and the horror in Helen’s eyes speaks volumes. As the audience bears sole witness to her fear, it becomes implicated in the ultimate act of voyeurism – a fitting summation of Michael Powell’s study of images and the irreversible, unsettling power they extend to both the observer and the purveyor.
Course: English 173 (Meta-Cinema and the Hollywood Novel)
Semester: Fall 2009
Instructor: Erika Clowes
Institution: University of California, Berkeley