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Look at the Sea (Peeping Tom)
At the age of nine, Thomas Hardy, the greatest of English novelists, justly famed as a sensitive landscape painter of the southern counties, borrowed a nautical telescope and climbed the hill neighbouring his cottage to watch, in the pleasant town of Dorchester two miles away, the public hanging of a young woman. At the same age, Mark Lewis, the `Peeping Tom' of Michael Powell's film, watches a couple making love while his father films his reactions with a hand-held camera. The father is an academic who devoted his life to a study of the psychology of fear, using as a guinea-pig his own son, whose every emotion he photographs and records. In the middle of the night, camera in hand, he suddenly wakes the boy; he slips a lizard into his bed so as to capture the expression of naked fear and disgust on his face. Later he films him standing by his mother's death-bed. He keeps the child under constant observation, creating in him a voyeur psychosis that becomes identified in his mind with fear and the desire to cause suffering. Encouraged by his father, who presents him with a camera, the young Mark reacts against this threat that is poisoning his childhood by spying in his turn on the people around him. After his father's death, the young man continues his experiments, though not without adding certain refinements of his own, and no longer in a scientific spirit.
Sharing the common view that the cinema was invented in order to photograph the demise of pretty women in close-up, but preferring for the purpose a camera-knife in place of the less effective camera-stylo, Mark Lewis perfects a very special 16mm camera: one of its feet, whose end unscrews, conceals a sharp-edged blade. Wielding this unstudied sword horizontally in accompaniment to a final tracking shot, the cameraman plunges it into the victim's throat, keeping on filming her all the time, while a parabolic mirror clipped to the lens means that she, seeing her agony reflected, is provoked to a paroxysm of terror. This sequence as filmed by Powell achieves, if one thinks about it, a level of complexity disturbing as the play of mirrors in a celebrated painting by Velazquez. The camera films the murderous film-maker, who films his victim, who observes the action first-hand as it unfolds.
The spectator cannot but be favourably impressed by this death-wish on three planes. But the purpose of Peeping Tom goes beyond these subtle games. It can be seen as a delicately nuanced psychological study of an authentic film auteur, who pushes a particular conception of the direction of actors to its limits. For voyeurism alone is not enough to explain the character of Lewis: he is also, and at one and the same time, a sadistic film-maker and murderer, with these different facets forming a coherent whole. A quite serious psychoanalytical explanation is adduced for this collection of morbidities, which will come as no surprise to those who know that in the look fixedly directed at someone, there lies an unconscious wish to cause suffering, and even to kill. One shoots with one's eyes and also, more effectively, with that substitute far the eyes, the camera. Surrounded by the police, Lewis, in place of the traditional machine-gun, turns his camera on them. One could go on citing examples: contrary to the old adage whereby we always kill the one we love - otherwise admirably illustrated by Belmondo killing a cop in A Bout de Souffle - Lewis refuses to film the girl he loves, and the only lover's promise he makes her is: `I will never photograph you'. Worthy of note, too, is the care with which the sado-masochistic element in voyeurism is made explicit. Another English film has already offered for our delectation a pair of binoculars tricked out with two hidden steel spikes violently ejected by a spring into the eyeballs of anyone using them. [Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)] Here, by turning his camera on himself, Lewis ends by subjecting himself to the same treatment as he inflicted on his victims, completing his `documentary' with an admirable close-up.
But who is the voyeur? This pleasantly familar title of `Peeping Tom' also applies to the spectator, who is exceptionally privileged here: for is he not permitted to indulge that acme of voyeurism which consists in observing the voyeur, seeing what he sees and watching him watch? All the more so in that Powell's film is beautifully done. The fragments of 16mm footage shot by Mark Lewis are edited and inserted into the action with great skill, so that the same sequence can be seen simultaneously from the point of view of the character observing it through his camera, and from the point of view of the director making the film. Certain moments achieve a quite extraordinary sort of black poetry: the excerpts from the father's experimental films are bathed in the sheer light of terror, and the presence of the lizard in the child's bed is enough to tell us all that needs to be told about onanism and the castration complex. Thanks to skilful lighting effects, the murder in the studio is disturbingly effective. Lewis' final suicide, spectacular enough in itself, is accompanied by impressive funeral rites: police sirens, screaming children recorded on tape, flashbulbs exploding, cries of horror and assorted noises. As for the humour, it is cleverly used to enhance the moments of inaction. Lewis is in the street filming the police investigating his first murder: an inquisitive bystander asks what paper he is working for, and Lewis calmly responds by mentioning the very respectable British Sunday, The Observer. Similarly, the old gentleman venturing into a sleazy shop to buy dirty pictures first asks for The Times. And of course the only person to see clearly through this whole voyeur business is a blind woman.
At a time when the cinema currently in favour addresses itself exclusively to the intellect for admiration, it may seem beside the point to talk of the pleasure one feels in watching Peeping Tom. The extreme sophistication exercised by our modern film-makers in ringing the changes on their love play never cuts to the heart of the matter. In bed their characters behave like you and me. One likes occasionally to turn to other horizons, where dawns a more fantastic conception of eroticism. Photographing a largely unclothed woman in a dingy room, Lewis, in order to capture an unexpected expression of astonishment on her face, says to her `Look at the sea'. Good advice for scopophiliacs who are tired of the little birdies.