Provocateurs of Cinema: Post Podcast Homework

On this week’s podcast, we discussed a number of cinema’s most notorious provocateurs, but there were many we didn’t touch on – including John Waters, Harmony Korine, Gasper Noe, Sacha Baron Cohen, and many others. Equally there were many controversial films we didn’t mention, including A Clockwork OrangeStraw DogsFreaksThe Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover… Really there was a lot more we could have unpacked.


However, for podcast “homework” this week, I’m going back to 1960, to discuss the most controversial film ever directed by the legendary Michael Powell: Peeping Tom.Powell was best known for his magnificent, revered collaborations with Emeric Pressburger – A Matter of Life and DeathThe Red Shoes, and so on – but Pressburger refused to be involved in Peeping Tom. Powell pressed ahead anyway, and when released, the film caused an absolute outcry, both from the censors, and from an outraged public. Subsequently Powell struggled to get work, and really didn’t direct anything of substance ever again.


Peeping Tom concerns lonely, socially awkward, sexually repressed film studio focus puller Mark Lewis (a splendidly creepy Karlheinz Bohm). Mark is obsessed with the effects of fear and how they register of the faces of the frightened, due to childhood trauma from cold-blooded experiments conducted on him as a child by his psychologist father. This trauma has developed into a deadly impulse, so that now Mark compulsively murders young women in order to record their terrified expression of death on film, using a concealed blade within his tripod. He hires prostitutes for his murderous purposes, claiming he is making a documentary about fear. However, when Helen (Anna Massey), the daughter of his landlady, begins to take an interest in him, things get complicated – especially when she discovers some of his killing films, but still wants to try and help him.


Featuring fine performances, atmospheric direction, and innovative use of sound, Peeping Tom has rightly been reappraised as the unsettling masterpiece it clearly is. I would argue it still has the power to shock, especially in its uncomfortable themes of voyeurism. Of course, Hitchcock also pushed the censorship envelope with Psycho that very same year, but unlike Powell, he didn’t become persona non grata in the film industry. I’ve often wondered why, and can only conclude that perhaps the film jabbed too many raw nerves in the audience. After all, who is really the voyeur? Mark? Or the viewer?

Samantha Stephen