Film studies

Psycho and Peeping Tom, why was one revered and the other reviled?

From Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series, Peeping Tom charts the 1960 film’s origins, production and devastating critical reception. In this blog post, author Kiri Bloom Walden compares Peeping Tom to its contemporary horror classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

In 1960 two ground-breaking films by two famous British directors were released. One ultimately became a huge success, while the other nearly ended its creator’s career. On the face of things Peeping Tom by Michael Powell and Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock could have been expected to have a similar response from critics. But the critical response to the films, and the subsequent audience response was hugely different.

Hitchcock and Powell had a lot in common. Both men had worked their way up through different roles in the film crew before becoming directors. Both Powell and Hitchcock were inspired by and had gained film making experience in the European cinema of the 1920s and in particular both directors were inspired by Fritz Lang. Lang’s film M is a startlingly modern-feeling film about a serial killer. The stalking camera and clever and innovative use of sound (including a leitmotif to identify the killer) are just two stylistic elements that we find in Peeping Tom, Psycho and later the slasher genre.

By 1959/60 the two men were at very different stages of their career. Powell had made hugely popular films during the War with his partner Pressburger but by 1960 his most popular films were well behind him. His career was certainly taking a downwards turn. In 1960 Hitchcock’s previous three films were Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. His career, boosted by TV, books and self-branding was still at its height.

The different positions of power enjoyed by the two directors would make a huge difference to the production and post production of their films. Hitchcock did make Psycho as a low-budget film, but he was able to finance it himself. Powell had to find backing. When it came to post-production Hitchcock was able to closely control the release of his film. By 1960 Powell did not have much industry muscle power. He was entirely at the mercy of the finance and distribution companies.

It is easy to underestimate how important the difference in setting between the films was when it came to affecting how viewers reacted to the violence of the subject matter. Psycho begins in the ordinary recognisable world of everyday American life – in a bedroom, on the road in a car, at a motel. But this setting changes after the shower scene to become gradually more gothic – the spooky house, the cellar – these are traditional and instantly recognisable locations for horror films.

Peeping Tom on the other hand encroaches on the ordinary world of its British viewers. The street where Mark follows his first victim, the glamour photography studio and the shop selling dirty photographs – these are all real London locations.

How does Mark Lewis compare with Norman Bates? On a superficial level, they are quite alike. Good-looking, gently spoken ‘nice young men’ that any mother would approve of.

In both films, we learn that the killer has been damaged by the mistreatment they have suffered under the hands of a parent – in Norman’s case his overbearing mother, in Mark’s his scientist father. They have become voyeurs – a perversion that both directors identified as interesting to explore because of the position of the viewer as a voyeur.

There is a child-like innocence to both men. Both Norman and Mark could be described as suffering from arrested development – forever unable to fully become adults due to the shadow of childhood abuse. These two male leads are interesting in terms of masculinity, or rather, their lack of it. 1960 really marks a point of transition between the hyper-masculinity of the 1940s, when the majority of men were in uniform, to the pop-star inspired androgyny of the late 1960s.

In understanding the contemporary response to these films one very obvious difference stands out. Peeping Tom is shot in colour while Psycho is black and white. 1960 was a cross-over period when films were being shot in either format. However, the three films Hitchcock had shot leading up to Psycho were all in colour, so why did he take what could be seen as a retrograde step? He chose to shoot Psycho in black and white for one reason – to tone down the impact of Marion’s bloody death.

Peeping Tom is in colour – it exhibits Powell’s trade-mark theatrical (and not realistic) intense use of colours, especially red and green. Unlike Hitchcock’s shower scene, which includes shots that mimic Marion’s point of view, in Peeping Tom we exclusively share the sadistic gaze of the killer. As viewers, the camerawork means we feel actively involved in the murder taking place – we are forced to share Mark’s view during the murders he is carrying out.

If we compare the two murder scenes, Psycho, with its stabbing soundtrack, fast editing and blood feels far more violent. But audiences were more shocked by Peeping Tom because while in Psycho we are the victim, in Peeping Tom we are the killer.

Psycho becomes more like a conventional horror/thriller as it goes along. Although it begins very unconventionally, with the early and violent end of its central female character, by the end of the film we have a mad killer in a gothic castle with a spooky cellar. The film ends with Norman safely in custody and clearly diagnosed as mad.

Peeping Tom is far more ambiguous. It ends with Mark’s suicide. Helen’s reaction of grief rather than relief signals that we should feel sad that this serial killer has died. It’s a more unusual and morally ambiguous ending – Hitchcock ultimately returns to a more conventional story but Powell continues to defy conventions till the end of his film, and it took decades before his film was rediscovered and regarded as a classic.  

For more information on Peeping Tom, visit our website.

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