Cinema is a medium built upon photography, but it has not always been kind to photographers. In the cinematic imagination the photographer is often emotionally detached, exploitative, sexually aggressive or even psychopathic. One thinks of arrogant Thomas in Blow-Up (1966), Harlen Maguire photographing corpses in Road to Perdition (2002), or Robin Williams’ obsessive lab technician in One Hour Photo (2002). This is epitomised by Mark Lewis in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).
Peeping Tom oozes seediness. A disturbing story of voyeurism and scopophilia, it is set in a world that is both sordid and banal: grubby residential streets, a prostitute’s shabby bedroom, a crummy soft-porn studio. At the centre of this is Mark (Karlheinz Böhm), a young photographer who is overcome by a need to act out sadistic fantasies. Obsessed with fear, Mark murders women and uses his camera to film their deaths.
Mark fetishises his camera; it is his weapon, his companion, a part of his person. He takes it everywhere, compulsively (and often secretly) recording the world about him. When Mark is kissed, he presses his mouth to the lens in an effort to record it, caressing his cheek with the camera. Both thrilling and destructive, photography is a means for Mark to express his darkest desires.
Soft-spoken and boyish, Mark is sinister yet sympathetic; too human to be dismissed as a monster. It is this which makes the film so terrifying. Peeping Tom is a deeply troubling study of voyeurism and repression, in which the photographer is a seemingly ordinary person, consumed by a dangerous desire to watch.