Peeping Tom: The Deconstruction Of A Darkroom As Neurosis

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Film-watching is the uncanny experience of seeing with somebody else's eyes...a subtly intimate, yet distant, contact with the "other". (Fairbairn 1995:491)

Savaged by the critics in its 1960 release, pulled from London theatres in less then a week, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom was a film initially misunderstood by audiences and critics, its portrayal of voyeurism through protagonist and psychotic killer Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) who equated photography with scopophilia and the cinephile was so badly received it ended Powell’s filmmaking career.

Peeping Tom demonstrates the performative power of the camera in several different ways, through examining one of the final scenes which takes place in the darkroom I will discuss the contradictory power of Powell’s conception of filmic performance taking into account his use of lighting, diegetic and non-diegetic sound and colour within the set, transforming a physical space (the darkroom) into a void that is not just living but mimicking that of his protagonist Mark, a virtual environment linked to the reactions and desires of a killer.

Scopophilia is the sexual pleasure derived of looking at the body, in traditional cinema this gaze has been directed at the female body. (qtd. in Soukup 2009:22)

With origins from psychoanalytic theory, film theorists often assert the camera objectifies women through the implied gaze of a male subject, Peeping Tom’s subject is Mark, a gentle and socially awkward man who, as a boy, was subjected to bizarre experiments by his father (Michael Powell), a scientist, who documented the effects of fear on the central nervous system, particularly in children.

Mark works as a focus-puller for a major film studio in London, has a second job taking ‘views’ of young women in a news-agency although his obsession with photography and film does not stop at the professional or amateur level, his interest in the moving image surpasses the ‘normal’ and enters the psychotic, his voyeurism directs his pleasure at gazing at the female body in fear through a cameras lens as he pursues and murders them with the bayonet attached to the tripod, all this occurs as he films their dying expressions of fear on 8mm celluloid. Unlike a rapist, Mark has no desire to physically or sexually engage with the women he kills, it is only when he later plays back the film in his darkroom that he experiences gratifying sexual pleasure, he is in lust for the image which lives out his desires, not the object itself. Just as the traditional determining male gaze in cinema projects its fantasy on the woman, Mark’s projected fantasy is seeing a woman in fear, Mark is obsessed with fear, obsessed with filming fear. Peeping Tom is Powell’s frightening and sad portrait of a quiet, methodical victim come victimiser.

Mark “literally crosses the imaginary dividing line separating viewer from spectacle....Far from maintaining the requisite distance from the image of woman-as-lack, Mark recognizes himself in that image, and tips over into it. (qtd. in Rio 2001:120)

A scene which is pivotal to gaining insight into Mark’s neurosis and destroyed subjectivity also acts as the climax in act two bridging the third act and resolution of the film, it features shortly after Vivian’s (Moira Shearer) death in the film studio and is the first opportunity Mark has to view the developed print of her murder.

It is set in a darkroom adjacent to Mark’s apartment, its where he develops and views his films as well as stores photographic equipment. The scene informs us (the viewer) that the darkroom not only provides a private space for Mark to isolate himself and view his “documentary” away from prying eyes (and those of the authorities), but it is central to his neurosis indeed, a physical extension of his own body and dreamscape in which his thoughts and memories physicalise themselves in temporal space, a reflection of his brain. By examining the components that make up the scene and the way Mark interacts with other characters when inhabiting the space, the darkroom reveals itself as Mark’s living subjectivity, an organic environment which has been slowly perverted through psychosis.


Mark not only sees the image, but lives it. (Rio 2001:124)

The scene beings with an extreme close-up (ECU) of Mark holding a strip of 8mm print, Vivian’s face can be seen in the cells, it is lit by a bright yellow light source which fills the entirety of the frame. A jump cut to a medium close-up (MCU) of Mark placing a print in his home projector and briefly switching it on, a sound off screen (OS) is heard, Mark switches the projector off and turns on a small arch lamp attached to a lighting stand to illuminate a corner of the room, standing in the pool of white light is Mrs Stephen’s (Maxine Audley). The darkroom is never lit in an all encompassing light, it is always cloaked in darkness and shadows, no edges of the room can be seen which creates a never-ending space, by illuminating Mrs Stephen’s with the arch lamp, Mark is illuminating another part of his inner nucleus, Mrs Stephens is an intruder within Marks private utopia, to relate to a worldly example it would be much like a patient when he first enters the room of a psychologist who starts to question him on facets of his life which (until now) have remained secret, the patient instantly goes on the defence upon hearing the psychologists voice inside his brain, a voice which is trying to extract private information, as we will see by the following dialogue Mark is like the patient, keeping his attention (the light) on Mrs Stephens, trying not to let his guard down.

Mrs Stephen’s states, “This is one room I expected to find locked.” Mark’s replies, “I was never allowed keys.” These words are coded, ‘the dialogue is full of double meaning' (Johnson 1980:8), on the surface the exchange could be understood as referring to the literal locking of the door to the darkroom, as the darkroom is Mark’s neurosis, this also refers to Mark’s perverted desires, his scopophilia: “This is one room I expected to find locked.” Mrs Stephen’s is indicating she expected Mark’s hidden desires to remain just that, hidden - locked away inside his brain. In context, everybody possess the ability to be voyeurs, the majority of people, however, do not become voyeurs because we are taught to suppress various desires within ourselves and to not act upon thoughts deemed ‘unsuitable’. Mark replies, “I was never allowed (the) keys.” If this sentence were to continue it surely finish with, “...from my father.” Mark’s father possessed the keys to Mark’s subconscious, he controlled Mark’s fears and desires, when other children Mark’s age were learning to suppress inner desires and emotions, Mark’s subjectivity was being deconstructed. In his father’s passing, Mark never found the keys to lock the room, to shut out the damage instead the gateway to those inner and darker desires remained open for Mark to access freely.

Mrs Stephen’s begins to move around the room using her walking stick to guide her, there is a reverse shot of Mark following her with the arch light - spot lighting her, he is keeping her in sharp focus within his minds eye as she moves through his assortment of memories, she stops near the table where Mark has all his processing chemicals, the fundamental area where Mark desires are materialised, the light is now a deep red, an important colour as a red light is not only required for the developing of photographic negatives but the colour links to being that of bodily fluids, blood and organs, it is representative of being a hot colour also signifying danger and excitement. With the projector framed in the foreground, the compositional elements of this shot reveals the construction of a membrane and the paths cells use to deliver signals to stimulate the receptors in the brain, the chemical table the formation of desires, the projector is the retina in which memories are delivered to and then projected onto the subconscious wall of Marks minds eye (his gaze), it is in the directors chair, an object that envelopes his entire body when sat in it, where Mark experiences elated outer body feelings of erotic pleasure, Soukup claims as: the filmic semiotic codes of technology and sexuality merge, the meanings associated with technological commodities and organic sexualised bodies become distorted, perhaps even perverted. (Soukup 2009:20)

Mark’s perversion with the camera and his projector gains him sexualised feelings, he caresses them in a masturbatory manner, the machinery is an extension of his physical self. Mark rushes towards Mrs Stephen’s, sensing his movements she raises her walking stick, a CU reveals the walking sticks end is spiked with a metal barb, drawing similarities to Mark’s tripod with the bayonet attached to one of its legs, the one Mark kills his victims with. This phallic symbol of masculinity and power causes Mark to stop in his tracks, cutting back to a wide shot (WS) Mark turns and switches the projector on. Mrs Stephen’s is the antithesis of Mark, she is his figurative conscience, moving as a disabled being, both castrated yet empowered, she has been able to adapt given her blindness, becoming profound in the way she learns to ‘see’ through other sensory parts of her body - Mark’s conscience (Mrs Stephen’s) is attempting to make sense of his current state of mind by indirectly looking into his mind.

Mrs Stephen’s moves from the background into the foreground, the light shifts from red to white illuminating a two shot of her and Mark, a cut to the projected film on the wall opposite reveals Vivian in black and white, it is the print Mark had just developed. There is no soundtrack so Mrs Stephen’s can not hear what the image contains, she asks Mark to “take me to your cinema”, to move deeper within Mark’s psyche. For her to understand Mark’s desires, his conscience must inhabit the space between the machine that is projecting and the projected image, to become ‘an uninvolved viewer of a realistic set of actions.’ (Hawthorn 2003:320). The use of diegetic sound in this sequence, the constant dripping of the taps and chemicals which echo, the whirring of the projector and flickering sound of the celluloid passing through the gate builds a tension and veracity, amplifying Mark's sexual tension.

With his hand holding her left arm, Mark guides Mrs Stephens in front of the projector towards the screen in a two shot, cutting behind the pair the film of Vivan is now projected on both Mark and Mrs Stephen’s back, Mrs Stephen’s holds her hand in the air, the image appears like fabric, draped on her skin she sees Vivan’s face growing larger as the camera moves towards her, a skull like face appears on Mark’s back as he watches in anticipation.


“What am I seeing Mark?” asks Mrs Stephens, again a literal translation would read the blind Mrs Stephen’s is asking Mark to explain what is being projected on the screen, from an earlier scene the audience is aware though that Mrs Stephen’s can see “from the back of my neck”, she is able to sense when Mark is looking into her room from the window outside, as the print is showing Vivan’s face moments before her death Mrs Stephen’s as Mark’s conscience is forming the question as a double entendre, it is not ‘what’ is being seen but ‘why’ is it being seen. Emphasis is placed on the word ‘seeing’, ‘What am I seeing Mark?’ as it is established Mrs Stephen’s can see the image through her other sensory perception, her emphasising the ‘seeing’ in the sentence means she is questioning the images existence with disbelief, not its content. The heavy piano music which has featured sparingly at this point has now built to a highly charged and dramatic piece, the print however goes black than white revealing it was destroyed in the process of developing.

In a MCU from a reverse angle Mark falls against the now blank screen as the music ends abruptly, he slams his fist against it in distress at the prints uselessness (the music is mimicking Marks excitement, building like his joy at watching the films and climaxing when they end suddenly), Mrs Stephen’s walks forward to comfort Mark though he leaves screen right, a CU of him getting his camera on the tripod with the bayonet follows, a reverse WS of Mrs Stephen’s bathed in the white projector light as she walks forward asking what he is doing, the image on the print is now a reality, this is where Mark is literally tipping into the image, as Rio describes, ‘Mark's ongoing reductive immersion in the realm of the image...has kept him locked into a lifetime state of infantile subjectivity.’ (2001:138) There is no distinction for Mark between a projected image or the physical space of the projectors casting of a blank frame Mrs Stephen’s now inhabits, ‘Marks history and identity exist as a series of filmed sequences.’ (Rio 2001:124) and this battle with Mrs Stephens, his conscience, is yet another, perhaps already filmed sequence, she approaches the projector giving the effect of her face filling the frame just as when Mark approached Vivian with the camera, the light changes from white, to black then blue, Mrs Stephen’s can feel the light on her, a high angle shot looking down at Mark reveals he is kneeling below Mrs Stephen’s with the camera, a submissive stance while she takes a mastery position, in a CU Mark runs his hand down the tripods leg, grips the end tightly and pulls the casing off the bayonet, ‘since the seer is caught up with what he sees, it is still himself he sees: there is a fundamental narcissism to all vision...’ (qtd. In Rio 2001:124) Mark is watching himself, the image of Mrs Stephen’s in the frame, not fearful but trying to comprehend what is happening, mimicing the image of Mark as a young boy, as is explained by Metzl, ‘the patient (Mark) attempts to deny the justification of his fright by repeating the frightening scenes with certain alterations’ (Metzl 2004:415), he hesitates before replacing the cap on the bayonet.

A reverse MCU shows him closing his eyes as he lowers the tripod leg, cutting to a WS Mark grabs the walking stick Mrs Stephen’s dropped and hands it to her, she grabs it wildly now pointing the barbed end at him: Mark remains castrated. Another cut to a low angled MCU of Mark as he moves away and places the camera on a shelf, a cut to a WS of Mrs Stephen’s which crab dollies screen right as she walks towards him, her walking stick in front of her, she now pursues Mark who runs in an MCU, the camera pans screen right from this position as Mark leaves the darkroom, Mrs Stephen’s following, ending the scene.

His (Marks) voyeurism cannot be described as merely an internal psychic disposition, but rather as an incarnated mode of perceiving and being in the world. (Rio 2001:121)

Through breaking down this sequences in the darkroom and examining the dialogue between Mark and Mrs Stephens as well as the climatic end to the scene, the darkroom is mimicking Marks psychological state, the darkroom is his neurosis, his dreamscape and central nervous system where he can access the deepest and darkest of his desires and project them for sexual gratification.

There is further evidence within the text to establish the darkroom as being such a contradictory device, prior to becoming Marks own neurosis it was used by his father, a room which contained recordings of his fathers experiments, books, photographs and films of Mark as a young boy: waking up with a light shinning in his eyes as a lizard was thrown on him. These films are kept in a cupboard which Mark still accesses, he screens one for Helen on her first visit to Mark, Mark’s memories are on the celluloid he keeps, rather than destroying them he retains them to view them rather then remember.


Mark reveals in a later scene to Helen a table full of sound recording equipment and magnetic tapes which was set to microphones rigged throughout the entire house, on the tapes are screams from him at young age, like the celluloid he retains these (not so distant) memories. Once his father passes away, the laboratory was established as a space containing Marks memories, fears and presence.

Peeping Tom is divided within itself, on one hand it invites the audience to empathise with Mark and account for their own scopophilia from enjoying the film and cinema in general, though it also suggests to be a ‘peeping tom’ you must have had several bizarre things occur to you as a child.

Powell has been able to transform a physical space into one that is living and mimicking that of a protagonist, a virtual environment linked to the reactions and desires of a psychotic killer.

When watching the films Mark becomes removed, creating a projected subjectivity, capable of moving around time and space, sent on a journey through cinematic art...subjectivity is so intimately wound up with the body that the subjectivity "embodied by" the point-of-view of the camera works to make us occupy the emotional space of the camera. (Fairbairn 1995:491)

As a viewer, I can not help but feel displaced when watching Peeping Tom, sympathy is directed to the murderer rather than the victim, or is it just the cinephile in me who is sympathetic because of the space Mark inhabits and Powel has constructed resembles something of the very room I engross myself in viewing after viewing, living out my deepest desires in the dark, alone through a removed subjectivity on DVD?

Mark may be seen both as a psychopathic killer who happens to film and as a psychopathic film-maker who happens to kill. (Johnson 1980:7)

Works Cited

Cheu, Johnson. "Seeing Blindness on Screen: The Cinematic Gaze of Blind Female Protagonists." The Journal of Popular Culture 42.3 (2009): 480-96. Print.

Fairbairn, Marty. "The Cinematic Gaze as Desire for Metaphysical Contact." The Journal of Value Inquiry December 29 (1995): 485-93. Print.

Guthmann, Edward. "'Peeping Tom' a Peek at Greatness." The San Francisco Chronicle [San Francisco] 26 Feb. 1999. Print

Hawthorn, Jeremy. "Morality, Voyeruism, and 'point of View': Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960)." Nordic Journal of English Studies 2.2 (2003): 303-24. Web. 23 May 2011.

Johnson, William. "Peeping Tom: A Second Look." Film Quarterly Spring 33.3 (1980): 2-10. University of California Press. Web. 21 May 2011.

Metzl, Jonathan. "From Scopophilia to Survivor: A Brief History of Voyeurism." Textual Practice 18.3 (2010): 415-34. Print.

Rio, Elena Del. "The Body of Voyeurism: Mapping a Discourse of the Senses in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom." Camera Obscura 15.3 (2001): 115-49. Web. 13 May 2011.

Soukup, Charles. "Techno-Scopophilia: The Semiotics of Technological Pleasure in Film." Critical Studies in Media Communications March 26.1 (2009): 19-35. Print.


Peeping Tom. Dir. Michael Powell. Perf. Karlheinz Böhm, Anna Massey and Moira Shearer. 20th Century Fox, 1960. DVD.

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