The role of sound is all too often neglected in film analysis. Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, a paradigm of film theory, focuses on the status of the illusory status of the cinematic image, while Laura Mulvey’s influential Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema defines the male gaze and the role of women as “to-be-looked-at” in dominant film narratives. However, as Kaja Silverman illustrates in The Acoustic Mirror, the female voice – and its lack – are equally influential in establishing gender relations onscreen. This is played out throughout Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), with the absence of audio in Mark’s documentaries (and the subsequent absence of the female scream for a majority of the film) standing for a sort of castration. As Silverman discusses, this literal silencing of women serves as a projection of Mark’s own castration anxiety, having been subjugated by his father’s camera and thus suffering a traumatic loss of phallic power. Audiovisual separation in cinema is itself a form of castration, producing a sense of disorientation in the viewer in its essential disjunction of sensual experience.
In the sequence in which Mark murders the actress, Powell subverts the structure of the silent woman captured in Mark’s documentaries, creating an interesting new audiovisual form of castration by way of murder. As the actress steps back, away from Mark’s tripod cum weapon, the camera cuts to a shot of her feet edging up against the suitcase. This shot helps establish the fetishistic relations of the scene, with the focus on one body part over the whole serving an inherently castratory function. The camera then cuts back to a side angle shot of Mark behind his camera, capturing him in the throws of the fetishistic male gaze. When Powell cuts back to the actress, he cuts off the top half of her face, with her lips on one edge of the screen and the tip of the tripod on the other. This part-whole dynamic further underscores the way in which Mark’s systematic murder aims to castrate women as a projection of the lack he experienced in childhood. The camera, which itself cuts shots in the effort to produce a false sense of continuity, also here cuts the woman’s face, asserting its dominance and reproducing a hegemonic narrative of female victimhood. However, as previously mentioned, the role of sound is what most significantly establishes such relations. As the actress begins to scream, the camera tilts up to her face and blurs it out before fading to black, rendering her unseen as the audio of the woman’s scream is heard. In this sequence, the pairing of the image with the absence of sound, as exemplified in Mark’s documentaries, is inverted by Powell’s camera, which pairs sound with the lack of image – rather, darkness with a mere spot of red light. This is another, albeit different, form of audiovisual castration, as the scream is presented as disconnected from the body – a lost or partial object, akin to the floating smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland that Zizek mentions in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Women’s voices in film are not merely silenced in the traditional sense; they can also be amplified at the expense of all else. In this light, it is necessary to consider a Mulveyan perspective not only on female “to-be-looked-at-ness,” but also “to-be-heard-ness.” Just as women captured in the male gaze of the camera are looked at at the expense of being seen, they can also be heard rather than listened to, their voice becoming a fetish object that stands in for the whole being in a castratory manner. The audio in this sequence immediately transitions to the sound of a female newscaster saying, “And that, darling’s, the end of the news, unless you want the football results.” The visual then cuts from the darkness to the direct gaze of Helen’s blind mother. This connection plays on the notion of female “to-be-heard-ness” and the ways in which women can be heard but not seen in society while also being seen and not heard. Helen’s mother herself cannot see, hearing the female voice and looking at the television without seeing it. Perhaps, like the viewer after the actress’ murder, she can only see the void.