The role of sound is often neglected in film analysis. Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier, a paradigm of film theory, focuses on the illusory nature 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 how Mark’s systematic murder of women serves as a force of castration, a projection of the lack he experienced in his own childhood. The camera, which itself cuts shots in the effort to produce a sense of continuity, also here cuts the woman’s face, asserting its dominance and reproducing a hegemonic narrative of female victimhood.
However, the role of sound most significantly establishes such castratory 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 form of audiovisual castration, as the scream is disconnected from the body – a lost or partial object, akin to the floating smile of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (1951) that Zizek mentions in A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006). Women’s voices in film are not merely silenced in the literal sense; they can also be amplified at the expense of all else, effectively serving as another form of silencing. It is therefore useful to consider a Mulveyan perspective not only in terms of 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 rather than seen, they can also be heard rather than listened to, with their voice becoming a fetish object that stands in for the whole being.
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 both be heard but not seen and seen but 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.