As we move into the 21st Century, with the year 1984 just a memory from two decades ago, it is becoming more and more difficult to use the once-potent image of Big Brother to get a rise out of people. We've become so accustomed to being watched that we've very nearly forgotten to be worried about the implications of ubiquitous surveillance. A nightmarish film like "Enemy of the State" (1998) can still jar us out of our complacency, but we can also respond to a film like the currently playing "Eye of the Beholder," which shows us the snooper's point of view, so to speak, and invites us to consider that peepers are people too. For a sampling of how earlier films have treated the subject of surveillance, look for these titles on home video.
"Rear Window" (1954). Although it predates modern high-tech surveillance technology, Alfred Hitchcock's suspense classic neatly anticipates the ethical issues such technology would raise. James Stewart stars as a photographer who has been confined to his apartment by a leg fracture. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors through the open windows on the opposite side of the courtyard, using the telephoto lens of his camera to get a better view. Gradually, he becomes convinced that one particularly sinister looking neighbor has murdered his wife. But what should he do about it? Should he attempt to intervene, knowing that his illicit snooping may have caused him to jump to the wrong conclusion?
"The Anderson Tapes" (1971). Based on a novel by Lawrence Sanders, this clever picture gives us a wry twist on the familiar caper genre. As in most caper films, an elaborate robbery is planned and executed, in this case the looting of several apartments at a swanky New York address. The gang is led by John Anderson (Sean Connery), who is newly out of prison and eager to resume his career. What he doesn't know is that his actions have been monitored by multiple surveillance agencies since he left captivity. The irony is that none of the people watching Anderson were particularly trying to catch him committing a new crime; that occurs more or less as a side effect. Instead, they all had their own unrelated agendas.
"The Conversation" (1974). One of the best films about the ethical consequences of eavesdropping is this underappreciated masterpiece from Francis Ford Coppola. Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, one of the world's most accomplished experts in covert surveillance. Proud of the fact that he can record anyone, anywhere, without their knowledge, Harry approaches his work as a consummate professional. As such, he maintains a professional detachment from the possible consequences of his actions, never considering who might be hurt by the conversations he records. On this one occasion, however, Harry's professional disinterest wavers. As he works to clean up a poor quality recording, he begins to believe that he's hearing two people plotting a murder. For the first time, he makes the fateful decision to act on what he's recorded instead of merely passing it along to his client without comment and collecting his fee. I can't recommend this one highly enough. It is easily the equal of Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972), and deserves to be as well known.
"Sharky's Machine" (1981). The film that bears the most striking direct resemblance to "Eye of the Beholder" is this Burt Reynolds vehicle. In the title role, Reynolds plays a cop who is assigned to keep tabs on a prostitute named Dominoe, played by Rachel Ward. It seems that Dominoe has connections with some shady high rollers whom the vice squad would like to nail. Sharky does the job right, establishing round the clock surveillance of Dominoe's apartment using an array of watching and listening devices. As he observes her, however, Sharky gradually finds himself falling for her. This interesting film was also directed by Reynolds, who showed admirable restraint in not overplaying the obvious exploitative voyeuristic possibilities inherent in the material.
All of these films, after all, are about voyeurism. And we as viewers must be aware at some level of the built-in irony of any movie commenting on voyeurism, since the fun of movie watching is itself built, in part, on the guilty pleasure of voyeurism. Every time we buy a ticket or rent a video we acknowledge that peepers really are people too - people like us.