The story of how Peeping Tom
(1960) all but ended director Michael Powell's career is a sad one. But there was a silver lining, in the form of a silver haired Martin Scorsese who was instrumental in the reappraisal the film started to receive in the late 70s. Looking at it now, certainly for those of us born post 1960, it's hard to imagine the fuss it caused being labelled amongst other things as "the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing" by the short-sighted British press. If it was made a decade later, one wonders how the reception may have changed with Bonnie and Clyde
breaking cover and Straw Dogs
just around the corner...
Mark Lewis is an awkward young man who spends his days working as a focus-puller for a film crew, with dreams of becoming a director himself. In his spare time he also photographs glamour models for a seedy Soho newsagent, whilst at night pursuing the altogether more disturbing hobby of murdering young women and filming the expressions of terror on their faces before they die. Tracked by some perfunctory detectives, Lewis strikes up a relationship with one of his lodgers, Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), all the time struggling to control his frightening compulsions.
What's certain now is Peeping Tom's
landmark status as an exploration of voyeurism, both for the deeply damaged killer Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) and for cinema audiences themselves, complicit (and thrilled) by the act of watching his murders. Powell even examines the ironic implications of Mark's obsession in the context of Helen's blind mother through one unbearably tense encounter.
Though Powell made Peeping Tom without frequent collaborator Emeric Pressburger, the look resembles their golden era in the 40s when films such as The Red Shoes
(1948) and Black Narcissus
(1947) made dazzling use of technicolour. Here Powell uses the lurid Eastmancolour film stock to startling affect with an expressionistic palette that renders Mark's obsession with a strange, surreal intensity. Boehm's performance is superbly creepy. He creates a fascinating and surprisingly sympathetic figure impossible to simply despise, with a psychological complexity that's apparent in everything from his words to his repressed physicality.
Watching Peeping Tom
today, it's hard to distance the experience from the knowledge of its canonical status. There are some decidedly clunky performances that can't simply be put down to changing times and the "people acted and spoke differently back then" rebuff doesn't quite wash. It remains though a unique, complex work with an unforgettable central performance and some beautiful cinematography.
Part of Optimum's The Studio Canal Collection, the blu-ray is superb. A 50th anniversary restoration, the picture and sound are wonderfully clear. The colours are vibrant and rich, leagues ahead of my old DVD version. A restoration comparison in the extras highlights the improvements over the old print, particularly in the outdoor scenes (filmed in Rathbone Place, Fitzrovia) and it's hard to imagine anyone could've done a better job. There's virtually no grain and artefacts in general are imperceptible.
Other significant extras are also likely but TBC at the time of writing.
Peeping Tom: 50th
Anniversary is in UK cinemas from this Friday, 19th November, and out on
blu-ray from 22nd November 2010 through Optimum Releasing.
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