PEEPING TOM 4K Review: You Like To Watch, Don't You?

Restored to the Criterion Collection, Michael Powell’s answer may disturb you.

Contributor; Toronto, Canada
PEEPING TOM 4K Review: You Like To Watch, Don't You?

It is a matter of historical irony that the quintessential film about looking would go unseen for so many years; from (as the legend has it) about a week after its release in U.K. cinemas in 1960, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom would be all but disappeared from polite society 'til nearly the end of the century.

Of course, people did see it and did respond to it, and so Peeping Tom's legend became one of a buried masterwork, ripe for rediscovery. That legend even followed it to my early experiences with the film; by the time I had heard of Peeping Tom, the Criterion DVD had gone out of print (OOP), lending it the allure of a forbidden treasure. I tracked down that OOP disc -- spine #58 -- and before long, I'd be putting Powell's subversive assault on the voyeuristic pleasures of the cinema on my list of the ten best films of all time.

Well: what is a new 4K restoration of a classic film, if not an opportunity to further indulge in that selfsame pleasure of looking? For fun, I threw on that old DVD of Peeping Tom and watched about five minutes before jumping over to Criterion's new disc. The new 4K features a restoration completed by Studio Canal and released on their label in Europe last year, and it was only a matter of time before the updated digital print replaced the old OOP #58 on my Criterion shelf.

Except, I can't bring myself to part with the original disc, for both sentimental reasons and because of the experiment conducted above. If you want to demonstrate to anyone (or even to yourself) the advances in home theatre technology across the last 25 years, or the sensuous art of film restoration (about which Studio Canal has created a 15-minute supplemental feature on this disc that is as low-key as it is delightfully nerdy), you are definitely going to want to hang on to that original DVD.

Fear not, otherwise: all of the special features from the original Criterion release are replicated here. The label released Peeping Tom, first on Laserdisc then DVD, in the 1990s. The Channel 4 documentary, A Very British Psycho, is included, as is the feature-length audio track by the standing authority on filmic scopophilia, Laura Mulvey.

This is a proper commentary track, mind. Back when the form was relatively novel, a film theorist could sit in front of a microphone and give what is effectively a shot-by-shot master class on the construction of a film and how that construction lends the film its meaning; that is what Mulvey is doing here. It is, of course, exceptional -- one of the rare instances in reviewing home video releases where I watched the feature in its own right and then ended up watching it an entire second time with the commentary, out of the sheer, compulsive pleasure of it.

The film itself remains compulsively watchable as well: Mark, a focus puller by day, is an amateur filmmaker and part-time pornographer by night, played with halting tenderness by Karlheinz Böhm. There is no murder mystery at play: the film also reveals almost immediately that Mark has begun murdering women (the first killing shares a location with one of Jack the Ripper's murders). Mark films his victims' final moments, and is doing something that seems to heighten their terror at the moment of death. The latter qualifies as Peeping Tom's only real mystery.

The scandal upon Peeping Tom's release was at least in part generated by the complicity that Powell creates between his film's gaze and our gaze as its audience. Murders are filmed from Mark's camera's point of view (a cross-hatch in the viewfinder doubling as a kind of gunsight), with the victims screaming at "us" as we push in closer and closer to their deaths.

The whole thing is a thinly-veiled interrogation of the fundamental of cinema itself: that we are sitting in a darkened room watching something that cannot see us back or operate with any agency against us; watching a movie is absolute, guilt-free, risk-free voyeurism, down to its core. And we tend to use it to peer in on either acts of violence (hello, Marvel Cinematic Universe!) or the lurid details of someone else's sex life (love ya, Challengers). Or, if we're lucky, both.

Furthering the scandal: Peeping Tom is profoundly sympathetic to Mark, who is a kind of stand-in for both the audience and the filmmaker. There is a substantial backstory of childhood trauma that is revealed to us in lengthy, absorbing sequences; first between Mark and Helen, the girl downstairs (Anna Massey), and then with Mark and Helen's mother (Maxine Audley).

The entire film is constructed in a chain of, say, five major set pieces, which build and build upon one another with demented thematic logic. There is no de rigeur plot-work showing Mark attempting to evade capture, but one heartbreaking moment where he seems to be trying, against hope, to find a treatment for his psychosis that will not lead to any more deaths. Mark is terrifying in principle but affectingly childlike and gentle in practice. It is a profoundly chilling broth.

The striking 4K restoration positions Mark in an all-too-legible world, doubling down on the film's effect. As someone used to the resolution of the DVD, it is remarkably unsettling to see the nudie photographs that wallpaper Mark's news agent employer in sharp detail; and never more so than when an adolescent schoolgirl traipses into the store to buy a pack of gum, surrounded by breasts and vulvas.

Cinematographer Otto Heller's meticulous creation of light and shadow, through which Mark seems to move like a kind of vampire, has been lovingly preserved here, and Powell's surgical use of colour -- particularly the colour red -- now leaps off the screen in key moments, to undergird Mark and Helen's deeper and deeper descents into a lurid world.

As has become industry standard, both a 4K UHD and a Blu-ray disc are included in Criterion's package; the 4K houses the film only (plus commentaries), while the Blu-ray also includes the supplements. All of the supplements, this time around, are archival; from the original Criterion releases, and also various Blu-ray releases between 2007 and 2010.

It is marginally disappointing that there is nothing new created for this release, although given the age of the film and the detail of the existing material, I don't know what's left to be done. Moreover, as I was reminded upon this viewing, Peeping Tom is a film that communicates so clearly for itself that the best thing this release can do is get out of its way and let it be seen at last.

Visit the official Criterion site for more information and to purchase a copy.

Peeping Tom

  • Michael Powell
  • Leo Marks
  • Karlheinz Böhm
  • Anna Massey
  • Moira Shearer
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Michael PowellThe Criterion CollectionLeo MarksKarlheinz BöhmAnna MasseyMoira ShearerDramaHorrorThriller

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