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PEEPING TOM

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley
Director:  Michael Powell
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  November 9, 1999

Film ****

If you think about it, there is a bit of voyeurism inherent in all movie going experiences.  Though what we see on screen was crafted for an audience, and though the characters are often completely fictional or fictionalized, what we are essentially doing is eavesdropping on some very private moments.  We share in these people’s happiness and sorrow.  We view them in their best as well as their most shameful moments.  We even watch them make love.  It’s something we don’t think about very much, because there is a certain safeguard in the motion picture camera.  In a sense, we are not doing the spying—the camera does it for us.  What we see later is merely what it reports back to us.  There certainly is no implication of the audience, and nothing in the experience that would give cause for shame or guilt.  It is a notion harshly challenged by Peeping Tom.

This story is disturbing enough by having a mentally ill murderer as its subject, but it very slyly becomes even more so by involving the audience in the actions.  Mark (Boehm) is a killer with a fetish-like fascination with the movie camera, and he likes to preserve the purest moment of fear by filming his victims as he murders them.  In the opening shots, we are watching the events almost entirely from the point of view of Mark’s camera, an effect driven home by cross hairs and an aperture border on the screen.  When he stalks an unsuspecting woman, in a sense, we are stalking her, too.  His camera keeps us right behind her as she goes up the stairs into her room, starts to undress, and finally looks with unimaginable horror right at us as she realizes she is about to die.  Moments later, as the opening credits roll, we move back from participant to spectator, watching the exact same scenario play out safely onto a screen as we stand back behind Mark, and view the footage with him.  But now, the illusion of being safely neutral observers has been compromised.

Peeping Tom has been called the British Psycho, although it predated the more famous Hitchcock film by a year.  It was a film so stark, so psychological and so unyielding in its portrayal of a dark subject matter, it effectively ended the career of one of the true giants of British cinema, Michael Powell.  Powell, as you may know, along with Emeric Pressburger, spent a good two decades revitalizing and reforming the art of movies in England, and in the process created some of the screen’s most beautifully constructed artworks, including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and Tales of Hoffman.  Their work was always about breaking through the rigidity of their country’s fascination with realism on film, and pushing towards greater emotion, higher energy, and indeed, stylizing a highly fantastic realm of cinematic make-believe that may have been occupied by very real characters, but was clearly a world so carefully and artistically structured that their movies on one level became the antithesis of realism.

In that respect, perhaps it is no surprise that Powell chose to make Peeping Tom.  With this film, he succeeded in breaking through all boundaries and disregarding all unspoken rules of cinema, but rules are seldom broken without consequences.  The film was pulled after one week’s run because of the enormous critical backlash.  The movie horrified and repulsed those who didn’t take the time to understand…many mistakenly believed it was a perverse celebration of misogyny, violence and voyeurism.  This is far from the truth, though none can argue that Powell’s intention was to deeply disturb,  particularly considering his well reputed fascination with Freud.  The entire film is like a psychological code, filled with clues and imagery.  How much you want to bring out of it depends entirely on how deep you’re willing to dig.

Notice for example the setting of Mark’s room, and how it indicates the two sides of his personality.  In the front is a perfectly charming sitting room type setting, well lit and as cozy as anyplace you might stop for a friendly visit.  But in the back, and behind heavy black curtains, is the place where he does his work.  It is a dark and shadowy realm, almost expressionistic, suitable both physically and mentally to serve as the place where he is putting together his film.  The symbolism is strong, and highly narrative, as certain characters who venture from Mark’s cultivated surface world into the deeper, dark area are also doing the same with respects to his mind. 

Mark is a monster, but like Norman Bates, he is a curiously sympathetic one.  We see many glimpses into his childhood, where his psychologist father (as portrayed by Michael Powell) found in him nothing more than a guinea pig for his experiments in fear.  His father filmed most of his childhood, and we see images of Mark crying, recoiling, even reacting to a big lizard being thrown into his bed while he sleeps.  It’s certainly no wonder that Mark grows up fascinated by fear, and in his own way, continues his father’s experiments (one colleague of the father remarks rather ironically about Mark:  “He has his father’s eyes”).

One particular sequence is indicative of the highly layered nature of the film, especially if you think about the subject of “watching” while you watch.  It is a film of Mark as a child, sitting on a fence and looking at a couple kissing on a bench some distance away.  Mark is watching the couple while his father, obviously, is watching him.  This film is being viewed in the present time by a grown Mark and a lady tenant, Helen (Massey), while we, the audience, are in turn watching them.  And many aspects of the film, upon close inspection, play out in the same manner:  ever increasing concentric circles.

There is one surprise concerning the nature of Mark’s murders, though, that Powell saves until the end.  Consider it the forerunner to the scene where Norman Bates’ wig and dress come off, revealing the true nature of his “mother”.  It is the last, horrifying piece of an already disturbing puzzle.

It took a great deal of courage for Powell to make Peeping Tom.  Although he was probably aware the backlash would be strong and negative, I can’t help but think it must have surprised him to end up essentially drummed out of the English film industry over the picture, given his long standing reputation.  But regardless of the consequences, he created an uncompromising cinematic masterpiece, one that risked being discarded and forgotten, but eventually earned him his redemption with newer and more modern audiences understanding and embracing his work, an event aided by the very vocal accolades of the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.  Some today even consider it the first modern horror picture, and the most influential entry in the genre.  It never was, nor will it ever be, as popular as Psycho, but unlike that film, which still fascinates but seems too tame in our time to frighten as it once did, Peeping Tom has lost none of its edge with the passage of time.  It still manages to rob us of our sense of security, and our ability to watch without participation.  It still engrosses and repels, intrigues and horrifies.  It is a masterpiece of pure psychology.

Video ***1/2

This digitally remastered anamorphic transfer from Criterion is quite commendable.  Though the film shows its age from time to time in the presence of some nicks and spots, overall, the clarity of the print is remarkable.  Images are sharp and well rendered throughout, with no evidence of grain, compression, or break-up of any kind.  The film was rendered in the Eastman color process, and Powell often uses exaggerated or extreme coloring in his shots for effect.  In other words, colors don’t always look natural, but that is exactly the intent, and it’s understood from early on as we see Mark walk down a dark street spotlit by harsh orange lamps. 

Audio **1/2

The single-channel mono soundtrack is clean and well rendered, with very little noise and good clarity throughout.  For only utilizing the center speaker, the film manages never to sound flat.  Between dialogue, which often raises and lowers in intensity within scenes, and the musical cues, I actually think this soundtrack is a little better than some 2-channel mono, or even stereo DVD tracks I’ve heard.

Features ***

The disc contains a rather bland documentary, one that is sadly more interested in the writer’s war stories than the film.  But the commentary track by film theorist Laura Mulvey is a good listen, and very insightful.  There’s also a trailer, and a good collection of behind the scenes photos, including many shots of Powell directing.

Summary:

Peeping Tom was never meant to please everybody, and many today still loathe it.  But if you are of adventurous taste, and keen on witnessing one of cinema’s greatest, though certainly darkest, psychological triumphs, uncompromising and unapologetic in nature, and with more depths than can be fathomed in one setting, this is an experience you will not want to miss.