Written by: John White on February 11th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: United Kingdom, 1960
Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
DVD released: April 20th, 2004
Approximate running time: 97 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.75:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English, Dolby Digital Mono French
DVD Release: Warner Home Video
Region Coding: Region 2 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: £15.99 (UK)
Synopsis: Mark Lewis has been brought up by his father, a noted biologist, as an experiment in both fear and voyeurism. Long after his father’s death, Lewis is working in the film industry and moonlighting as a seedy glamour photographer. His father’s efforts have led him to become obsessed with understanding the effect of fear on people and he seeks out young women to film as they are facing their own deaths. His downstairs neighbour befriends him and they begin to fall in love however his neighbour’s blind mother knows all is not well with Mark. Will Mark be cured by true love or will his obsession lead to more death and loss.
Peeping Tom ended the film career of Michael Powell in the year that Hitchcock gained plaudits for his far more sensational and safe treatment of a similar subject in Psycho. The two greatest filmmakers in British cinema could not have had more different responses to their journeys into horror. Peeping Tom was pilloried and portrayed as filth on its release and the same headlines and controversies which followed the Video Nasties of the 1990’s were Powell’s prize for making such a film.
Looking at Peeping Tom today, it is amazing that the somewhat coy portrayal of soft pornography and faded out murder could cause such an outrage. There is no nudity and no blood in the film, only fear and honesty. It is the honesty which affects you when watching it. Comparing it to Psycho, it is clear that Powell made a more responsible and crafted movie than Hitchcock. Where Hitchcock had a mad killer who dressed up as his mother, Powell had the quiet sometimes kind Mark. The Mark who has become a killer through the mental torture of his father, played in the film by Powell himself.
In Peeping Tom all the characters share the voyeurism of Mark and the awful fascination which drives his acts is mirrored by the audience watching the film. We, like the director, are complicit in Mark’s crimes because we can’t help but look. Responsible men buy pornography in the newsagents when children buy sweets and a gifted psychiatrist is keen to look more at people’s fear and grief than for a killer. Even the almost too sweet Helen can not help herself when watching Mark’s snuff films – she has to know why the women are so scared even though it may bring her death.
This is the crime of Powell. He pointed out what hypocrites we are and how a monster can be made because of our insatiable need to know. Critics and newspapers couldn’t have this and so Powell was drummed out of town. Peeping Tom is disturbing still as we are invited to share the perspective of a killer and Powell ensures that it looks so interesting with saturated colours and curious darkness. Most importantly we feel sorry for Mark and we know his quest to understand fear is to understand what his father wanted from him. It is so much easier to watch the mad bloke in the frock in Psycho than it is to watch this polite man who can’t help himself.
Peeping Tom is possibly the most influential of all British horror films. The use of POV camerawork, voyeurism as a theme, and dark dank lairs is now de rigueur in serial killer thrillers. It is though a film which has dated poorly, it is hard to understand the seediness of the soft porn world shown here and the resolutely proper nature of the characters is further protection which modern films on this subject wouldn’t have.
Few films have captured voyeurism as well or honestly as Peeping Tom and the great performance of Karl Boehm is particularly noteworthy, however it remains an important film because of its pioneering subject matter rather than it’s very high quality.
This is pretty much a bare bones affair and the clear choice for owning this film on DVD would be the excellent Criterion disc which has good extras and is in the Original Aspect ratio. This presentation is anamorphic but the film does look as if the characters are a little stretched visually. The transfer is sharp but the print is not superb with some grain as well as a degree of imbalance in the colors. The disc is dual language with English and French options and irritatingly the default option is French. The sound is rather dull lacking any punch but without obvious crackling or hiss. The disc is also a DVD-5.
The few extras are biographies and a photo album.
You should own Peeping Tom but you should check off Powell’s better films first such as The Red Shoes, Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus. You should also own the Criterion disc rather than this one.