Starring: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Brenda Bruce
London, in the early ‘60s: A young photographer and film-maker called Mark stalks the badly lit streets of Soho, murdering prostitutes with the sharpened leg of his camera’s tripod, while he films their faces, trying to capture their look of fear. As the police try to solve the murders, Mark makes friends with Helen, the girl who lives downstairs with her blind mother. Slowly the shy and introverted Mark shares with Helen his horrific childhood at the hands of his psychologist father, who was studying the effects of terror on him. Will Helen be able to save Mark, or will she become another one of his victims?
Imagine, for a second, that Steven Spielberg had been the director of A Serbian Film. The director of ET, making a film about the darkest, most depraved sexual acts imaginable. The furore that situation would create is exactly what Michael Powell faced in 1960, with the release of Peeping Tom. Powell, along with his filming partner Emeric Pressberger, had made a whole raft of intelligent, fantastical films, such as A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, winning critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. But the release of Peeping Tom destroyed his career.
Of course, these days, if a film is derided as “perverse filth” (as Peeping Tom was) and banned from the cinema, there are ways and means for it to be discovered, either by imported dvd or downloading it online. Back in the 60’s of course, there was no such recourse. If the cinemas refused to show the film, there was no way for an audience to discover it for themselves.
It’s ironic that Psycho, another film which contains a strong subtext of voyeurism and is as explicit (more so) in it’s depiction of violence, and also carries as much sympathy for it’s killer, was released in the same year. Perhaps the fact that Powell’s film was in colour tipped the balance against it.
As Peeping Tom opens, we’re looking through the viewer of a 16mm camera, as the operator approaches a prostitute. Through the camera, we follow the woman back to her apartment and watch as she gets ready on the bed. A sharp metallic click makes the woman look up, startled. Whatever she is looking at terrifies her, as the camera moves closer and closer to the bed…
As the credits roll, we watch the scene again, this time with the killer as it’s projected on a screen. Tellingly, the killer jumps out of his seat just before the girl is killed, obscuring our view. Next morning, the police are investigating. Our killer, a handsome blonde young man called Mark, films the scene, telling the police he’s from The Observer.
Mark is a camera technician by day, but moonlights as an adult photographer, taking semi-nude photos which are sold under the counter by the local newsagent. An amusing scene early on sees an elderly business man enter the shop and surreptitiously enquire if he has some – ahem – “viewings” for sale.
Mark is a very introverted, sexually repressed fellow. This is mainly thanks to his father, who we learn (through Helen’s delving) was a psychologist who used his own son as a guinea pig in his experiments in recording reactions of fear and terror. As a child, Mark was clinically subjected to many different torments to gauge his reactions to them. This information brings Helen even closer to him, but what she doesn’t know is that Mark is continuing his father’s work, in his own fashion.
There is a remarkable scene in the middle of the film, in which Mark lures Vivian, a young wannabe actress, onto a studio set, telling her he’s going to make a promo reel. As Mark prepares his cameras and lights, Vivian performs a wonderful dance routine in order to warm up. It’s a great scene which calls to mind any number of musicals where people suddenly break out into song and dance routines, and you start to wonder if you’re about to watch Peeping Tom: The Musical!
Mark isn’t just filming his victims as he kills them – he is also forcing them to watch themselves being killed, thereby heightening their fear, and producing a more powerful image to be captured. It’s a concept that was revisited in the underrated Strange Days, directed by Katherine Brigelow.
Regular readers will know that we’ve been rather impressed with Studio Canal/Optimum's blu ray releases, and
is no different. I found the sound a bit tinny, but the picture quality is sharp and there’s nice depth to the colour. The film is backed with a great selection of extras, including an introduction by Martin Scorsese, an interview with Powell’s widow, a commentary track, the original trailer and a documentary about the film itself.
Peeping Tom is a film made before it’s time: if it had been released a year later, it might not have caused such a furore. As it is, it remains a fine example of Michael Powell’s work and deserves to be re-discovered on blu-ray.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)
Peeping Tom is being released by Optimum on Blu Ray on 22nd November, but is also receiving a limited theatrical release from 19th November.
Have your say about this! Leave me a comment in the box below.