Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is…?
Peeping Tom is an amazing film achievement. So much so, that it was all but blacklisted upon its release in 1960. Well ahead of its time, and nearly predictive in its theme, the film all but ruined the career of one of Britain's great directors, Michael Powell. This Criterion Collection release of Peeping Tom on DVD is the new definitive version of the film.
Released a few months before Hitchcock's Psycho, Peeping Tom was nearly universally panned by critics. But not just the usual vitriol spewed forth by those with pen in hand passing judgment. No. Peeping Tom was eviscerated publicly. The most glaring and oft-cited example came from Derek Hill of the Tribune who wrote: "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain." Wow!
As a result of this reception, the production company quickly pulled the film from theaters and cancelled distribution, selling the film to a black-marketer, who in turn tried to forget it as quickly as possible. But what about the film was so perverted, so grotesque, so influential you ask? Nothing much by today's standards obviously. Nevertheless, it did broach a pretty nasty subject.
Peeping Tom tells the story of a young man named Mark Lewis. Mark is the son of a psychologist who was fascinated with fear and how the human mind reacts to fearful impulses. We are treated to some back-story through films of Mark's father who filmed Mark's reactions to many father-induced fear sessions. Father would awake child from sleep by shining a flashlight in his eyes and drop a lizard on his bed. Dad became a chronicler of sorts and even filmed young Mark visiting his mother's dead body at her funeral service and again at the gravesite. Next, we see young Mark filmed at his father's wedding, a scant six weeks after his mother's death. It is at this occasion that father presents son with his first movie camera as a present, while dad runs off on his honeymoon with his nubile young bride.
Mark has taken his father's obsession to the next level. Never without his camera, he films people in many different situations. But lately, he has become obsessed with fear, just as his father had before him. He is in the process of filming a documentary of the ultimate fear as he films women reacting to the knowledge that they are about to die, at the cameraman's own hands. Mark conceals a knife in the leg of his tripod that he uses to stab his victims while filming their deaths. Nothing really shocking is shown throughout these many forays with death, even less so than was shown in Psycho, in fact.
The reasons Peeping Tom was so reviled in 1960 were myriad, but I want to touch on a few of them here. First, Mark is a clearly sympathetic character. Unlike the seriously bedeviled Norman Bates from Psycho, who was so clearly anti-social and troubled, Mark Lewis comes off as just a "normal" guy holding down two jobs with plenty of interaction with the public. He is handsome and soft-spoken and unassuming. He is troubled, yes, but not in the way so many murderers are. Second, director Powell enlists the audience as complicit in these crimes. Just as Mark is exercising his voyeuristic tendencies, so are we by watching him doing his dastardly deeds. Indeed we are assigned the role of co-conspirators in a way, forced to make the assumption that our fascination with watching, if taken too far, might result in similar tendencies. In point of fact, we as a society are not too far from the Mark's dementia. Look around daytime TV and tell me we haven't regressed to a nation of voyeurs always looking for the bigger and better shock, preferably live, and the bigger the better. We watch Jerry Springer hoping for fights and reveling in the shocking behavior of the guests; we watch professional hockey and car racing hoping for fights and crashes; we watch "When Animals Attack!" lurching in fear, or laughing or gasping for air when a bear grabs an unsuspecting tourist while looking for a little snack.
Powell has always been fascinated by the use of brilliant colors, and this film is no different. Peeping Tom is shot in a saturated Technicolor that is so brilliant, it oozes a life of its own. This, in turn is contrasted with the black and white of Mark's nights watching his films as he makes them, of grizzly deaths. The contrast is stark and informative. No matter the film, it is never the same as real life interaction. It speaks to those who would find solace in the use of pornography, no?
In the end, Mark is tempted to find help for his problem, as he is fascinated with the girl downstairs, and he knows his way of living would repulse her. But, he cannot give it up. He makes a conscious choice to continue his documentary on fear and dying, despite his knowledge that he will be caught in the end. It is almost as though he feels he would be less a human without his compulsions. A sad tale indeed. I don't want to give away any more of the plot, except to say there is more than meets the eye, and you must wait until the final denouement to find it.
The acting here is well done by a fine cast. Karlheinz Boehm plays Mark with just a right amount of confusion and sympathy. Moira Shearer, a favorite of Powell and collaborator (and fellow Archers member) Emeric Pressburger, plays his second victim with aplomb and is beautiful to watch (oops—Freudian slip). Anna Massey does a fine job as Helen, the love interest from downstairs, and Maxine Audley wonderfully plays her alcoholic and blind mother. A group of terrific performances all the way around.
This disc includes several outstanding extras, including an audio commentary track (here referred to as an audio essay) by film theorist Laura Mulvey (which I only had time to hear part of), a stills gallery of rare, behind-the-scenes production photos, and the original theatrical trailer. But perhaps the best extra on the disc is A Very British Psycho, another fine British Documentary about the making of the film and the life of screenwriter Leo Marks, after whom the lead character Mark Lewis was named. I swear that nobody does documentariion must have lifted some notes from New Line's treatment of Crash and Damage, as those are the only two other similarly treated DV's I knw of with that aspect ratio. Whatever the problems with down-conversio, I still prefer anamorphic treatment whenever possible and Criterion seems to have jumped on the bandwagon with both feet. I remeding to the Amaray keep case.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is little to recommend against this film, unless you are looking for MORE. If you are a fan of the effects of a Fifth Element or Starship Troopers, then this is not for you. If you liked Psycho, however, I have a feeling you may like this film, despiteel, then you will find little to fault in Peeping Tom. Also, I failed to mention above that Martin Scorsese is a HUGE fan of both Powell and Peeping Tom, so if you are a fan of his work, perhaps ou should own this film just to see what inspires the man.
Film and disc are acquitted. The prosecutor is instructed to stop bringing Criterion discs before this court, lest he e forced to watch "When Animals Attack" for a week straight on a 100-inch front projector. Now THAT would be punishment!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Essay by Film Theorist Laura Mulvey
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