Criterion Review: Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM

Michael Powell’s feature is a bold and disconcerting now, as it ever was.

Watching Peeping Tom for the first time, there’s a feeling of unearthing something seminal. Originally released in 1960, initial reception was one of repulsion over the themes and characterization of it’s protagonist. Soon, the psychological horror thriller came to be dominated by the work of Hitchcock. After falling by the wayside, Michael Powell’s (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) film has garnered new appreciation, for it’s ambition, marriage of style and substance, and disturbing imprint upon the genre, and future filmmakers who venture into it’s stable.

Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) works at a film studio as a camera assistant (focus-puller), with a side gig as a photographer, taking glamour photos for a local newsagent. But his heart lies with making a film of his own, one centered around his obsession of capturing with his camera, the last moments of human life. A twisted vision that stems from childhood trauma, weaves through a tangential love story, and ultimately works to explore the psychology of this damaged man, and serve as a critique on the nature of art, especially forms centered around the moving image.

Peeping Tom is slang for a voyeur, with origins dating back to the 1800s and the key witnesses to Lady Godiva’s naked ride. This voyeuristic immersion is at the core of both the film’s story and potency, as it draws from both derivations of it’s meaning. The thrill and enjoyment of watching both the pleasures and pain of others. Working from a layered and lascivious script from screenwriter Leo Marks (Sebastian, Twisted Nerve), Powell crafts a Freudian-tinged exploration of trauma and abuse, and the personal and wider social fallout that follows. The “male gaze” is often cited as a caustic element in cinema, and is leveraged as a deeper and more disturbing element here. For Mark, it’s not just the act of murder, but twisted or unconventional imagery. What might shock a ‘normal’ person, instead appeals to him. Fueling a portrait of his inner psyche, this and the slasher vibes of the film add to the sense of unease. As the viewer, you also become complicit in assuming a position of voyeur too. With the complexity of the script, and nuanced work of Boehm, find sympathy in this monstrous character, a conflicting position that surely added to the unpalatable nature of the film upon initial release.

The darker moments of the film contrast with a black streak of humor, some of it verging on the smutty and playful side. What is fascinating is that beyond human psychology, the film leverages an exploration of obsession and artistic intent through the cinematic lens. Peeping Tom isn’t just about a filmmaker, it takes shots at the film industry as a whole, and the state of British cinema, at least at that moment in time. A meta-quality is woven in, films within a film, that offers commentary on stereotypes, nepotism, chauvinisms. Some of it subtle (Powell himself playing Mark’s father for instance) and some of it not so much. The director of the film that Mark works on is quite literally blind. The caress of a camera, the blinkered pursuit of creativity, an artistic dream, Mark isn’t too dissimilar from other creative types in some ways, while in other respects his means to an end are starkly repulsive.

Peeping Tom is a sumptuous looking film, where the visuals and lighting lend as much to its impact as the plot and character. Powell’s direction is remarkably assured, with each perspective, blocking, and framing choice adding meaning and potency. Aligned to Otto Heller’s cinematography, it results in a film where style matches substance, crafting a visceral punch of storytelling.

The Package

Criterion delivers an all new 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, one approved by Thelma Schoonmaker, yes, that Thelma Schoonmaker. Her perspective comes not only as as renowned film editor, but as Powell’s wife. The results are pretty remarkable, with an image that is bold and resplendent. Detail impresses, from facial details to clothing, from camera equipment to the hubub of the city in which it all unfolds. Colors are verdant, supporting the films tonally informed shifting palettes, running the gamutfrom blues to greens to the notably bolstered reds. Enhancing this are inky blacks and crisp whites. The transfer is free of artifacts, and presents a nice sheen of grain. There are some instances where colors and image soften slightly, but likely down to source material.

  • One 4K UHD disc of the film presented in Dolby Vision HDR and one Blu-ray with the film and special features
  • Two audio commentaries, one featuring film historian Ian Christie and one featuring film scholar Laura Mulvey: Christies track is insightful, largely tackling the themes of the film while weaving in tidbits about the production, cast, and crew. Mulvey’s effort is more interesting as it dives deeper into the psychological aspects of the fill, analyzing human behavior, language, symbolism, and other visual means of storytelling
  • Introduction by filmmaker Martin Scorsese: An introduction to the film from a Powell fan
  • Interview with editor Thelma Schoonmaker: who as mentioned earlier, was Powell’s wife. So there’s a professional and personal element to this conversation
  • Documentary about the film’s history, featuring interviews with Schoonmaker, Scorsese, and actor Carl Boehm: A worthy watch
  • Documentary about screenwriter Leo Marks: Surprisingly fascinating, giving a little life history on the man, covering his childhood and most notably his time working for MI6 during World War II. Beyond this, it also delivers several interview segments that serve to give insight to the making of Peeping Tom
  • Program on the film’s restoration: A great addition, especially in this burgeoning 4K age. It showcases not just the work that went into the restoration, but the care and respect behind handling a piece of art and being true to its original form
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by author Megan Abbott. In the accompanying 32 page liner booklet, which also contains an introduction penned by Martin Scorsese
  • New cover art by Eric Skillman

The Bottom Line

Peeping Tom is something of a landmark of the genre, not just through blending blending psychological horror with a lurid slasher, but in it’s viscerally potent and immersive approach. This release includes a host of superb extras that go a long way to fleshing out the films influence, significance, and commentary. Criterion’s release gives a new lease of life to the visuals, but Peeping Tom is as bold and disconcerting now, as it ever was.

Peeping Tom is available on via Criterion 4K now

Previous post THE BIKERIDERS Explores the Depth of the American Man’s Soul
Next post CORMANIA!!! Two Cents Film Club Gazes Upon the Ill-Fated FANTASTIC FOUR (1994)