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Peeping Tom   A-

The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment

Year Released: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Cast: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson, Esmond Knight, Martin Miller, Michael Goodliffe, Jack Watson, Shirley Ann Field, Pamela Green.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Peeping Tom was released in Britain in 1960, only to vanish from theaters a week or so later. It was so despised by critics and audiences that it was yanked from the big screen and ended the career of director Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). The film would probably be buried in a dusty vault somewhere today if Martin Scorsese hadn't resurrected it by sponsoring revivals and restorations of the film in the late 1970s. Scorsese was among the first to hail the film as a masterpiece, but others soon followed suite. And with the Criterion Collection's excellent DVD of the film now widely available, Peeping Tom isn't likely to be forgotten again anytime soon.

The film is about a meek cameraman named Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), who has a job as a focus puller at a local movie studio and moonlights as a photographer for nudie magazines. Mark takes his 16mm movie camera with him everywhere and spends nights watching his footage in the projector room at the back of his apartment. Mark soon becomes involved with a cute girl named Helen (Anna Massey) who lives in his building; this is probably the first romantic relationship he's ever had. Mark's shy and a bit strange, while Helen's friendly and curious.

And -- gee, I nearly forgot to mention that Mark likes to photograph women with his movie camera as he stabs them to death with a blade concealed on the leg of his tripod.

But Mark's not a bad guy, really. It's just that he's a bit disturbed. As a child, his father would wake him up at night by shining lights in his eyes and throwing lizards on his bed and filming his terrified reactions. Young Mark never had a moment's privacy, his actions always being recorded on film -- even at his mother's deathbed.

It's easy to see why people were so offended by Peeping Tom when it was first released. The film gives us a main character who's a psychopathic murderer and makes us sympathize with him (even while we're repulsed his actions). Mark seems more like a victim than a monster. The things he does are terrible, sure, but it's tough not to sympathize with the poor guy. It's amazing that in 1960, director Michael Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks had the guts to make a movie where the main character is a sympathetic psychopath.

Peeping Tom's themes of voyeurism and its dark relationship with cinema had been previously toyed with in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and subsequently explored by the likes of Brian De Palma with Sisters (a film that even pays a winking homage to this film with a game show called "Peeping Toms"). Nonetheless, Peeping Tom probably remains the definitive film about the voyeuristic nature of cinema and its affects on the human psyche.

While Peeping Tom may have been ahead of its time -- and it still holds up surprisingly well today -- it's lost some of its edge over the years. It's a bit unsettling, sure, but not as disturbing as it probably was 40 years ago. The beautifully executed opening scene -- in which Mark eyes up a hooker on the street at night and follows her up to her room to kill her -- is shot almost entirely from the point-of-view of Mark's camera. In a way, the murders in the film implicate the viewer in Mark's crimes by showing them mostly through the lens of his camera. Well, none of the murders are shown in graphic detail (this is 1960, remember?), since there's usually a quick cutaway after the initial screaming starts.

The romantic side of Peeping Tom is wonderfully tragic and the relationship between Mark and Helen is oddly touching. As Mark falls for Helen, he vows to never photograph her with his camera. "Whatever I photograph," he says, "I always lose." Well, hmm, I wonder why.

The Criterion Collection has done a terrific job with the Peeping Tom DVD (but has there ever been a Criterion DVD that sucked?). The widescreen transfer is excellent and the rich Technicolor images are a marvel to behold. The audio commentary track has an "audio essay" by film theorist Laura Mulvey, which staggers between semi-interesting and semi-dull. But the fascinating 50-minute documentary A Very British Psycho makes up for the commentary. The doc includes interviews with critics who panned the film when it was first released and also focuses on screenwriter Leo Marks and the ideas that influenced him in writing the film. It's an intriguing watch. Also included on the DVD are behind-the-scenes production stills and the original theatrical trailer. The trailer is pretty funny, by the way, with silly announcer voice-overs: "Look out! Look out! LOOK OUT! Take care, for you are now alone with a killer!"

There's no doubt that Michael Powell's Peeping Tom was ahead of its time, but it probably wouldn't disturb audiences much today. Of course, it's still a great and important film filled with often brilliant camerawork and direction, stunning Technicolor images, an effective score, and, of course, a memorable performance by Carl Boehm as one of the most pitiful and sympathetic psycho-killers you'll ever meet in the movies.

Review published 02.04.2001.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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