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Peeping Tom (Blu-ray)

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Michael Powell
Karlheinz Böhm
Anna Massey
Moira Shearer
Michael Goodliffe
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 Among those of us who have grown into adulthood nurturing a fondly held devotion to the horror and fantasy genres, maintaining it long after most sensible people have relegated such concerns to a very trivial pleasure at most -- I would hazard a guess that there have been moments in our film  viewing “careers” (probably at an age when we were still young enough to be susceptible to the process)  when we have been confronted by a certain scene or an image from cinema's darkest underworld of nightmares that seemed to hold an almost indefinable terror that somehow exceeded the usual stock devices for affecting an audience; these moments can feel as though they pry almost too deeply into the rawest, most tender corners of our psyches, and confront us with the unusual and unique power of the genre to unnerve in a disturbingly profound way.

 For me, one such instance occurred during the first half of Michael Powell’s infamous “Peeping Tom”: the shy, isolated, duffel coat-wearing cineaste antihero of the movie, Mark Lewis, has just admitted one of his downstairs tenants, Helen Stephens, into his darkroom sanctum. This young vivacious redhead is tentatively pursuing an innocent but romantically inclined friendship with Mark -- a boyishly handsome but nervous and remote figure. She spies Mark’s 16mm projector and screen, and asks to see some of his “work”.

 Instead, Mark shows her a short cine-film, shot by his own father, which depicts the young man as a child.

‘A home movie!’ declares Helen, smiling with innocent delight; but as this home movie unfolds it takes on a decidedly sinister aspect: the intrusive camera shows the young, frail Mark more as a detached experimental subject than as a son who is loved by a father, and the experiments are of a cold, unforgiving nature, remotely cataloguing Mark’s responses to a variety of fear-inducing situations: we see him woken by torchlight in the middle of the night, and tormented when a lizard is dropped onto his bed; and, perhaps, most disturbingly of all, his father coolly films Mark visiting the corpse of his recently deceased mother!

 Without showing anything really unpleasant, Powell creates an extremely uncomfortable atmosphere in this sequence; the sense that one is watching something real, and beyond the pale, and which carries an element of the snuff movie, is conjured here with more clarity than even the moments elsewhere in the movie when we are viewing scenes of Mark’s impossible quest to film the ultimate moment of fear on the face of his victims, captured just before the final seconds of their deaths at the sharpened point of his camera’s tripod. Mark’s home movie depicts a kind of sadism by cinema; and the result of his father's experiments in cold behaviourism is all too clear to the viewer. We can see Mark observing Helen's growing puzzlement and fear as she experiences the film, but -- not for the first time in the movie -- we are forced to examine our own complicity in the spectacle; the viewer swaps position during the course of the sequence: we start it as a viewer of a home movie -- much like Helen -- and end-up taking the same detached view of Helen's particular response to the images she sees on the projector screen: just as Mark's farther has clearly trained his son to do so well!

 For me, it is the above described sequence from “Peeping Tom” which is the kind of cinematic moment that retains its ability to evoke a penetrating chill that seems to transgress into uncomfortable areas usually ignored or skirted around. Non-fans of the Horror genre can, perhaps, never quite understand the perverse exhilaration that accompanies these key experiences of vicariously produced fear by film; but the experience of watching “Peeping Tom” for the first time is rendered particularly more acute by the obvious fact that it echoes the deepest themes of the movie itself.

 If any one thing expresses this mind-bogglingly recursive reflexivity of the movie, it is its opening sequence. An eye opens; a hidden camera starts to film. Through the cross-hairs of a viewfinder, in indecently vivacious Eastman Colour, we follow a prostitute to her dingy upstairs flat in some London Soho back-street of the late-fifties, pausing only to dispose of an empty box of Kodak film in a dustbin outside. Suddenly, we are now inside the flat. As the prostitute undresses, the camera suddenly loses its “cinematic” quality for a split second: it jiggles, slides out of focus, and then resumes its detached gaze, this time with a bright light shining into the face of what has now become a murder victim. Then we cut to a photographer's darkroom, and the same piece of film is playing once-more, un-spooling on its viewer's projector in grainy black-and-white. This time we are watching the watcher and viewing his anticipation, his excitement; and, no doubt, reflecting uneasily on our own very similar feelings, though secretly confident that the whole thing is a particularly talented filmmaker's artifice.

 If this was all, then perhaps we wouldn't still be watching and talking about “Peeping Tom” all these years later. But Michael Powell and Leo Marks (the movie's screenwriter) do something that still seems unbelievably perverse and brave. Far from marginalising the serial killing filmmaker, they humanise him; more than this they make us identify with him. You people who watch movies, they seem to say, and we who make them, occupy just one end of a sliding scale that leads all the way down to Mark Lewes's pathological maladjustment. Just how far along that scale each of us is, only we individually can decide. If one views Mark's project as a metaphor and as a warning about the seductive nature of cinema, perhaps many of us are further along the scale than we think!

But Powell’s movies have always expressed ambivalence about the relationship between art and life: since one without the other is unthinkable, and sometimes art is worth dying for. Or so seemed to say one of Powell’s other cinematic masterpieces, “The Red Shoes”.

 With this in mind, Powell sets about drawing us into the mind of Mark Lewis through very psychologically manipulative and insidious means. The film plies the viewer with a series of in-jokes such as when Mark revisits the scene of the prostitute's murder to film the reaction of the crowds. He merges with the newspaper photographers, telling a policeman he's from “The Observer”! This light-hearted tone, which immediately follows on from the disturbing opening scene, may be one of the factors which accounts for the vitriolic denunciation of the film by the critics of the time, a reaction that ended Michael Powell’s film-making career in Britain. Today, the film offers a fascinating historical glimpse into late-50s life in the more downmarket areas of the seedy side of London, but this believability must have been another factor which sat uncomfortably with contemporary critics. The film highlights the hypocrisy of the times, which nowadays seems almost comical, but must have rankled with many at the time. Today we know that it was the emerging middleclass prosperity of this postwar age of affluence which contributed the most to the growth in popularity of pornography in the fifties; and of Soho’s development from the semi innocence of the world of illicit, almost quaint 16 mm films and flowery ‘glamour’ shots we see in the film, to the glitzy private cinema clubs and Revuebars of the sixties and beyond. We also know now that one of the reasons this culture flourished for so long was largely because of widespread police corruption: the Obscene Publications Squad at the time was actually in business with the distributors of much of this material! Powell’s casting of Pamela Green as the model at Mark’s glamour shoot assignment is even more evocative of the era for us today, since she was the star of many of the 16 mm nudie shorts and glamour stills of her husband Harrison Marks, who (rather ironically) later went into the film industry as a director in association with Tony Tensor of Tigon Films.

 “Peeping Tom” is always a clever film, a playful film -- even as it deals with such lurid subject matter. It switches from realistic, docudrama grittiness one moment to hyper-real studio-bound tableaux the next. Comedy and uneasiness mix in unsettling ways, in everyday situations -- such as the scene where Miles Malleson (inveterate old dodderer of the British film industry) furtively flips through a newsagent's under-the-counter pornography while a rosy-faced young schoolgirl buys sweeties only inches from him, and while one of the glamour models in these prints waits impatiently in the news vendor's upstairs flat for Mark to arrive so he can photograph a new set of these saucy prints: a process they are both (amusingly) utterly bored by!

But the film is also achingly romantic, as well as wryly comic. Mark’s quest to fulfil his mad, immoral project is treated with understanding; as an extension of the film-makers’ art. But his desperate, fumbling, ultimately futile attempt to seize the chance of a proper rounded human relationship, offered by his involvement with Helen and her Magic Camera children's story, is the crux that draws the conventional viewer, as well as the knowing cineaste, into a sympathetic alliance with the killer. The two main leads,  Karlheinz Böhm and Anna Massey  (daughter of Powell & Pressburger stalwart Raymond Massey), do an exemplary job in creating two -- in different ways -- needy, lonely and humanly flawed characters; their performances offer an emotional route into a film that could have been merely a clever game with images and cinematic reflexivity. Instead it becomes also a moving tragedy about two people attempting to find each other as they struggle through a thicket of insuperable psychological hooks and barbs caused by some (to put it mildly!) classically bad parenting techniques.  

 Powell’s problem with the critics can be put down to the director's inability to anticipate the sheer power of his masterful film creation's effect on an audience -- ironic, seeing as how his film is about a man's addiction to the power of the world rendered as image. Not only the sympathetic portrait of a murderer, but also Powell’s own playfulness with the material, and the fact that such heavyweight themes are being dealt with through the medium of an unashamed thriller that thrives on its garish Eastman colour landscape and a robust, melodramatic piano score by Brian Easdale (which sounds almost like the underscore accompaniment to a silent movie) lends the film an irreverent air that obviously struck most British critics at the time as verging on the immoral. The qualities of subtlety and refinement that the film also displays probably only made things worse, and struck them as being horribly inappropriate.

 When Moira Shearer’s short-lived character Viv is creeping through an empty film studio at night and the Gothic atmosphere of the scene -- with its vivid crimson-and-blue gel lighting (anticipating the work of Mario Bava) -- is portrayed as being the manipulation of the “director” inside the film, with the revelation to the viewer of Mark clambering about in the rafters, adjusting the lighting as Viv makes her way through the maze of bold colour blocks he is organising; or when the difference between Viv’s acted terror for Mark's camera, and her real terror, when she realises that he really does mean to kill her, become indistinguishable and therefore “ruin” Mark's film …  these moments must have appeared just too sophisticated for such unpalatable material. Of course, today, the kind of histrionic demolition at the hands of British critics that the film was subjected to, would probably have been proudly emblazoned on every poster and advertisement in the land, probably ensuring a major hit in the process. Most modern horror directors would kill to be the subject of lines such as: 'this is the sickest and filthiest film I can remember seeing’ (the Spectator), or ‘the only satisfactory way to dispose of “Peeping Tom” would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer; even then the stench would remain!’ (Tribune). Unfortunately for Powell, his film wasn't blessed with modern marketing techniques: the film was buried by this overwhelming hostility and sank without trace having barely played in theatres.

 The reaction of the critics and the psychology behind the film make up the content of the bulk of the extras on the new Blu-ray Special Edition released by Optimum Releasing in time for the 50th Anniversary of the film’s original release. Martin Scorsese, who submitted the film to the New York Film Festival in 1979 and helped finance its re-emergence after decades of obscurity by organising its re-release, contributes a short introduction; his editor (and widow of Michael Powell) Thelma Schoonmaker talks eloquently for ten minutes about Powell and the background to the film. The French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier takes part in a 25 minute French-made documentary about the history of the film’s disappearance from circulation and its gradual rediscovery by a new generation of French film critics in “The Strange Gaze of Mark Lewis”. This is typically French in style and contains lots of verbose psychological theorising and an interesting comparison with Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.  

British film historian Ian Christie is one of your guides in the 18 minute featurette “The Eye of the Beholder”, along with Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese. In it, Powell’s long career in the British film Industry is discussed, and his fall from grace after the critical savaging received by “Peeping Tom” is dissected. Christie also provides a nice little commentary track that examines the film minutely without getting too heavy-handed, and draws attention to the film's modernity by comparing it to the other entries in Britain's flourishing new Horror genre at the time, namely the rise of Hammer Films’ Technicolor period Gothics!

There is a garish, excitable trailer and a stills gallery of behind-the-scenes shots that comes with explanatory captions, plus a restoration comparison that splits the screen into two halves which show the vast improvements made to the imagery by the new transfer.  The Blu-ray transfer is indeed a noticeable improvement on all previous releases. For a start the ghosting effects which plagued all previous DVD versions are no longer a problem and the film’s delightfully garish Eastman colour scheme has never looked so seering, vivacious and solid. The mono audio is clear and stable with the whole presentation bringing the film’s peculiar visual mix of bright, affluent, late-fifties optimism and downmarket vulgar seediness to life with more immediacy than ever before. This is an essential upgrade for all fans of this important film.

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