Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: Peeping Tom: Criterion (1960)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

A frank exploration of voyeurism and violence, Michael Powell's extraordinary film is the story of a psychotic camerman--his childhood traumas, sexual crises, and murderous revenge. Reviled by critics upon its initial release for its deeply unsettling subject matter, the film has since been hailed as a masterpiece.

Director: Michael Powell
Cast: Carl Bohm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1/16x9; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 27 chapters; rated NR; 111 min.; $39.95; street date 11/9/99.
Supplements: Audio Essay by Renowned film theorist Laura Mulvey; Stills Gallery of rare behind-the-scenes production notes; "A Very British Psycho," directed by Chris Rodley: the Channel 4 U.K. documentary about the life of screenwriter Leo Marks, as well as the making and critical reception of Peeping Tom; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/B/C-

Peeping Tom was the film that apparently ruined Mike Powell's career. It opened, played in theaters for a week and then was suddenly pulled out. Critics basically all spat upon it, calling it trash, wishing for it to burn and that in turn drove away audiences. And the audiences that did see it considered it disgusting. The movie was then basically thrown in a deep cellar never to be spoken of again.

Not until Martin Scorsese (a huge Powell fan) found it and then re-released it.

And boy does time change. Watching it now, it's amazing how narrow-minded people could be back then. Of course, now, the movie has very little shock value left to it. If you look back at this time period, late 50's, early 60's, movies considered extremely shocking are not really shocking today. Psycho, while it still has a couple chills, is nowhere near as bad as it was when it first opened. And I think Peeping Tom is even less shocking.

The movie tells the story of Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a cameraman working at a fairly big movie studio (which I'm going to guess is supposed to be Pinewood studios). His whole life he has been fascinated by film and filming. When he was young, his father gave him a camera. Mark looked at everything in the world through this camera and it sort of becomes his best friend and escape.

Mark has a very dark side, though. He goes around and murders women with his sharpened tri-pod leg, catching their death on film. He can then watch it over and over again, getting a sort of sick thrill from it. Okay, there are a few disgusting elements still.

One of the things that turned people off about the film is that Mark was made to be a sympathetic character. He was sick, and he knew he needed help. He couldn't help it, of course, his father recording and watching him everyday, rubbing off on him. This approach is still a little questionable today I think, but he's never made to be really likeable. He is a voyeur, seeming to always distance himself from his crimes through the camera. I think this makes him more cowardly a character and in turn making him less likeable. The character goes a little deeper than that, though, as many symbols are given. His choice of a tripod leg for a murder weapon on his women victims is an obvious masculine symbol. The guy has a little sexual tension building up in him I'm sure.

There is a love story between him and a new tenant in his house, Helen (Anna Massey). I can't actually buy this bit, especially after she finds out that Mark is a killer. Of course, maybe then it was more acceptable. I don't know. But most women today would be out of there screaming.

Powell does some nice things with the film. The opening sequence is a POV shot of Mark through his camera as he approaches a hooker, follows her to her room and then murders her. His choice to finally show Mark is good, making sure that when we first see him he has a camera to his face, so then we always link him to the camera. And his choice to cast Moira Shearer (who was a fairly big star) as one of the ill-fated victims is a genius stroke (Hitchcock would do the same type of thing with Janet Leigh in Psycho). This makes the one killing even more shocking. Powell even has some fun poking at the major studios and their major movies. One of the subplots involves Mark working as the focus-pointer on a major studio movie. The movie is supposed to be a big thing but looks like nothing at all original or thought provoking, just some movie to get people in to spend money. Powell adds a funny moment when the main actor discovers the body of one of Mark's victims on the set.

If you're reading the above and are unsure if I like it or not, it is because I'm kind of in between there. The acting is good and the main character is absolutely intriguing. Its play on reality and fiction and its representation of a thin line between the two is effective. If I have any problems it's because I didn't find it overly shocking. Made me think but didn't shock. The film had an obvious impact on audiences back in 1960, but today (especially after movies like Se7en) we've seen far worse. As well, Psycho, a movie from the same year works a little better than Peeping Tom in the shock department. And Peeping Tom's ending is not executed well. It is rather laughable. I think it was more the acting in the scene than anything else. Done a little differently and it would work.

As I said, the film was pulled from theaters very quickly and ruined Powell's career. (NOTE: Hitchcock did not allow critics to see Psycho in advance out of fear he would suffer the same fate.) It was then buried away somewhere for a long time. Scorsese unearthed it and had it play again at the New York film festival. It wasn't truly available until the Criterion Collection released its laserdisc in 1994. Now they have released it on DVD. Yet again, I have not seen the laser edition, but I'm guessing this DVD isn't exactly the same.

The DVD:

The film is presented on a single-sided, dual-layered disc. The image is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and get a load of this!! Enhanced for widescreen TV's. Wow! But the image is not perfect. I think most of it can be contributed to the print but I'm sure more work could have been done. Generally, the picture is bright but on average it's fairly soft and hazy. The print suffers from grain most of the time and the black levels are pretty off. Once in a while the picture looks pretty good but it does show it's age. While it could be because this film has been sitting in God-Only-Knows-Where, I think a little bit of work could still have been done on it.

The mono track is very good, though. The music has a bit of a kick to it and never comes off too hard. The dialogue is quite intelligible, which is actually quite amazing in my opinion. Carl Boehm has a fairly thick accent (I think it helps him seem a little more creepy) but I was able to make out every word he said. This is true in everyone's case. I also didn't notice any background scratches, hisses or noise in general. So, all in all, it is a good mono track.

Supplements are sparse and for me, of very little interest. If there is one thing I hate reading on the back of a Criterion jacket it is "Audio Essay". Ugh. The shivers. Out of all the commentaries I have ever heard, anything with the title "Audio Essay" are usually very painful. Why? Because they're exactly what's stated. I like commentaries where production design is pointed out or stories are told, or even little things like a story about the guy who got the coffee. In my experiences with Audio Essays, only once in a while is there anything mentioned falling into one of those categories. Most of the time they state the obvious or what one shot should mean to the viewer and the whole "poetry" of the film or some crap like that. I'm not saying I don't see anything special in films or gain my own sense of "poetry" or whatever from a movie, but I don't need anyone telling me what some chains in the foreground mean or what one of the victims looking at Mark through another camera means. As far as we know this wasn't the intention of Powell at all. Maybe it was, but I like deriving things on my own. I didn't listen to the whole thing because it was fairly flat, but I think that be able to give a hint of its appeal to you, the reader. Maybe some people will like it but not this guy here. The commentary is by Laura Mulvey, a film theorist, and I am not trying to "dis'" her, do not get me wrong. I can't say she is wrong because this is how she saw it, I just prefer anecdotes and interesting facts on my commentary tracks, and not someone naming me all the symbols and what they mean (who also found Pleasantville's track irritating in this regard?). This track is something I'm not going to bother with again.

You also get a documentary. I'm just going to take a wild stab in the dark here, but I'm guessing this bit wasn't on the laserdisc since it seems to be copyrighted 1997. It's about Peeping Tom and it's creators. Well, more of its writer than anything else. I was somewhat disappointed with this documentary because it focused more on the writer, Leo Marks and his bit in the military rather than the film itself. I did find Marks life interesting but I wanted a little more on the scandal of the movie. It covers this a bit but not that much I found, or at least to my liking. Even Michael Powell is given only a back spot in this documentary.

You then get some basic extras like a theatrical trailer (which they oddly chose not to enhance) and some photo stills with a couple notes. The trailer actually makes the movie look like a slasher movie, something that should have been reconsidered since I'm sure that's what most people were expecting. The photo gallery is okay, giving us a couple shot on the set and of Powell. Nothing special, though.

The movie itself is intriguing if not overly shocking. It has some good ideas and is fairly well shot by Powell. I am just not that big a fan of it. As for Criterion's disc, I also have mixed feeling about it. The mono track is good, but the picture and supplements are disappointing. I can only recommend the disc to fans or a rental to those who are interested.

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