Peeping Tom Review
I passed a road accident the other day whilst travelling in a bus. All the other passengers were rubbernecking, staring at whatever carnage or interest they could find on the other side of the road. Yet I was not. I was watching them filling their visual boots, sating their unspoken desire for action, catastrophe and hints of their own mortality. It made me wonder who was the greater voyeur - my curious accidental companions or the distanced individual watching them from my seat.
Why we watch and the dark unpleasant motives that drive this compulsion are at the heart of Michael Powell's reflective film about a man who has almost become his own camera. Misunderstood and reviled at the time of its release, Peeping Tom turns the viewer's perspective back on itself. By following Mark Lewis and his desire to catch fear and consume through his artificial eye, we are forced to consider our own motives for doing so and our obvious similarities with a seemingly polite young man who just happens to murder out of his private madness and obsession.
Unlike the similarly focused tale of murder and peeping released in the same year, Hitchcock's Psycho, Powell's film of an elegant and morally complex Leo Marks script treats madness and destruction as rooted in a very human person. Mark Lewis is not wholly aberrant, he desires redemption, normality and love, and he lives in a world where other's predilections are hidden under the pretences of society and decorum. He is though a product of cinema - a focus puller whose interest in film is obsessive and hardwired from the Freudian machinations of his own father, played by the director himself.
Like the viewer compelled to watch Lewis, Lewis is compelled to capture and provoke his prey too. Through this parallel we are left to understand our collusion with a fellow voyeur, to question what we desire from what we are seeing and to see the same compulsions in the world around us and him. I think this is why Peeping Tom was so badly received when first released - it exposed hypocrisy, it revealed a lack of distance between monster and man and consequently shook viewers out of their complacency. And this shock became outrage as respectable people chose to see the project as glamorising evil rather than revealing humanity.
I think also that the film, like all of the Archer's work, is about something that is very British. Repression of desire, suppression of instinct and what goes on underneath the routines and rituals of our civility - Peeping Tom unearths the world around its serial killer and shows him as very much a product of his environment. Perhaps even more unnerving is the implication that our very reason for watching Mark is little different from that of his motive for murder or Powell's in presenting this film for us.
Which brings me back to the number 56 bus travelling slowly around ambulances and police cars. Mark's camera would certainly have been trained on the people's reactions on the upper deck like me, and Peeping Tom still has that power to reveal the viewer to him or herself as it did for me. Gaudy, far from glamorous and unquestionably British, Powell's work has outlived those who didn't want to see their own reflection and for new viewers will continue to hit home.
Peeping Tom has endured and will reward those who wish to rediscover it. A better, more coherent and honest film on why we need to watch has not been made.
Apologies for a lack of screenshots with this review (the images on the page are promotional stills), but this disc proved beyond my abilities to take them. Similarly, it absolutely refused to play ball with my HTPC which uses an LG BD drive. I have therefore had to review the visual quality on a much smaller screen than usual and beg the reader's indulgence with my comments on the visual quality. Firstly, the remastered transfer seems very well balanced in terms of colour with good saturation and reproduction of the gaudy unglamorous look of the film. Contrast also seems nicely judged with strong black levels and good variation within lighter shades. There does seem to be very minor support for edges which on a smaller display was much less of an issue for me, and the depth of detail and pristine representation of the image won me over to the argument that this is a good strong HD transfer.
The soundtrack offered is an uncompressed one and the greater depth offered by lossless sound is a revelation. Peeping Tom, for all its concentration on the visual, uses sound very well within its murder sequences and final moments and having a much more detailed audio track is a real blessing here. This mono option is as good as the film has sounded to me and I am grateful that surround mixes are not present.
This disc includes standard definition extras which were all offered on the last standard definition release from Optimum, and an HD trailer and restoration comparison. The disc is dual layer, region B encoded and about 70% used with a transfer file size of 25.6GB. Ian Christie's commentary is very scholarly and I have to admit that I was not a fan of this track previously and I remain un-persuaded now as it is a very dry bookish treatment. Christie contributes to the two featurettes ported over from the DVD release and these also include contributions from the lead, Martin Scorsese and Powell's widow Thelma Schoonmaker.
Scorsese’s introduction and appraisal of the film prove interesting enough and Powell's widow offers plenty of personal insight in an interview as well. Other extras which were included with the DVD release don't find their way over to this BD such as an interview with Leo Marks and an extract from Powell's autobiography. Those looking to replace that release or enjoying the documentary on the Criterion disc may question whether they can let go of their existing copies just yet.
A good transfer and cracking sound are the main reasons to catch this new Blu-ray of Powell's masterpiece which is also on limited re-release at the cinema from 19th November.