Peeping Tom, created by Michael Powell, one of cinema’s most revered directors, gained notoriety on its release in 1960. Alfred Hitchcock’s low-budget black and white shocker of the same year, Psycho, engrossed audiences the world over with its visceral violence and the way it played to the stalls with its rejection of commonly accepted narrative structure and adoption of psychological centralism. Peeping Tom mocked this naive view of psychological realism and made a case for a more rounded and complex perspective of psychosis, even implicating its own filmmaker in a way that Hitchcock’s cameos failed to do – as Michael Powell used his own super 8 footage to involve both himself and his subject (his own son) into the story. Peeping Tom failed at the time, dismissed as lurid, sleazy and without any artistic merit. Hitchcock remained the iconic figure that he is, even today, while Powell languished in stop-start obscurity. In the cold light of day (and with the benefit of much hindsight) Peeping Tom is clearly the more interesting, indeed modern, of the two films, despite its early Sixties trappings and deliberately vivid lighting.
Mark is an outsider – a respected photographer and cinematographer, working in the film industry or taking ‘girly’ shots for underground men’s magazines. His hobby is his passion, his camera an extension of himself and he cannot distinguish between his day-to-day work as a respectable cinematographer and his other job as a nudie photographer or, indeed, his hobby as voyeuristic stalker and murderer of prostitutes. Everything he does takes place under the unflinching gaze of his constantly rolling camera. In the shared house that he lives in, he is viewed as withdrawn and quiet. One of the tenants, Helen, is vulnerable but strong and befriends him. She will both redeem and destroy him.
It is the lighting and tone that makes Peeping Tom such a modern film – it is as sordid and mundane as its film-makers intended. Indeed the strength of the film lies in the way that the everyday hides a surface that is distasteful but accepted – something that everyone knows exists but no-one talks about; like the way that ‘respectable’ men enter normal newsagents to purchase pornography – something that was unacceptable in the mainstream but considered ‘normal’ in everyday society. Powell’s big problem was that he revealed a world of lasciviousness bubbling underneath the austere surface of respectability. In order to do this he needed a lead protagonist that was removed from the establishment – in this case Mark Lewis, a nondescript cameraman who takes his job seriously both in and outside work, and also someone who is clearly labelled as ‘other’, i.e. removed from social relations and inept at engaging with others. He is the quintessential outsider character that Hitchcock’s Norman Bates fails to be. Bates is a simple ‘psycho’, easily dismissed in terms that were just as suited to penny dreadful narratives many years previously, whereas Mark has a defined psychosis that is cold, logical and more reasoned than even later post-modern bogeymen like Hannibal Lector fail to aspire to. Mark is empathetic but not sympathetic in a way that Lector or Bates cannot begin to be and as such is a far more disturbing a killer than either. It is perhaps testament to Powell’s vision that the film still bears an 18 rating, if not viscerally then psychologically.
Peeping Tom is one of British cinema’s finest moments – a film despised, rejected and ignored but nevertheless is innovative, relevant, vibrant, gripping and complex. It’s the film that should have defined a new era in avant-garde – gutsy and bold national film-making that should have had the same effect that A bout de souffle (1960) and Les quatre cents coups (1959) did in France. It didn’t. Fifty years on it still is resolutely cinematic, defiantly different and psychologically complex in a way few other films can attempt to emulate. People use the term ‘masterpiece’ like it’s something you can buy in a candy store – Peeping Tom is the genuine item.
The Blu-ray transfer finally restores the vibrant colour and lurid cinematography that made the film so distinctive. This hasn’t looked as good since it was released in the cinema. Also included are a whole bunch of extras.