Color, 1960, 101 mins.

Directed by Michael Powell

Starring Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley, Brenda Bruce, Miles Malleson / Music by Brian Easdale / Cinematography by Otto Heller / Written by Leo Marks

Format: DVD - Criterion (MSRP $39.95)

Letterboxed (1.66:1) / Dolby Digital Mono

For anyone who watches movies on a regular basis, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom is bound to be an unsettling experience. The basic conceit of the film is quite simple: a seemingly normal but unbalanced photographer, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), kills beautiful women with a spiked camera tripod while filming their horrified reactions at the moment of death. However, he also shows the victims something off camera as they die, and only in the last five minutes does the viewer learn what it is. Like most of Hitchcock's films, Peeping Tom pries into the viewer's voyeuristic impulse and turns it back on the audience, though in this case, British critics revolted and drove the film from theaters, effectively ruining the career of its once esteemed director.

Set in modern day London, an environment which encourages the pornography industry inside quaint looking buildings, the film follows Mark as he does his day to day work photographing women for girlie photo spreads. At night, Carl kills the occasional model or prostitute, then films the police investigations the next day. To his neighbors, he seems like a nice, quiet chap, and a young girl, Helen (Frenzy's Anna Massey), develops a crush on him. Helen's blind aunt (Maxine Audley) knows better, of course, but can't put her finger on what makes Mark such an unusual guy. He provides a clue to Helen when he reveals that his own father (played by Powell - talk about disturbing casting!) would perform sadistic psychological experiments with film on his young son, and the results have left the poor photographer quite psychologically damaged.

Though condemned as a sadistic piece of trash by British critics at the time, Peeping Tom developed a steady cult following over the years before a U.S. theatrical reissue thanks to Powell devotee Martin Scorsese. Most home viewers could only locate the film on VHS through a lackluster Canadian edition from Admit One; fortunately, Criterion rectified the situation with their colorful, handsome laserdisc special edition. The running time of Peeping Tom has been the object of some dispute over the years, with the original press materials reporting it as 109 minutes. The original U.S. release prints were reportedly trimmed down to 86 minutes, though this variant is impossible to locate now, and the 101 minutes at which it actually runs now appears to be the true complete edition. Criterion's DVD presents the British cut in an even more gorgeous rendition, anamorphically enhanced and featuring some astoundingly rich color photography. The opening scene, a precursor of Marnie, features a delibrately artificial street set bathed in pools of unnatural colored lighting, and the effect on DVD is eyepopping. A few of the exterior daylight scenes betray the film's age thanks to a muddy skin tone here or there, but it's safe to say that outside of a theater, this film simply won't look better.

Considering its reputation, Peeping Tom is a surprisingly restrained and contemplative film, with no gore or sex actually depicting on camera. Horror fans may be frustrated by the lack of visceral thrills, and like Psycho, the deliberate pacing may take some adjustments for anyone expecting a terrorfest. The film's sympathetic depiction of the killer provoked outrage in the '60s but has become far more common now (for better or worse), and Boehm (who later worked for Rainer Werner Fassbinder!) makes an effectively vulnerable, complex cinephilic figure. The DVD goes some way towards shedding some light on the creation of this peculiar and fascinating film, thanks largely to the inclusion of A Very British Psycho, a superlative 1997 documentary (50 mins.) commissed by Britain's Channel Four. Devoted to the creation of Peeping Tom and the life of its screenwriter, Leo Marks, this is brisk, fascinating viewing, crammed with odd and unusual details about the various themes and life experiences which led a one time World War II codebreaker to write such a challenging, unorthodox screenplay. Boehm, Massey, and Marks all appear for new interview segments, and the film even includes some modern day looks at the areas in which the film was shot. In comparison, the commentary by feminist scholar and "gaze" expert Laura Mulvey (also present on the laserdisc) simply pales to nothing; her readings of the film, already soundly trashed in Video Watchdog, require no summary here; simply put, it's probably the weakest track Criterion produced (and she sounds distractingly like Eileen Daly at times). Too bad Scorsese wasn't on hand to provide some genuine factual and critical insight into the project. The DVD also includes the lengthy original British theatrical trailer (not to mention a depressingly lackluster package design).

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