Region 2 (UK) Edition  [Optimum, 2007]

Director:  Michael Powell

Starring: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

Review by Richard Crowther


Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first – this is the film that killed Michael Powell’s career.

There, that’s that dealt with.

True, Powell would go on to make other films after Peeping Tom, including the fascinating Age of Consent in 1969 (now why hasn’t that one been released on DVD yet?), and he worked a lot in television too, but it’s safe to say he never again achieved the success and plaudits he received for masterpieces such as Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death.

But why did the critics and the public alike turn against Peeping Tom with such apparent unanimous vehemence and hatred? The explanation (excuse?) that many seem to conjure up with the benefit of hindsight is that Peeping Tom was simply ahead of its time. In a little over ten years, the cinema would be packed with serial killers films, depicting acts of physical and sexual depravity unparalleled in cinematic history up to that point. Ironically, had Peeping Tom been realised during that later time, it would doubtless have been labelled tame and dated in the extreme. Instead, it appeared in 1960, and as such, was totally unlike anything mainstream cinema audiences had seen before.

The film that Peeping Tom is most often compared with is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was released only a few months after Powell’s effort, in the summer of 1960. Hitchcock’s last black & white film, however, garnered a very different critical and commercial reaction.

But, other than the year of release, is there really anything to connect the two films? Well, yes, quite a lot in fact. Both films revolve around the machinations of a young man, a socially inept loner who is deeply traumatised by the punishments dealt out to him by his parent as a child. Both hold down respectable day jobs, whilst turning at night to voyeuristically gazing upon unsuspecting women (either by camera or by spy holes cut into walls), and both, in the end, commit multiple murders using a sharp implement in order to satisfy some kind of deep-rooted psychosis. Indeed, to extend the similarities further, both films use point-of-view shots to place the audience in the position of the murderer, further enforcing our complicity in the atrocities being committed. For Psycho’s Norman Bates, read Peeping Tom’s Mark Lewis, for Motel manager, read Focus Puller. The details may differ, but the broad strokes remain the same.

Ironically, it is another Hitchcock film that Peeping Tom reminds me of the most, namely Frenzy, and not just because of the location (London) and the casting of Anna Massey in both films. The almost nauseating atmosphere of dread created by both Peeping Tom and Hitchcock’s penultimate movie is disturbingly reminiscent of each other. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder if Frenzy was Hitchcock’s respectful nod to Powell for getting in there before him first time round. Sadly, the fact that Hitchcock pushes the more degrading moments in Frenzy much further than Powell did, almost to the point of being luridly exploitative (“lovely, lovely, lovely”), can’t help but make Frenzy feel like the inferior work, however marginally.

Peeping Tom, unlike Psycho, suffered heavily at the hands of the censor, with seven separate sequences having to be altered drastically to fit in with then-current BBFC policy. All of the murders had to be shortened, a conversation between two police officers was curtailed, and just about all of the nudity in the film was removed, leading to one particularly bad edit towards the end of the film, where we see a woman lying on a bed, draped in a flimsy negligee in one shot, then in the very next frame, the negligee is open, exposing her breasts. This last edit was possibly a result of the “if it’s nude and it moves, it’s out” or “the jiggle factor”, which led to many a moment of nudity being cut during this period. A film could depict nudity as long as it wasn’t too graphic, and as long as there wasn’t too much movement in the shot.

As far as I can see, none of the removed footage has made it back into any surviving cut of the film - this latest release is the same as all previous versions – meaning that it may well be lost forever. However, even in this heavily edited state, Peeping Tom still has, 47 years on, the power to unsettle the viewer in the most unexpected ways.

So, for the uninitiated, what is Peeping Tom actually about? Well, I’ve outlined the basic plot above, but briefly, it concerns a young man called Mark Lewis, focus puller by day, pornographer and keen cineaste by night. Without giving too much away, let me just say that he has a penchant for murdering young women with a spike attached to his 35mm cine camera, whilst filming their death throes in loving close up. He also has a mirror attached to the camera, to allow the women he slaughters a chance to watch their own final seconds as their life ebbs away. Fun for all the family, then!

Even as the net closes in on him, he can’t resist his sadistic urges, and continues his reign of terror, taking grater and greater risks in order to fully satisfy his need to capture the “beauty of death”. Will he escape capture? Will his seemingly endless quest for gratification ever be halted?

Think Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (which also used the notion of filming people as they are tortured and killed) for the 60s generation. The fact that, unlike that later film, Peeping Tom doesn’t dwell on the killings (though whether this is down to Powell’s sensitivities or the censor cuts, we may never know) is something to be applauded, but somehow merely serves to make what we do witness all the more unpalatable. For instance, there is far less blood on show in Powell’s creation than in Hitchcock’s smash hit of the same year but, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fifteen years later, it is what we aren’t shown that erodes our resolve far more effectively than what is.

Certified with a 15 certificate for the first time in the UK, it is interesting to note that an examiner who worked for the BBFC during the 90s, when Warner Bros first released Peeping Tom on video (in a full frame edition) has recently posted on the Powell & Pressburger Yahoo Group to explain that, initially, the film was going to be passed with a 15 certificate for home viewing, but that, due to the “notoriety” of the film, it was decided to raise the certificate to an 18, this despite the fact that, when the film was released to cinemas in 1960, it was given a certificate that only precluded anyone aged under 16 from seeing it.



Peeping Tom is presented in a slightly windowboxed anamorphic-enhanced edition, at an approximate ratio of about 1.73:1. The Criterion edition of a few years ago is labelled as being 1.66:1, which is the original theatrical ratio, but I’ve also seen it mentioned that, despite the cover’s claims, in truth, the film is actually presented in 1.78:1, so it might be that the framing is about equal on both discs. Unfortunately, I can’t compare the two releases. I can say, however, that the print Optimum are using for their release is very clean indeed, and surprisingly sharp, with little in the way of print damage, and the strong primary colours Peeping Tom is famous for virtually jump from the screen. Grain is kept to a minimum, only really becoming a problem during the film's photochemically-created cross-fades and dissolves. However, the lack of grain seems to have been achieved via a slight overuse of noise reduction, which is evident in the way that certain background objects seem to detach themselves from the rest of the image and float around the screen slightly. If you can ignore this slight imperfection (it’s not a constant problem throughout the film) then you will be rewarded with a very clean looking, vibrant image.


The original mono track is equally devoid of any real problems – clear, clean whilst obviously being representative of the time it was recorded.


First up, we have an option to watch the film with or without an introduction from Martin Scorsese, which lasts 2'03". There’s little to say here except that Scorsese’s obvious love for this film shines through, and he does make a good, if brief, case for Peeping Tom being a true classic of British cinema.

Next, we are provided with a commentary by Ian Christie. Unfortunately, whilst there is much information to be gleaned from the track and very little in the way of dead air, it is a tad too dry for my tastes and Christie does tend to fall into the trap of merely describing what we can see on the screen. However, he clearly knows London very well, since he gives us a comprehensive rundown of where all the locations used in the film are situated, and how much they have changed over the years, if at all. Please note that the commentary starts over the somewhat incongruous Studio Canal logo, so don’t fast forward through it.

Next up, two featurettes. The first, called Eye of the Beholder (18'46") briefly covers Powell’s career and the making of Peeping Tom itself, with contributions from, amongst others, Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, as well as Powell’s son.

The second featurette (24'53") is labelled as The Strange Gaze of Mark Lewis on the menu, but The Strange Look of Mister Lewis on the documentary itself. I suspect this is actually a French-sourced documentary, since a lot of footage is in French (English subtitles are provided) and the title of the documentary itself is presented on a very simple black screen, in plain white text (presumably a replacement card for the original French titles). That might explain why there are two different versions of the title, though I would suspect that the one on the front of the documentary is the most accurate translation. This featurette examines the impact of the film from a European perspective and again looks at the way in which it was received both at the time of release and now. Just as interesting in its own way as the previous featurette, it even provides some fascinating anecdotes, including that fact that Dirk Bogarde was originally offered the part of Mark Lewis, but turned it down as he didn’t want to play a “child molester” [sic]. One does have to wonder if he understood the script at all. I did spot one small error, however; mention of Shirley Anne Field’s involvement in the film is illustrated with a clip of Pamela Green.

Next up is a ten-minute interview with Powell’s widow, Thelma Schoonmaker. This is a touching, affectionate take from Thelma, detailing Powell’s career and own reaction to Peeping Tom (it would seem that, whilst he was proud of the film, even he didn’t consider it to be amongst his best work). We also learn that it was Scorsese who introduced Thelma to Michael.

The penultimate extra on the disc is a gallery, consisting of fourteen black & white behind-the-scenes photographs depicting the making of Peeping Tom, all of which are annotated, but unfortunately, they are presented so small that they lose some of their value.

The final extras on the disc are four trailers. The first is for Peeping Tom itself. Battered, but with those primary colours still shining through, this is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, as are all the trailers on the disc. The other three trailers are for the original version of The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now and Hammer’s remake of Quatermass and the Pit, all available now from Optimum.

Finally, the release comes with a nicely illustrated booklet contain a critique of the film by reviewer Ryan Gilby, an excerpt from Michael Powell’s autobiography, and an interview with reclusive scriptwriter Leo Marks, taken from the Faber publication of the Peeping Tom screenplay.

The packaging is a simple keep-case with outer slipcase (with a keyhole-shaped hole cut into it, allowing the eye on the cover to peer through at us), and a giant sticker advertising the “New Introduction by Martin Scorsese”, presumably to tie in with his recent Oscar win. Anything that could help the sales of this unfairly overlooked film should be considered welcome.

The Criterion set, first released back in 1999, contained an audio commentary from Laura Mulvey, a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, the Channel 4 documentary A Very British Psycho, and the original theatrical trailer. I haven’t heard the commentary, but have read one or two negative comments about it elsewhere, and my vague recollection of the Channel 4 documentary is that, whilst worth its weight in gold at the time of broadcast, there is very little reason to mourn its lack of inclusion on the Optimum disc, since the documentaries, commentary and booklet that are included pretty much cover the same ground, albeit spread out across the release in a manner that is less easily digestible in one sitting.

I have also seen mention of the fact that the same noise reduction problems (with certain objects floating about the screen) are also evident on the Criterion print, thus further improving the Optimum release’s standing.


Ultimately, Peeping Tom stands as a film that you owe yourself to experience at least once, especially if you have any interest at all in the history of the British film industry. Whether you come back for repeat viewings will depend entirely upon your constitution. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

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