Peeping Tom (1960)

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Released 25-May-2004

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Thriller None
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1960
Running Time 97:12
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Michael Powell
Studio
Distributor

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Karlheinz Böhm
Moira Shearer
Anna Massey
Maxine Audley
Brenda Bruce
Miles Malleson
Esmond Knight
Martin Miller
Bartlett Mullins
Michael Goodliffe
Nigel Davenport
Jack Watson
Shirley Anne Field
Case ?
RPI $14.95 Music Brian Easdale
Angela Morley
Freddie Phillips


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.66:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Peeping Tom opens with a streetwalker propositioning an unseen man, who is surreptitiously carrying a small movie camera. He switches the camera on, and the rest of this scene is shown through the viewfinder, as the man follows the woman up the stairs to her room. She begins to undress, then realises something is wrong. The camera gets closer and closer to her until she screams in fear...

    The next morning a nervous young man enters a newsagency filled with girlie magazines. An embarrassed customer asks the proprietor if he has any "views". These turn out to be nude photos of women - remember, this is England, 1960. It turns out that the young man, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), is a photographer who has a sideline in girlie pictures shot in a room above the newsagency.

    Mark is also a focus puller on a film being made at a nearby studio. He lives on the upper floor of a big old house, with an alcoholic blind woman and her daughter Helen (Anna Massey) living in the rooms downstairs. Mark and Helen are attracted to each other, but he has a dark secret involving experiments his scientist father used to perform.

    Peeping Tom was a highly controversial film on initial release, and virtually ended the career of director Michael Powell. When compared with more recent films concerning serial killers, this film is quite tame. Before the 1980s, films about serial killers were relatively rare. Apart from films about famous killers like the French Bluebeard Landru, Jack the Ripper and the demon barber Sweeney Todd, most films dealing with repeat killers were either based on real life cases like that of Peter Kürten (M) or were black comedies (Arsenic and Old Lace, Monsieur Verdoux) and did not investigate the inner demons that drove these men to kill. 1960 seems to have been a banner year for multiple killers, with not only this film, but Psycho, Jack the Ripper and Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons. The previous year had seen an excellent German film called The Devil Comes Out At Night, dealing with the Bruno Lüdke case, but even this did not address the killer's motives.

    Powell's film deals with the inner urges that drives Mark to kill, and involves the audience by making him a sympathetic character. Much of the film is seen through his eyes, as through the viewfinder of his camera. Mark and the camera are inseparable throughout, as if their relationship is symbiotic rather than just operator and machine.

    Powell also portrays the seamy side of British life, the sexual repression of British culture that leads to perverse behaviour. His implication is that the crimes are sexual in nature, stemming from Mark's repression of the sexual side of his nature sublimated into a desire to watch, getting his satisfaction from the observation of others, not from his own involvement. He retains the images he sees like a camera, and in watching the films he has made of the killings he immerses himself in them as spectator, director and actor, and his own personality is submerged into the images.

    On the surface, this is just another sordid tale of a twisted killer. But Powell layers the film and structures the way the audience looks at it so that we become complicit in the events on screen. Because the leading character is portrayed as outwardly normal and charismatic, albeit shy, he gains our sympathy in spite of his crimes. With the crimes seen through his camera, we participate in them. We also have the effect of films within the film. Mark is making a documentary of his own life, filming not only the killings, but also the investigation as it inevitably leads towards him. At the same time, the film that he is working on, ironically called "The Walls Are Closing In", positions Mark in the role of audience member as he observes the director (Esmond Knight) berating his star (Shirley Ann Field) to the point of tears. This is counterpointed with the old home movies made by Mark's father, who also tortures his young son in much the same way. Powell plays the father himself in these scenes shot in the house that he grew up in, and the young Mark is played by his own son. In this way, we see that not only is Powell the unseen director of the film we are watching, but he is also the director of the film that is Mark's life, and we can draw the inference that the character of the director is also Powell.

    In this fashion, with the normal delineation between director, actor and audience blurred, we are made to feel that we are the peeping toms of the title, watching the film not as passive spectators but as voyeurs sharing Mark's affliction.

    The contribution of writer Leo Marks should not be overlooked. A code-breaker in World War II, Marks had regularly provided codes for agents behind the lines, and due to the high mortality rate of these operatives he had learned to view them impersonally, as though they were not human beings going to near certain death. This experience enabled him to draw a picture of a person who is distant and even dissociated from his fellow men. The script also contains codes and symbols that add hidden, almost subliminal meanings. More than one critic has asked whether "Mark Lewis" is code for "Leo Marks".

    Michael Powell had long been associated with the writer Emeric Pressburger under the banner The Archers. This film still bears their signature opening shot of an arrow hitting a target. By 1960 the duo had gone their separate ways.

    The critical reception to this film in Britain was overwhelmingly negative, if not hysterical, causing the distributor to pull the film from cinemas after only a week in release. It was many years before the film was rediscovered and appreciated for the masterpiece it is; Martin Scorsese seems to have had a lot to do with the revival of interest in Powell's work. It appears that critics were disturbed by the fact that the killer is a sympathetic figure, not realising that this is not the real thrust of the film. The force of the critical response suggests the effectiveness of Powell's realisation of his own view of cinema. The reception given to Peeping Tom affected his career badly. He found it hard to find work afterwards, even accepting offers to direct two films in Australia (They're a Weird Mob and Age of Consent).

    Carl Boehm (or Karlheinz Böhm as he is usually billed) gives a fine performance as the nervy, introverted Mark. The son of the famed conductor Karl Böhm, he has a noticeable German accent, which is not explained in the film. Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey had also been considered for the role, and it is tempting to think that Böhm was chosen because he had a prestigious father (and thus experience similar to that of Mark), or maybe because his voice is at times uncannily like that of Peter Lorre, portrayer of the child killer in M. Böhm resists the temptation to make the character a twitching monster and instead he is a relatively normal-seeming but shy man with uncontrollable passions. Anna Massey, who also had a famous father (actor Raymond Massey, who played the evil brother in Arsenic and Old Lace, oddly enough), is solid as Helen, and there is a fine supporting cast of familiar British actors, notably Maxine Audley as Helen's grotesque mother.

    This is an complex and disturbing film, one which requires repeated viewings to fully appreciate. This is the sort of release that cries out for an audio commentary and other extras that present the film in context and enable the viewer to understand the importance of this work. Not in Region 4, I'm afraid.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. This is not the original aspect ratio, which you can see from some of the opening credits being cropped at the sides. However, it seems that the original aspect ratio was 1.66:1, which suggests that it is cropped at the top and bottom as well. The action seems a little cramped as a result.

    The image is reasonably sharp and clear, but shadow detail is poor. It looks like the contrast has been boosted, with dark areas being too dark so that black hair and dark suits show little or no detail. The colour is reasonable. It looks like a lot of Eastmancolor British films of the period, with an unrealistically vivid colour palette. The colours seem a little oversaturated at times, but this may have been an artistic choice. The red blanket under which the first victim is carried to the ambulance is very, very bright red. This was probably deliberate to suggest blood, and it certainly stands out. Powell uses primary colours to suggest moods very well, and much of the film has a lurid look to it, as if to mirror the lurid underbelly of contemporary society. Or something like that. However, flesh tones do not always look completely convincing, so I suspect that this is not exactly how the the film should look.

    This transfer shows some significant problems with excessive noise reduction. The faces of the actors look smeared, with the smears moving slightly out of sync with the rest of the face. Two very noticeable instances of this artefact can be pointed out. During the opening sequence in the streetwalker's room, the flowers in the pattern on the wallpaper seem to quiver in relation to fixed objects within the room (from 2:22 onwards). Later at 22:13, the young Mark is shown in an old home movie sitting on a brick wall, the face of which appears to move as a fixed plane in relation to the rest of the image.

    The print material used was littered with small artefacts, such as dirt and small white flecks where the print is damaged. While there is never a shower of these artefacts, they are noticeable and sometimes distracting. The transfer is also quite grainy at times, and there is some telecine wobble.

    The film is presented on a single-layered disc with no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The sole audio track is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track, and to me this sounds like the original mono recording coming from two speakers instead of one. There is no surround or subwoofer activity discernable in Pro Logic mode.

    Audio quality is reasonable for a film of this vintage. Dialogue is clear throughout and I had no trouble understanding every line. There is no appreciable hiss or distortion. There is one instance of dialogue not matching the lip movements, probably due to the dialogue being looped afterwards. Otherwise, the audio sync is exemplary.

    The film has an excellent music score by Brian Easdale. Mostly this takes the form of a solo piano playing a sort of jazzy music, but there is also a jazz ensemble used for Moira Shearer's dance sequence, ostensibly played on her tape recorder. The score provides a sinister background for the action which is very effective.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    No extras are provided. I guess that this helps keep the price of these releases down, but this is one film where a detailed analysis, an exploration of the context in which it was made and the implications it had for the director and the British cinema in general would be welcome. The Region 1 Criterion edition detailed below provides the kind of extras that this film deserves.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    Peeping Tom has been released in Region 1 on the Criterion label. In this edition, the film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. The audio is Dolby Digital 1.0 and as extras it includes a photo gallery, original trailer, and most importantly, an audio commentary in essay style by Laura Mulvey and a new 50 minute documentary about the film and writer Leo Marks. Reviews indicate that the video transfer is of a higher quality than the Region 4, and high praise has been given to the documentary.

    The UK Region 2 version has Dolby Digital 1.0 sound and includes a photo gallery and cast and crew filmographies, plus is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.75:1.

    The Region 1 release seems to be a clear winner on all counts.

Summary

    An important and controversial film from an accomplished British film-maker, this has been presented on an acceptable but less than stellar DVD. If you are seriously interested in this film, you should investigate the Region 1 release.

    The video quality is a little disappointing.

    The audio quality is satisfactory.

    There are no extras.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Friday, May 21, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationYamaha RX-V596 for surround channels; Yamaha AX-590 as power amp for mains
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Richter Harlequin; Rear: Pioneer S-R9; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add)
Peeping Tom framing issues in R1 and R4 - REPLY POSTED