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The Essence Of Cinema,
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This review is from: Peeping Tom Special Edition [Blu-ray]  (Blu-ray)
Panned (and suppressed) on its release in 1960, resulting in the maligning of British cinema’s most unique talent, Michael Powell’s masterpiece is the sort of film which, if made 20 years later (or even today), would (I’m sure) be recognised by the critics as one of the medium’s all-time greats. And, although on face value it must have come as a shock to previous fans of Black Narcissus, A Matter Of Life And Death and The Red Shoes to witness this tale of Karlheinz Böhm’s troubled obsessive and voyeur, Mark Lewis, digging beneath the surface (as Martin Scorsese does in his introduction to the film on the 50th anniversary DVD) it is possible to discern similarities with, in particular, The Red Shoes’ tale of artistic obsession – albeit Powell takes this to the 'nth degree’ in Peeping Tom – as well as providing compelling (and, controversially, sympathetic) insights into the nature of sadism, fear, child 'abuse’, repression, heredity and even the influence of cinema (a 'killing camera’). Of course, the other major plus point of Powell’s film is the lush Eastmancolor cinematography of Otto Heller (he of The Ladykillers, Alfie and The Ipcress File fame), which is simply stunning on the digitally restored version.
Frankly, it’s a film which scores equally highly on both thematic and sensorial fronts, which (for me, certainly) dispels any superficial impressions of the film being 'dated’ (one or two hammy acting turns – mainly by 'doomed models’ – plus some dodgy 60s 'disco music’!). Leo Marks’ screenplay is acutely perceptive, pointing up society’s hypocrisy as the masses bemoan a prostitute’s grisly murder ('I can’t help thinking of that poor girl’) whilst 'girly pics’ adorn a newsagent’s window and 'dirty old men’ acquire under the counter brown packages. Powell’s film is, of course, also steeped in the man’s lifelong trade, as his film pitches Mark as focus puller in a film studio (filled, in a nice touch, with cantankerous directors and film buffs, 'You don’t get that in Sight & Sound’), as well as doing part-time ‘glamour photography’ on the side – and the director makes the film even more personal, casting himself as Mark’s cruel father (and his son Columba as the young Mark).
Acting-wise, Böhm is solidly impressive as the shy, softly spoken, 'perverted obsessive’, whilst (in another connection with The Red Shoes) Moira Shearer is reliable as the flighty studio 'stand-in’, Vivian, and Anna Massey also impressive as kindly 'society girl’, Helen Stephens, whose affections offer Mark a potential escape route from his nefarious world. In another cinematic masterstroke, Powell also cast the excellent Maxine Audley as Helen’s blind mother, providing Mark with a nerve-wracking 'dilemma of the senses’. Which brings us to heart of Powell’s film – its (still, to this day) terrifyingly realistic depiction of the nature of fear. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with Hitchcock here – as it is to be certain as to whether Leytonstone’s finest directly influenced Powell – but I am constantly reminded of the 'master of suspense’ throughout Peeping Tom (scenes such as the pencils falling from Mark’s pocket, the obsessive espying in the dark a courting couple, the blind Mrs Stephens’ 'reveal’ in Mark’s studio and Helen’s fascination with Mark’s projector (and the latter’s subsequent focus on the former’s watching, 'It’s just a film, isn’t it?’)).
Undoubtedly, a latter day masterpiece of the medium (plus the 50th anniversary DVD contains a plethora of interesting extras).