Saturday, October 07, 2023

Peeping Tom: inside the restoration of Michael Powell’s shocking serial killer drama

If you associate Michael Powell with lush Technicolor dreams or spirited love stories and adventures, then Peeping Tom (1960) will undoubtedly come as a shock. Made three years after he and Emeric Pressburger parted company, Powell’s portrait of a serial killer stars Karlheinz Böhm as the young cameraman who murders women with the sharpened end of his tripod while capturing their agonised final moments on film. The way Powell implicates the viewers’ own voyeurism makes it a uniquely disturbing and provocative experience.

When critics saw Peeping Tom, the response was instant and vitriolic. The film was an aberration, a stain on the reputation of its great director, and the best thing for everyone would be for it to be disposed of and forgotten as quickly as possible. As Michael Powell wrote in his memoirs, the film’s producers gave the critics what they wanted: “They yanked the film from the Plaza, they cancelled the British distribution, and they sold the negative to an obscure black-marketeer of films who tried to forget it, and forgotten it was, along with its director, for twenty years.”

Thankfully, Powell lived to see the critical tide turn on Peeping Tom, and in the years since the director’s death in 1990, its reputation has continued to grow, as has much of Powell and Pressburger’s body of work, thanks in part to the ongoing promotion and restorations undertaken by his friend and admirer Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. It was Scorsese who spearheaded the rediscovery of Peeping Tom, getting it screened to wide acclaim at the New York Film Festival in 1979 and re-released the following year. He brought Powell over to share in the new reactions to the film, paying for the flight to New York, which Powell couldn’t otherwise have afforded.

“To create anything, whether it’s writing or painting or music or dance or cinema, you have to be obsessed,” says Scorsese. “But one can cross the line into danger, easily. Michael Powell didn’t just understand that danger – he lived it. And he actually expressed it in cinematic terms.

“Unlike The Red Shoes, set in the grand world of high culture, Peeping Tom is set at the rock bottom level of low culture, with a protagonist who has already crossed the line. On a plot level, it’s about a serial killer who murders women as he films them. On a deeper level, it’s a portrait of self-destruction by means of cinema – the lenses are scalpels, the splices real cuts that bleed, the celluloid razor wire, and the light of the projector blinding.”

This year, Peeping Tom will be back in the spotlight with a new 4K restoration by The Film Foundation and the BFI National Archive in association with StudioCanal. Ahead of its premiere at the London Film Festival, I spoke to some of the other key players involved in the restoration to find out what goes into such a project.