There is a certain comfort to be found in this film. Definitely not in the theme, emphatically not in the backstreet-neon sensuality of its colours and the sardonic insinuations of the plot. But there is a reassurance to be drawn from the way Peeping Tom still works on an audience, frightens and challenges and amuses it - sometimes all at once - then turns it around on itself, in on itself, letting loose a reaction that is part self-justification, part self-examination and part ritual slaughter. Best of all, it is heartening to know that Peeping Tom will, proudly, never be respectable.
Twenty years after Michael Powell began work on it, Peeping Tom was restored and re-released with the help of one of Powell's greatest admirers, the director Martin Scorsese. It was screen at the New York Film Festival in 1979, shown theatrically soon after, and met a similar reception to one it had received upon its initial British release in 1960. No-one actually admitted this time to being 'disgusted' like the Observer's critic had been, and no-one suggested - like the gentleman from the Tribune - that 'the only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer'. No-one even said simply, as the New Statesman critic had done, that the movie 'stinks'. The new set of reviews was cooler in tone, but mostly unadmiring. Impolite. Sidelong but savage. There were partisans, to be sure, just as there had been when Peeping Tom was first released and just as there are still whenever it is revived. But they will always be a minority, which is just as it should be.
This may not please Powell, or Leo Marks (who wrote the remarkably original script), or the various investors, but Peeping Tom would not have done its job as thoroughly if it attracted a large audience. It is a movie not only about movies and the people who make them, but about the people who watch them and for them. It is a movie made, in a way, in opposition to an audience, made to intimidate an audience. It is, in the best and oldest sense, an Underground film.
Putting events on film - as a record, as evidence of clues on celluloid - magnifies and changes them ,so that the filming, begun as some sort of act of rectification, ends in violent upheaval, in wreckage. It is as if an image reflected on a mirror shattered what it was showing. The mirror on Mark Lewis' camera does not make him so much the Peeping Tom of the title, or the victim of an acute case of what the film characterizes as 'scoptophilia' - the morbid urge to gaze. It confirms him, rather, as the ultimate auteur. For Peeping Tom is the most ruthless film about film-making that anyone has dared make. It is as comic as Fellini's Otto e Mezzo (1963,8½), but it has a unique acid quality which, combined with its haunting irony and curious tenderness, makes it deliberately, wonderfully disconcerting.
Mark Lewis' helpless search for the most frightening sight in the world is not far removed, either in its intensity or its sacrificial logic, from any film-maker's absolute exercise of power, real or frustrated. He is like a director fighting to pull a great performance from an actress to get his final cut, and if there is comedy in that equation, then there is as much comedy at the core of Peeping Tom as there is at the core of Psycho (1960).
The cool, comic savagery of the film is played against images washed in glistening light that seems to have been bounced off a knife blade. The colour, the elegant camera movements so quietly right that they seem almost surreptitious, have had a deep influence on Scorsese's films, particularly Taxi Driver (1976) and the nightclub scenes of New York, New York (1977). Mean Streets (1973) is awash in Peeping Tom's Soho night shades, and both films begin with home movies, with identical projectors and even identical camera movements into the projector lens.
In Peeping Tom, that same light, reflected back off a screen, ultimately illuminates the audience, which, it would seem, always prefers the comfort of the dark. The psycho-sexual foundation of the film is not, ultimately, so disturbing as the proposition of Mark Lewis as a 'technician of emotion' - in other words, a director - and as an object of sympathy, which Powell extracts by implicating the audience in Lewis' fate. Peeping Tom is not, in the end, about the film-maker as voyeur, but the audience as collective scoptophiliac, as active accomplice of the film artist. It is perhaps the only film that will not let the audience off the hook, will not let it stand aside as what has been called in American jurisprudence 'unindicted co-conspirator'. No wonder it will be perpetually unnerving. It is the only movie that watches you.