Peeping Tom: so startling to its early audiences that it was nearly buried

IT'S always useful to be reminded just how wrong the critics can be, and there's hardly a better example than the case of Peeping Tom. When it was released in 1960, the reviewers went to town.

Their denunciations were so vehement that the film's director, Michael Powell, indignantly printed pages of them in the second volume of his autobiography, Million Dollar Movie.

In the Daily Express, one Len Mosley wrote: "In the last three months… I have carted my travel-stained carcase to some of the filthiest and most festering slums in Asia. But nothing, nothing, nothing - neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay nor the gutters of Calcutta - has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week while sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom."

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Derek Hill of the Tribune mused on how best the film could be eliminated. "The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain," he warned.

In the Observer, Caroline Lejeune couldn't bring herself even to cite those responsible: "I don't propose to name the players in this beastly picture." In the Sunday Times, though, Dilys Powell demanded that Powell be held to account: "He cannot wash his hands of responsibility for this essentially vicious film."

The film's distribution was cancelled and the negative sold off. And these reviewers were wrong, all wrong, we know now. Two weeks ago at Bafta, the 50th anniversary of Peeping Tom was celebrated with a special screening of a newly restored digital print of the film, introduced by Powell's great supporters - film historian Ian Christie, Powell's widow, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and Martin Scorsese, who rescued Powell from obscurity in the 1970s. Having been inspired to become a filmmaker by seeing Powell's The Red Shoes in a cinema aged nine, Scorsese is currently sponsoring the physical restoration of Powell's films (next up, there will be a new print of The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp). Peeping Tom can now be seen in a form that's actually better than new. "It's exactly like what the filmmakers wanted at the time but they couldn't achieve it back then," he says.

At Bafta, Scorsese talked about how hard it had been even to see Powell's films when he was young. Peeping Tom in particular "became a film maudit, it was a film you weren't sure existed, it was a rumour in America".

Although it's not true that Powell never worked again after its critical mauling - in 1969, for example, he made a film in Australia called Age Of Consent, featuring the debut of Helen Mirren, nude - his career never recovered. At least he lived long enough to see it wholly re-evaluated."Ultimately, it's a film about the madness of making movies," says Scorsese of Peeping Tom.

He has, he said at the Bafta screening, been thinking about it a lot in the past year or so. "Because I think in our society today, it's even more relevant. In the society of YouTube and the invasion of privacy, whether you want it or not, by surveillance cameras, the morbid urge to gaze is something that needs to be thought about."

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Peeping Tom is especially appealing to cinastes, of course - being about a deranged focus-puller, who, having been filmed as a child by his psychologist father for a study in fear, is now making a documentary movie himself, featuring his own murderous and sadistic activities, actually carried out with his camera.

And it's funny too, full of movie in-jokes, much relished at Bafta, from the commendation of a porn pic as something you won't see in Sight And Sound, to the director's furious exclamation, when his star collapses on finding a corpse on set: "The silly bitch has fainted in the wrong scene!"

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Peeping Tom is no Psycho (released the same year). The backstory is hokum, the murder weapon unwieldy, and the lead, Carl Boehm, son of the conductor Karl Bhm, has a never-explained German accent (Dirk Bogarde turned down the role). But it is a film "by a great artist, one of the greatest in cinema", as Scorsese says.

After Powell's death in 1990, Dilys Powell repented of her part in its attempted obliteration, acknowledging it as a masterpiece. "Hopefully, she'll find Michael in the afterlife to apologise," says Scorsese. Reviewers rarely get that chance. v

• The new print of Peeping Tom is available now.