Not many people like the movie Peeper (1975). Not its director Peter Hyams who was unemployable for three years after its release. Not its two lead actors Michael Caine and Natalie Wood. And certainly not the studio 20th Century Fox who let it sit on the shelf for a year under the original title Fat Chance, only to recut and rename it to the aforementioned Peeper. Well, I like it. While it may not be in the same league as other hard-boiled detective spoofs to come out of the 1970s, like Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam (1972), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), or Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978), it remains a fascinating cinema oddity. I realize that I’m probably in the minority on this and that’s okay, too.
In a clever, self-reflexive bit, the movie opens with a Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade wannabe walking down a dirty, deserted city alleyway late at night. He proceeds to say the opening credits in an imitation of Bogart’s distinctive voice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opening credits sequence like that before or since. Sadly, the rest of Peeper isn’t as clever…or good.
Los Angeles, 1947. Leslie C. Tucker (Caine) is a British private detective trying to make a go of it in America but judging by the pile of bills he spends a night going through things aren’t going too well. One night, he’s visited by a man named Anglich (Michael Constantine) who wants Tucker to find his daughter Anya who he abandoned 29 years ago at an orphanage. The problem is that he’s being hunted by two hitmen from Tampa, Florida where he’s been living for some time. Intrigued, Tucker takes the case.
His first lead is something of a dead end but he does catch a tantalizing glimpse of Ellen Prendergast (Wood), who may or may not be Anya, and flashes him with her silk robe (and not much else underneath). He gets fleeting glimpses of her on the sprawling family estate. Her sister (Kitty Winn) tells him, “If you want her inside she’ll probably rape you,” to which he deadpans, “There’s no rush.” They soon meet properly and their exchange oddly lacks the sexual tension that W.D. Richter’s screenplay is obviously going for but instead it’s like Michael Caine and Natalie Wood are reciting dialogue from their own respective movies and not the one they’re actually in. It all feels a little flat and I don’t know if it’s the writing or the editing but it’s not a good way to start things.
What’s more surprising about the sometimes flat dialogue is that it’s written by Richter who would go on to pen such hilarious, insanely quotable films like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Home for the Holidays (1995). I can’t decide if it’s the script’s shortcomings or that Caine and Wood just aren’t delivering their lines correctly. A stylized film noir comedy is not easy to pull off with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) being the gold standard.
Tucker has a suspicion that either Ellen or her sister is Anya but can’t be sure. As luck would have it, he runs into the former looking for the same man and instead they find his corpse! Tucker and Ellen also run afoul of two thugs, one of whom is played with imposing idiosyncrasy by none other than eccentric character actor Timothy Carey. While Tucker wrestles with one thug, Ellen smashes a bottle over the head of the other and the perplexed expression she gives afterwards – that was too easy – is priceless.
Caine and Wood play along gamely and their chemistry improves as the movie progresses. He tries to be the tough guy to her femme fatale but they are neither and that’s one of the things being parodied with the cliché archetypes turned on their head. The script, however, doesn’t go far enough with this conceit. Their snappy banter could have had a slightly faster, crisper rhythm to it. Caine starts off playing Tucker a bit like he’s anticipating the neurotic mess he would eventually play in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) but once his life is in jeopardy the actor veers closer to Get Carter (1971) territory, barking orders and threatening people. Tonally, his performance is a little all over the place. He should have maintained the light touch evident early on throughout the movie.
Filmed in an endless series of gorgeous soft focus shots, Wood looks stunning as always and seems to be having fun playing a sexually suggestive femme fatale with something of an enigmatic air about her. The actress seems to struggle a bit early on with some of the dialogue but her performance gets stronger as the movie progresses and her character’s true motivations are gradually revealed.
It also feels like director Peter Hyams is never allowed to cut loose like he does in Busting (1974), for example. Sure, there are the occasional flourishes, like the prowling Steadicam employed effectively during a chase sequence when Tucker and Ellen are pursued by the two thugs from Tampa. He does try to keep things interesting, like staging a car chase in a traffic jam, but one wonders if the workman-like direction is due more to studio meddling that resulted in the year of it being relegated to limbo.
Producer Irwin Winkler had helped Hyams get his start as a director and offered him a project called Fat Chance, a spoof of Raymond Chandler-type private detective movies. Hyams was a fan of the writer and agreed to do it. Natalie Wood just had a child and turned down lucrative offers to appear in The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Great Gatsby (1974) in favor of Peeper in 1974. She had wanted to work with Caine, one of her favorite actors, and many of her scenes would be shot on the former estate of silent film actor Harold Lloyd, only ten minutes away from her own home, convenient as she was taking care of two children. Having just had a child, Wood went on a strict diet, losing 50 pounds for the role. Director of photography Earl Rath, Jr. remembered, “She was getting a little older, so I used a little softer lens, just to enhance the quality of her face. Every shot, I’d glamorize I’d make her look beautiful, which was not hard to do.”
According to Hyams, Peeper did not preview well and the studio didn’t think it would do well commercially. They sat on it for a year, recut it and changed the title.
If it seems like I’m down on Peeper I don’t mean to be. It does have its own undeniable, low-key charm that I’m sometimes in the mood for late at night when there’s nothing else on. Perhaps I’m more receptive to its uneven rhythms. It’s one of those movies I keep coming back to as I feel like there’s a good movie in there somewhere trying to get out but we’ll probably never see the version Hyams intended as there isn’t enough interest on the studio end who could care less and maybe that’s the way it should be. That way those of us that see the movie it could be can continue to imagine their own version.
“A Conversation with Peter Hyams.” Peeper DVD. 20th Century Fox. 2006.
Finstad, Suzanne. Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood. Three Rivers Press. 2002.
Harris, Warren G. Natalie and R.J.: The Star-Crossed Love Affair with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner. Doubleday. 1988.