Friday, 21 June 2013

Peeper [1976]

PEEPER is an American comedy-thriller that was directed by Peter Hyams in 1975 and released the following January.  It stars Michael Caine, Natalie Wood, Kitty Wynn and Michael Constantine.  Caine plays Leslie Tucker, an English private eye in post-war Los Angeles.  Almost accidentally, Tucker finds himself involved with a missing person case which becomes increasingly complex and dangerous the more he looks into it.

As the opening credits, including the title, are spoken rather than printed you'll have to take my word for it that this is the precise moment when the Bogey impersonator says "Peeper".
I'm sorry to say that PEEPER was something of a disappointment.  It tanked at the box office which probably explains why it hasn't been available since but these hard to find movies are irresistible to me so I was really looking forward to seeing it.  And it starts so well - the credits are narrated by a Bogart impersonator with some slinky saxophone in the background, which sets the scene beautifully.  All the elements are in place too: seedy office, an insolent but principled wise-cracking detective, a femme fatale and a supporting cast of lowlifes and chancers.

How did we manage to get from this...
I think the problem is that what starts as an amiable homage to the hard-boiled private eye movies of the 1940s becomes, after about 40 minutes, a spoof of them.  The wisecracks become jokes, the humour becomes comedy, and the situations stop being intriguing and become set-pieces.  After 20 minutes of that the film falls apart completely, degenerating into a series of chase scenes and pratfalls at which Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder would have baulked.

...to this?
It's all such a waste.  The idea of an English private eye in LA is a really good one but the script never takes it anywhere; occasionally someone will say Tucker talks funny or there will be a reference to tea but that's about it.  I rather got the impression that originally the script probably wasn't about an Englishman at all but when Caine signed on it was tweaked slightly.  It's that sort of 'make it up as we go along' attitude which invariably scuppers films.  Still, at least they didn't get him to put on a phoney American accent.

Michael Caine as Leslie Tucker
I don't mind films which fail - some of the best and most interesting ones were failures or have inherent flaws - but what I can't abide is films which are half-hearted, such as this one.  I'd exempt Michael Caine from that assessment because he does his best and he's such an engaging screen presence that you can't help but be carried along by his performances.  But Natalie Wood - who was a beautiful and talented actress - is more or less phoning it in as the spoilt heiress who may or may not be adopted.  Obviously something was wrong in her personal life that spilled over into her career because after this she barely worked for three years; and as we know, she was dead within seven.

Natalie Wood as Ellen Prendergast
There are one or two interesting names in the supporting cast.  Timothy Carey plays one of the heavies on Tucker's tail; he was one of the weirdest character actors in Hollywood, which is saying something.  He had a quality, if that's the right word, which just screamed 'dangerous oddball' and if half the tales about him are true then that's exactly what he was.  If you've seen Kubrick's brilliant heist movie THE KILLING [1956] then you may remember him as the appalling character who positively relishes the job of shooting a racehorse.

Timothy Carey (L) as Sid
There's also Liam Dunn, who is allowed to overact wildly and whose first appearance basically marks the point at which the film begins to go down the khazi, memorable as the preacher in BLAZING SADDLES [1974].  Kitty Wynn, who plays Natalie Wood's sister, was in one of the biggest movies of all time in THE EXORCIST [1973] and should therefore be much better known than she is but has one of those faces that just refuses to stick in your mind.

Liam Dunn as Billy Pate
Scriptwriter W. D. Richter had a hand in one or two terrific movies - notably Philip Kaufman's excellent remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS [1978] - but I'm afraid this isn't his finest moment.  The same can also be said of director Peter Hyams who, at his best, turns in very watchable thrillers; unfortunately for him and us, PEEPER was a great idea for a movie which resolutely failed to get off the page and on to the screen.

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