We continue our look at the varied 1970s filmography of Sir Michael Caine – this time, we examine 1975’s Peeper.
The 1960s was Michael Caine’s breakout decade, giving us some of his most iconic performances in films such as Alfie in The Italian Job. However, the 1970s was much more of a mixed bag, with some genuine bona fide classics (Get Carter, Sleuth) alongside tons of flops and oddball curiosities that have now been mostly forgotten.
Who remembers that he starred in a historical epic with Omar Sharif? Or that he was in the sequel to The Poseidon Adventure? And what the heck could the film Peeper be about? So, film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1970s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth…
Spoilers for Peeper lay ahead…
Directed by: Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, Outland, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Timecop)
Tagline (pithy memorable taglines are overrated): “Back in ’47, a gun was a roscoe, a private-eye was a Peeper, and murder was okay as long as nobody got hurt. In fact, anything was okay with this Peeper on the case because he wouldn’t know who-done-it even if he done it himself.”
Other Featured Geezers: Natalie Wood as Ellen Prendergast, Kitty Winn as Mianne Prendergast, Michael Constantine as Anglich, Thayer David as Frank Prendergast, Liam Dunn as Billy Pate, Don Calfa as Rosie, Timothy Carey as Sid and Dorothy Adams as Mrs Prendergast.
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Last Valley
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Too Late The Hero
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Get Carter
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Kidnapped
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Zee & Co
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Pulp
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in Sleuth
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Black Windmill
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Marseille Contract
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Wilby Conspiracy
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Romantic Englishwoman
Previously: Revisiting Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King
What’s it all about, Alfie?: In this noir pastiche, deadpan English private eye (or peeper) Leslie C. Tucker (Michael Caine) is working in 1947 Los Angeles when one night a disheveled criminal, Anglich (Michael Constantine), comes barging into his office. Anglich hires Tucker to find the long-lost daughter that he abandoned to an orphanage nearly 30 years ago, in order to give her a hefty inheritance. Tucker is thus thrown into the messy lives of a wealthy local family, the Prendergasts, consisting of two haughty sisters (one of which could be Anglich’s daughter) Mianne and Ellen (Kitty Winn and Natalie Wood), their bird loving Uncle Frank (Thayer David) and their apparently senile mother (Dorothy Adams).
If this wasn’t enough on his plate, Tucker is also pursued throughout by two dangerous gangsters (Don Calfa and Timothy Carey) and, in the course of his investigation, he uncovers blackmail, deceit, gets his head shoved through a window and accidentally ends up on a cruise. All in a day’s work for a diligent P.I.
Caine-ness: Caine really carries this one. It’s a middle–of–the–road script that’s greatly buoyed by a playful and charming central performance from Sir Michael as private eye Leslie C. Tucker (the film explains up top that peeper means private eye and, disappointingly, he’s not playing a rampant pervert here). He’s in most scenes, and also on voice over duty, so there’s plenty of Caine content for your money.
I was nervous that, due to the setting, he was going to be playing an American but thankfully he’s doing his usual accent (and wearing his usual glasses). His Englishness is even specifically played up, and noted by those around him, with one character telling him; “You talk funny” to which he responds; “Really? I didn’t get a laugh all day”. The very first thing that we see Tucker do is brew and sip a cuppa, before stumbling upon the client that kicks off the film tea in hand. He even has a framed picture of the then-King George VI above his bed (I don’t judge, everyone has their kinks).
Despite relocating across the pond, Tucker has very much not been Americanised, “confidentially I don’t like bloody hot dogs” he admits to Ellen Prendergast whilst holed up together in a closet hiding from mobsters. Yet she still passionately kisses him in spite of this flagrant rejection of her country’s national dish (thus clearly demonstrating the sheer sexual magnetism of Caine).
Caine has a lively chemistry with all of his co-stars, be they human or animal, whether it’s the gentle hectoring of the slippery Billy Pate, the witty flirty bantering with the Prendergast sisters or even when it’s a parrot telling him to “get lost” and he responds casually and kindly with “I am lost”.
He gets plenty of typical deadpan noir one-liners, which he carries off with laid back aplomb, lines such as; “You know, rich people never sweat. That’s always struck me funny. They’re the ones who can afford a lot of shirts.” “I figured out I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on,” “I saw George Raft do this in a movie once.” He proceeds to drop a coin down a stairwell and listens “I don’t know exactly what it proves except if you add up all the times I’ve done it, I’m out about a dollar.”
Caine also gets to do a spot of action including a very energetic tussle in a cramped corridor and, in one of the film’s best scenes, he uses his cunning and agility to trick a vicious Doberman into getting into a car so that he can trap it there and escape.
This is the second noir pastiche that Caine made in the 1970s after 1972’s Pulp. And, in an odd coincidence, both films feature a scene with him flirting with a woman wearing a massive hat.
It’s the second time that he has played a private investigator after his small role in 1967’s Shirley MacLaine vehicle Woman Times Seven.
This was based on the novel Deadfall, and Caine starred in a film in 1968 also called Deadfall (which had no connection to the novel).
*I’m only counting connections starting from Caine’s first leading role in Zulu, up to this movie.
Best Non-Caine Actor:
Natalie Wood is the only other big star in this, but her career was on the wane by this point. This was her first theatrically released movie since Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969, and after this she only made a handful of other movies (and most of these were TV movies) before her tragic (and still suspicious) death in 1981. Speaking of which, there is a ghoulish edge to the film’s climax which sees Wood’s character in peril in a boat out at sea. As one of the pieces of IMDb trivia stresses (which 6 out of 13 found interesting, the ones that didn’t likely being Robert Wagner and his lawyers) “chillingly prophetic is the scene where Sir Michael Caine says to Natalie Wood: “You tried to drown me!””
On a lighter note, here is a still from Peeper of Natalie Wood doing some peeping.
Wood is fine in a fairly standard flirty femme fatale role. She has some chemistry with Caine and engages in some playful back and forth but it’s certainly not a performance that particularly stands out. She does have some pretty hats though (for the curious milliners out there).
The rest of the cast is filled with fun turns from character actors including the budget version of Peter Lorre, Don Calfa, and stone-faced heavy Timothy Carey as the two goons (apparently the troubled Carey was fired from the movie during filming and a double was used for some long shots, but this isn’t noticeable). There’s Michael Constantine as Anglich (who is perhaps best known as the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Tucker’s angry client who sleeps on a pool table and has the nasty habit of grabbing Tucker’s shirt when he’s talking to him (which leads to some of Caine’s signature shouty and pointy acting after one too many shirt grabs). Peeper also features the last on-screen role of Dorothy Adams, who had been working in Hollywood since 1931, as the Prendergast matriarch.
My favourite of the supporting roles was Liam Dunn as Billy Pate, the nervy and conniving old man who keeps getting in Tucker’s way and who, in a creative touch I especially enjoyed, spends the climax of the film with spaghetti all over him after a tussle with Tucker in the kitchen.
Worst Title Placement Choice for a Poster
My Bleedin’ Thoughts:
This has a fantastic, instantly attention grabbing start, in which a Humphrey Bogart look and sound-alike reads out the opening credits in a dark dingy alleyway. However, unfortunately the rest of the film fails to live up to the inventiveness of this quirky introduction.
Peter Hyams is a curious director whose career includes a belated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey and a couple of Jean Claude Van Damme movies but this isn’t his finest hour.
Peeper isn’t funny enough to work as a full-blooded spoof of the film noir genre (but, in its defence, I don’t think it’s actually attempting to be) and works more as a faithful pastiche with a light smattering of jokes thrown in every now and again. Caine’s other 1970s noir Pulp, although still with its fair share of issues, was overall funnier and more creative in its reworking of the genre.
My knowledge of classic film noir is limited to just the big hitters, so whether I would have gotten more from Peeper if it was a genre that I was more invested in I’m not sure, as it certainly seems that those who made this film love the genre, and perhaps some references went over my head.
Peeper feels like Chinatown (released in 1974) but with all the hard edges vigorously filed off. The violence is bloodless and relatively tame (Tucker’s head is shoved through a glass window which doesn’t seem to faze him too much) and the sex is limited to mostly chaste verbal banter and the occasional kiss. The central mystery here is also really not intriguing enough to fully invest in, and yet it still manages to be confusing and unclear at times despite being relatively simple.
Interestingly there were a spate of noir and Bogart spoofs and pastiches released in the 1970s including Murder By Death, The Cheap Detective, The Long Goodbye and Play It Again, Sam. This definitely lands on the lower rung of that bunch and, although not terrible by any means, I can see why this movie has been largely forgotten.
One thing that definitely does deserve praise though is the cinematography and the general look of the film. There are some excellent shots utilising shadows and in-scene lighting (such as when Tucker and Ellen are hiding in the closet and when Tucker visits Anglich in the bar after closing hours) and there’s a general cosy gauziness to the film’s visuals that feels strangely comforting.
Trivia: Courtesy of IMDb (just a warning)
Caine and Wood dated in real life for a couple of months, a decade before working together on this film. Suitably in the film they have the chemistry of a couple who could only last two months.
This was originally released in a handful of cinemas titled “Fat Chance” before having its name changed to Peeper upon wider release, which is one of the reasons cited for its box office failure.
Leslie C Tucker’s fee was twenty-five dollars per day, plus expenses (in case you want to compare the market on fictional detectives, Poirot’s going rate is definitely higher just FYI).
Overall Thoughts: A perfectly fine, yet highly forgettable, little curiosity. It’s certainly not worth going to any great lengths to seek out but, if it’s ever streaming for free or on the telly, then it’s a pleasant enough way to pass an hour and a half (especially for Caine fans and noir lovers).
Rating: 3/5 Peeping Natalie Woods
Where You Can Watch This: This is available on DVD or to rent and buy from most streaming services.
Up Next: Harry And Walter Go To New York and, presumably, Michael Caine does too (or else it wouldn’t be listed on his IMDb page).
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