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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Peeper
Fox // PG // October 17, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted October 18, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Sometimes, a movie title long out of circulation can develop a far better reputation than the critical reception it received upon release. Movie fans love to rescue a neglected title from critical or popular oblivion; prime examples of this "impulse to save" have come from the film noir genre that Peeper aspires to. It took the French film critics telling the American critics that they had missed the boat on Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil; the American public, years after their initial releases, concurred and made them classics.

Unfortunately, this impulse can spill over onto films that don't deserve to be reevaluated upwards (two other obscure 20th Century Fox Michael Caine pictures from the 1960s, Deadfall and The Magus were released this week, and certainly apply to this notion. Please click here for my Deadfall review). It's not a popular view with critics (who like to think they're above the masses), but the public is fairly savvy at sniffing out a dog. If a movie bombed when it first came out, chances are there's a reason for it. I admit I wanted Peeper to be one of those forgotten little gems that somehow slipped through the cracks. I'm an admirer of underrated director Peter Hyams, as well as being a bona fide fan of most of Michael Caine's work. Sadly, it's not to be with Peeper. It's a genuine failure as a neo noir spoof, generating little if any impact on the genre. It's also quiet dull and unfunny.

Michael Caine is Leslie C. Tucker, an English "peeper" (private dick) in 1947 Los Angeles. Michael Constantine is Lou Anglich, a shady character who engages Tucker to find his long-lost daughter, whom Anglich dropped off at an orphanage years ago. Of course, with film noir, nothing is that simple, and quickly, Tucker finds himself in over his head with the Prendergast family, including oily, blackmailing Frank Prendergast (Thayer David), sexy sisters Mianne and Ellen Prendergast (Kitty Winn and Natalie Wood), as well as hit men Sid and Rosie (Timothy Carey and Don Calfa) and skittery, cadaverous private eye Billy Pate (Liam Dunn). Is one of the Prendergast sisters really Anya Anglich, the long lost daughter of Lou Anglich? Will Tucker live long enough to figure out the mystery? Honestly, half-way through Peeper, you won't care.

Almost nothing works right in Peeper. Two major flaws that fatally sink Peeper are miscasting and a misconceived approach to spoofing the film noir genre. Michael Caine, a superlative film actor, is totally out of his element here as Tucker, the English private eye. He's uncomfortable delivering the pseudo-hard boiled dialogue; the voice-over narration, a vital component of so many film noirs, comes out off-kilter by Caine. He's a little too chipper spitting out the words; there's no beats between the lines, no rhythm (perhaps they were badly stitched together by a poor sound design?). If you listen carefully, Caine isn't playing Tucker any differently than he played Harry Palmer. He's also saddled with an unconvincing costume; his bow tie, small, nondescript hat, and horned rimmed glasses in no way evoke a tough guy image - and they don't go far enough the other way to make a comedic statement. Perhaps most disconcerting here is Natalie Wood. Beautiful Wood is simply lost in this film; nothing about her previous screen image suggests that she could play a deadly, amoral femme fatale, so why was she cast? More disturbing is how lost she looks; her guarded, distracted eyes are blank, lifeless. She seems utterly devoid of the tangled energy she used to bring to her other screen roles. Kitty Winn, as the other beautiful Prendergast daughter, fails to register even a modicum of sexuality on the screen; she's a cipher. If we don't have a tough guy, or sexy, dangerous, crazy femme fatales to hang the mystery on, what are we left with?

Peeper also fails to get the genre right; after all, you can't spoof it, unless you understand it. If you're going to set a film noir in 1947 Los Angeles, you had better make Los Angeles a main character of the film. The city as destroyer, the city as another form of femme fatale is crucial to the genre, and yet, it's nowhere to be found in Peeper. Most of the action takes place in carefully crafted interiors, and the one or two shots of L.A. at night are tightly-framed and unconvincing. Putting the final nail in Peeper's coffin occurs when the protracted, awkward finale takes place on a fairly modern-looking cruise ship. A cruise ship in film noir? I can see a tramper steamer, or an old steamship cruiser, but a big, white, modern cruise ship? Additionally, Peeper never feels like it's 1947; it's not a failing of the limited production design. There's a "noir reality" that's missing in the acting, the dialogue, and in the insistence on saving money by having a limited number of claustrophobic set-ups, that smacks only of 1974, not 1947. Hyams stated in the DVD's documentary that he wanted to do a film noir in color, but he shows no understanding of how that can be achieved; the color adds nothing to the proceedings, and worse, it makes no noir statement.

And that's not all Peeper doesn't get right; it's also not funny. Some examples of the sparkling wit (courtesy of W. D. Richter) on display in Peeper include Anglich telling Tucker, "You talk funny," to which Tucker responds, "You think so?" And when Tucker informs a ship steward that the guys chasing him are "torpedoes," the steward responds, "I don't care if they're submarines." Hilarious. A supposedly comedic set piece, down in an office building basement, falls embarrassingly flat (although Paul Jabara, who plays the janitor down there, is pretty funny). In one of the DVD's extras, director Hyams claims he wanted to create an "un-chase sequence" in Peeper. Well, he succeeds. The car "un-chase" scene, which crawls along at a snail's pace, is un-exciting and un-believable (the poor score by Richard Clements doesn't help, either). And the shipboard climax, involving the hoods and Tucker cavorting around on a lifeboat, is weakly choreographed, and devoid of excitement.

Hyams states in the documentary that the film was endlessly tinkered with (according to Natalie Wood's biography, the film was held back by the studio for over a year before being released - always the kiss of death), but no amount of tinkering can alter the deep-rooted, conceptual mistakes that so obviously plague Peeper. This was Hyams' second feature; his first, Busting, starring Elliott Gould and Robert Blake, is a brilliant, kinetic cop actioner that still boasts some of the most exciting tracking-camera chases caught on film. Where is that energy in Peeper? Peeper's not true enough to film noir to justify it as genre, and it's not funny enough to justify it as spoof. Peeper is a total misfire.

The DVD:

The Video:
Peeper looks stunning in a clean, clear new widescreen 2.35:1 print. But eventually, pretty pictures give way to careless framing, as the shipboard finale dissolves into a chaotic, visually unimpressive mess.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital stereo and mono soundtracks are fine, if undistinguished. Remember, this is 1974; sound design wasn't considered that important for a low-budget film like Peeper. There's a Spanish mono track available, as well.

The Extras:
There's a very good documentary, Conversations with Peter Hyams, that gives some keen insights into the making of the film. Hyams makes his case for Peeper ultimately being a success, but I'm not buying it. Peeping in on Film Noir is a fairly general overview of the film noir genre, which completely blows it by having its speakers making a case for Peeper being included in the discussion. There's a terrible vintage trailer included, which probably turned off anyone who saw it in 1975.

Final Thoughts:
I wanted to love Peeper. It had a good director, a good cast, and a good scriptwriter. But it utterly failed to bring any of these elements together into a cohesive statement on film noir. Peeper has many of the superficial physical trappings of film noir, without any of the metaphysical underpinnings of film noir. And if the jokes aren't funny, you don't have a spoof. Peeper has been underground for a good reason -- it was D.O.A. twenty years ago. Skip it.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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