Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #26: Peeper (1975)

(Alternative title: Fat Chance)
Cast: Michael Caine (Leslie C Tucker), Natalie Wood (Ellen Prendergast), Kitty Winn (Mianne Prendergast), Michael Constantine (Anglich), Thayer David (Frank Prendergast), Timothy Agoglia Carey (Sid), Liam Dunn (Billy Pate), Don Calfa (Rosie).

Crew: Peter Hyams (director), Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (producers), W D Richter (writer), Richard Clements (music), Earl Rath (cinematography), James Mitchell (editor), Albert Brenner (production designer).

Synopsis: Leslie C Tucker is a British private eye working in Los Angeles in 1948. He is hired to a find a woman called Anya by her father, Anglich. Twenty-nine years earlier Anglich left his daughter at a local orphanage. Now he has come into some money, the father wants to share the wealth with Anya. But she was adopted while still a child. Tucker tracks Anya to the wealthy Prendergast family of Beverly Hills. He deduces that one of the two daughters, Ellen and Mianne, is really Anya. Anglich sends Tucker a suitcase of cash for Anya. Soon after Anglich’s murdered body is dumped in the private eye’s office. Tucker solves a complex web of lies, blackmail and embezzlement to discover which daughter is Anya. He gives her the money, but falls in love with the other sister…


Keith Laumer’s novel Deadfall (no relation to the 1968 film of the same name, also starring Caine) was first published in 1971, spoofing the hard-boiled private eye genre popularised by writers like Chandler and Spillane. The book’s film rights were acquired by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff who hired screenwriter W D Richter to adapt it for the big screen. Director Peter Hyams was chosen to helm the project, made with the working title Fat Chance.

Caine was hired to play private detective Leslie C Tucker. He was old friends with co-star Natalie Wood, as the pair had dated briefly in the 1960s when Caine was in Hollywood making Gambit (1966). Fat Chance was Wood’s first film for five years. The former child actress had become a star in classic movies like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and West Side Story (1961), but in the 1970s turned down roles to have a family. Caine cited the opportunity to work with her as a key factor for accepting his role.

The film was shot in Los Angeles early in 1974, with extensive location work aboard a cruise liner. The 1990 book Candidly Caine quotes Caine on the experience: ‘It was fine to make; we all went down to Mexico on a ship, and we called at all the Caribbean ports. It was like a lot of films; you have the time of your like making it, but it didn't work at all.’

Movie studio Twentieth Century Fox was so underwhelmed by Fat Chance, it kept the picture on a shelf for more than a year. But in 1975 film noir movies became hot property at the box office, thanks to the success of Chinatown and Farewell, My Lovely. Fat Chance was re-edited and released with a PG rating and a new title: Peeper. But critics found the results sadly wanting and the picture sank without trace at the box office.

Caine mentioned it in an interview with Photoplay Film Monthly in 1976. ‘I made Fat Chance some time ago in Hollywood with Natalie Wood. It was made before both Chinatown and Farewell, My Lovely. But because it’s just been shown, everyone thinks it was made as a cheap quickie following on from the success of the other two.’ The film did no better in Britain, where it was released in the Summer of 1976, rated A. Peeper was released on video in 1987 but was soon deleted. [Update: A Region 1 DVD version was issued in 2006.]

Reviews: ‘Peeper is flimsy whimsy. Peter Hyams’ limp spoof of a 1940s private-eye film … shows far more care in physical details than artistic ones.’ – Variety
‘It’s worth looking out for, if only to see Michael Caine’s knowing funny performance as a English opportunist who fetches up in California.’ – The Daily Mail

Verdict: Peeper has a neat opening, with a Humphrey Bogart double speaking the credits in a dark alleyway. Alas, that’s all the wit and invention this film possesses. The other 86 minutes are a purgatorial plethora of running around, half-hearted attempts at hard-boiled dialogue and pointlessly convoluted plotting. Peeper was made before Chinatown or Farewell, My Lovely, but both films are still ten times better than this dull, undramatic collection of clichés. Caine tries his best but brings nothing fresh or compelling to the material. Thanks to its obscurity and a rare 1970s film appearance by Natalie Wood, Peeper has a slight curiosity value – but little more.

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