Yet another film-noir spoof, as if there weren’t enough of those in the ’70s, Peeper is a trifle that goes down smoothly because of charismatic actors and skilled filmmakers, even though it’s among the least memorable pictures ever made by its participants. Director Peter Hyams, who tried his hand at several genres before eventually finding his groove with larky conspiracy thrillers in the late ’70s, wasn’t the right man to helm a lighthearted parody, so his assertive visual style clashes with the material from beginning to end. That said, screenwriter W.D. Richter (working from a novel by Keith Laumer) was in the early days of an equally eclectic career, so his script misses the mark just as widely as Hyams’ direction. Richter capably emulates some tropes of ’40s private-eye movies, notably caustic narration, but his screenplay isn’t clever or funny enough to make an impression. Nonetheless, Hyams’ sophisticated approach to image-making and Richter’s cockeyed dialogue style are interesting in any context, so their behind-the-scenes efforts ensure that Peeper has style, albeit not the correct style.
Better still, Peeper has Michael Caine. Even though the charming Cockney rogue coasts through this picture, it’s pleasurable to listen to him deliver snotty rants like this one: “My having the photo bothers you, you being bothered bothers me, and the fact that I haven’t been thrown out of here sooner bothers me even more.” And, yes, the plot of Peeper is so murky that Caine’s speech actually makes sense in context. The gist of the story, which takes place in the ’40s, is that second-rate private eye Tucker (Caine) has been hired to find a man’s long-missing daughter, who is now an adult. Tucker discerns that the woman might have become part of the Pendergast family, a wealthy clan living in Beverly Hills, and Tucker sets his eyes on Ellen (Natalie Wood) as a likely prospect. Intrigue and shenanigans ensue, none of them particularly distinctive or intriguing, though the stars do exactly what’s expected of them. Caine is bitchy and suave, while Wood is aloof and gorgeous. So, if you want a minor jolt of star power delivered in attractive packaging, Peeper might entertain you—just remember to adjust your expectations.