A Hard-boiled Oeuvre

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For the first half of PEEPER (1976) I was almost convinced I was watching a neglected classic. The script, by W.D. Richter (BUCKAROO BANZAI) from a Chandler pastiche by sci-fi author Keith Laumer, served up a constant sizzle of snazzy dialogue and cynical VO, the latter delivered by Michael Caine in a straight reprise of his delightful manner in Mike Hodges’ PULP. As that film had wound up with a walk-on by a Humphrey Bogart impersonator, so this movie begins with one, narrating the opening titles in a piece-to-camera presentation that’s giddily audacious. Director Peter Hyams seems to be on top form, and his cameraman Earl Rath, who lensed the astonishing proto-steadicam shoot-out chase in Hyams’ earlier BUSTING, steeps the art-deco locations in acidic greens, achieving a distinctly 1970s neo-noir look.

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I had thought that the really hip 70s noirs had either mixed things up by going back further in time, or had updated their stories to the modern day. CHINATOWN does the former, but adds such a wealth of modern attitude — political, sexual — as to seem furiously contemporary, while THE LONG GOODBYE really squeezes every ounce of anachronism to be had from the conceit of Marlowe in modern L.A. Dick Richards’ 1975 FAREWELL, MY LOVELY remake with Robert Mitchum seems a stale exercise in nostalgia by comparison. But then I think of the late Michael Winner’s incomprehensibly Brighton-set version of THE BIG SLEEP, and I have to conclude that there are no rules except that good filmmakers are more likely to make good films. Bad ons, not so much.

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Anyhow, PEEPER starts great, the cast is very nice, Caine has chemistry with Natalie Wood, and then it all somehow goes to pot. Liam Dunn is a great comedy antagonist, but Timothy Carey and Don Calfa, excellent actors and types, are also reduced to stooge status, depriving the whole thing of necessary tension. Necessary even in what’s virtually a comedy. Oh, we also get the wonderful Liam Dunn — Mr Hilltop in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the judge in WHAT’S UP DOC?, as a typically decrepit, wonderfully weaselly character, the only guy Caine can convincingly push around.

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When the climax involved Wood fighting aboard a lifeboat, I got a horrible sense of why the film doesn’t tend to get revived much. But maybe it just isn’t good enough — the plot never reaches an extreme state demanding drastic action, but peters out in some confusing twists. A major sympathetic character is murdered and goes unavenged. The long takes lack the dynamism of Hyams and Rath’s BUSTING work, and sometimes merely looks as if they didn’t have time to get adequate coverage. It’s a shame, since the first half is a real delight. They could make a whole series of sequels to that first half. I kind of regret they made the second half at all.

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11 Responses to “A Hard-boiled Oeuvre”

  1. Peeper is indeed exceptionally strange in the way it starts promisingly then falls apart as you’re watching it. It was barely released at all.

    OFF-TOPIC: Le Petit Mac-Mahon de David Ehrenstein presents a quadruple feature : Je t’aime Je t’aime, Remember My Name, Filming ‘The Trial,” and The Trial

  2. The confidence of that spoke-word title sequence portends great things. Which slowly dissipate. Of course, as Manny Farber pointed out, all the really great stuff in Hawks’ The Big Sleep is frontloaded, but the film never actually gets WEAK.

  3. “E’s ‘ere again.”
    “Oo?”
    “‘im.”
    “‘im, oo?”
    “E’s been lookin’ through the letter box, an’ rootin’ through the bins. Now ‘e’s peepin’ through the window pane, oo else but Blahdy Mi’ael Caine!”
    “O *’im*. An’ why’re we speakin’ in an absurd approximation of cockney?”
    Michael Caine : “Mind yer own bleedin’ business, or I’ll make you watch Bullet to Beijing.”
    Ahem.
    I really like the term “Necessary Tension” as used here. It’d make a good title not just for a book on what mysteries or thrillers need to really *work* but virtually all cinema to a greater or lesser degree (I also think there should be a web log called Scurrilous Rumours but that’s just me…). Without the necessary tension in the characters, plot, story, acting, visuals, sound, et al your going to end up with something that at best doesn’t quite work, or at worst doesn’t work at *all*, which isn’t to say such films won’t be hits, of course. Hah.
    Re. Pulp: Michael and Mickey “when they met it was moider!”. I really like that film what with Caine at full-strength Caineness, and Mickey Rooney with his head like an angry testicle giving a neat performance alongside one of those satisfying ’70s casts. Clever script and direction too, both “of” and about the pulp crime genre (plus marks for typewriter use too, as with snow, always welcome in film). Maybe Sexy Beast has a (very) little of this in a sense, but Ray Winstone ain’t no Caine, and judged by that pointless brand-named Sweeney thing he ain’t no John Thaw either. (I’m *possibly* being unfair! He was a good Will Scarlet…)

  4. I like Ray W under the right circumstances, but there’s no possibility of me ever seeing a Nick Love movie.

    Sexy Beast is cool. Killed by Channel 4 who released it opposite the football. I want that director and those writers to team up again, they should never have separated.

    Pulp doesn’t quite have an ending but it’s all beautiful and funny. Peeper has a clumsy ending, which is worse.

    John Thaw in his prime, was irreplaceable. The second Sweeney movie he made is very good indeed.

  5. True. I love the bomb disposal scene with Nigel Hawthorne in for Garfield Morgan (more or less). The genius of Troy Kennedy Martin.

  6. TKM did some great stuff. Underexploited by the cinema.

  7. Ben Slater Says:

    An hour of Peeper slipped by easily, but it’s plainly a pastiche of The Big Sleep with no tension, stakes or anything resembling a story you might give two shits about. Pulp is more ‘interesting’ in its weird blend of Fellini and deconstructed genre stuff, but similarly tiresome. I thought (the original) Gambit a much more successful experiment in narrative playfulness and unravelling the Caine persona. And it’s pretty funny too.

  8. Gambit is the most satisfying narrative, certainly. Pulp is the nicest filmmaking, and what redeems the flippancy and justifies the abrupt and bothersome ending in retrospect, is it does have some serious intent.

    Since Chandler wanted Cary Grant to play his ideal Marlowe, is Caine the closest movies have come?

  9. By “serious intent”, you mean the stuff about fascism? I can see where Hodges was coming from, but it doesn’t make the film any less involving. Although, yes, it always looks great. It has all the ingredients, but… The ending seems very much of the piece.

    If Chandler meant that Marlowe should have a lightness and humour, then Dick Powell fits the bill as the “closest”, while still being American. English Marlowe seems wrong. Although you’ve got me intrigued in the M. Winner B. Sleep set in Brighton now (which I’d avoided my whole life for obvious reasons).

  10. Oh, the Winner is dire. It’s been said that the script is actually closer to the original novel’s plot, but that’s unimportant if the tone is off. That first version of The Maltese Falcon, the one with Ricardo Cortiz, is faithful to the story too, but that doesn’t stop everything about it being wrong.

    Mitchum is the only potentially good thing in Winner’s film, but he’s too old, and the movie doesn’t find any way to make that interesting. He could have played it as an anachronistic hangover from a nobler time, but he’s also a transplanted yank.

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