Leslie C. Tucker (Michael Caine) is a British private detective in Los Angeles, he moved there after the Second World War which is some two years past, but mostly his work concerns mundane enquiries, and leaves him with not much money to pay his bills. He was doing his accounts one night when he heard someone running about in the corridor outside his office, and went to investigate, but could not see anyone around at this late hour, and after finishing his cup of tea he returns to continue - but there's someone already there. This is Mr Anglich (Michael Constantine), who is somewhat frazzled: he was the man being chased, and he wants to hire Tucker to find his daughter who he put up for adoption twenty-nine years ago...
Peeper was part of the revival of old Hollywood in the nineteen-seventies, a nostalgic movement born of audiences enjoying vintage movies on television broadcasts and being moved to visit their nearest revival cinemas to watch the classics on the big screen as intended. This spawned a whole generation of film buffs who were interested in seeing what had gone before, and perhaps as a reaction to the rougher movies that had become a hallmark of the decade, going back in time to a surer place of entertainment that seemed to have everything worked out, unlike the modern world that was a lot less certain of where the goodies and baddies, romance and adventure actually were to be found.
An aspect of that nostalgia was the reignited interest in the private eye movie: the fans had seen and loved Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, and had sought out other similar works from the same era, so studios thought that would be a good place to return to and commissioned a selection of Raymond Chandler knock-offs. At least one of these was an all-time classic, the morally murky and sinister Chinatown, but there were others, a few of them spoofs as Peeper ostensibly was, some broader than their contemporaries. In this case, it adhered closely to the template of the convoluted mystery and soft-pedalled the wisecracks, though they were still present in much of Caine's dialogue.
Now, Michael Caine is an icon of sorts, but he wasn't Bogart, which made him an odd choice for director Peter Hyams to settle on for his leading man, including scraps of dialogue to explain why this fish out of water would choose to leave Britain behind when he didn't come across as especially appreciating his time in the States. For this reason, one presumes, Peeper was a flop as audiences simply could not envisage this indelibly English performer in such an unmistakably American genre; sure, cast Sydney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre as villains, but they made less sense as the heroes, even if that combination of foreigners was indeed tried out in their heyday. But Michael Caine as effectively Philip Marlowe? There were still those smarting that Elliott Gould had given the classic role a go.
Not helping was that once Hyams had completed shooting on Peeper, the studio got a severe case of cold feet, and began to re-edit it over and over, eventually putting it on the shelf for around a year before releasing it in a truncated form that hardly offered its mystery a chance to breathe, never mind be coherent when all was revealed come the finale. And yet, for all its obvious flaws, there was something selected fans have found agreeable about it, possibly its complete faith in itself as a viable genre item, and that while Marlowe was an outsider looking in for much of the time, albeit with a wry take on what he was surveying, casting Caine pretty much gave him the same perspective. The cast was dotted with interesting names: Natalie Wood, for whom this was a failed comeback merely because it was the only film she made for the best part of the seventies, was saucy and alluring as the duplicitous femme fatale, Kitty Winn, who looked set for superstardom until her career oddly faltered, was the little sister, Timothy Carey (who was fired for his usual antics) and Don Calfa made unusual heavies, and trash flick aficionados would get a kick out of Liz Renay in a single scene. It was a jumble in its finished form, but you could perceive the work it could have been half-concealed within, and it wasn't so bad. Music by Richard Clements.