Less “Wait Until Dark” than “The Christopher Reeve Story,” ABC’s ballyhooed remake of the 1954 Hitchcock classic “Rear Window” is so different in style and focus from its predecessor that it’s scarcely accurate to even call it a redo. Perhaps that’s one reason why the network is careful to refer to this as “a modern update” of the famed Cornell Woolrich short story about a handicapped voyeur who becomes privy to a murder while staring out his window into the neighbors’ dwellings.
Say this for it: Reeve is sensational in a role (his first since the 1995 equestrian accident that left him a quadriplegic) that’s so intensely personal it took real courage for him to undertake it. The production was tailored entirely to fit Reeve’s unique limitations, with scribes Eric Overmyer (a staffer on “Homicide”) and Larry Gross taking the essence of Woolrich’s tale and loading it with touches that speak to Reeve’s real-life disability and attitude.
Helmer Jeff Bleckner surely doesn’t baby Reeve here, nor is the actor afraid to share his limitations. When his oxygen tube comes loose, his teeth chatter spastically, just as in reality. He peeps longingly at amorous couples in their homes, his eyes conveying real pain. Fortunately, the film stops short of being a disabled rights crusade, however. The full scope of Reeve’s daily ordeal is absent.
If this doesn’t yet sound much like your father’s “Rear Window,” the one with Jimmy Stewart confined to a wheelchair in his apartment and Grace Kelly as his uptown girlfriend, well, that’s because it’s pretty much an entirely different film. It may have been wiser to call it “Side Window” or something. It has its own rhythm that’s mostly captivating, but nothing at all close to Hitchcock’s mesmerizing vision. Comparisons are futile.
Reeve portrays Jason Kemp, an upper-crust architect who is left paralyzed after a head-on collision. He finally returns home to a retrofitted home and round-the-clock nursing care, but finds that being a voyeur is his new passion.
Luckily — and inexplicably — the neighbors across the courtyard comply. There isn’t a drawn shade in sight except for one with see-through plastic. Even couples in the throes of passion have no seeming concern for privacy. Jason is primed to see it all, armed as he is with a breath-activated wheelchair, surveillance camera and monitor.
One day, Jason notices that an alcoholic woman across the way is being abused by her sculptor husband. After a night of screams and shattering glass, she suddenly disappears. Jason’s convinced the guy (Ritchie Coster) killed her and did away with the body, but he has a tough time convincing his new colleague Claudia (Daryl Hannah) and a skeptical police investigator (Robert Forster, proving there’s life after “Jackie Brown”) that he isn’t just imagining things.
There’s some terrific direction by Bleckner in the way he takes Jason’s point of view to snoop on people and distinguish solely by their actions, rather than any words, what’s going on. It’s a trick mastered by Hitchcock and pulled off well here.
The story leads to a nicely suspenseful climax, but then plunges into absurdity in a closing scene involving Reeve and Hannah that comes literally out of nowhere and is entirely incongruous to what preceded it.
If you’re keeping score, then, “Rear Window” is a nicely-paced drama that’s boosted by Reeve’s bravura efforts. But while the film is faithful to aspects of Woolrich’s yarn, it’s so custom-made to serve the star that the title is almost misleading. Tech credits, particularly the camera work of Ken Kelsch and his team, are uniformly superior.