A Splendid View

November 21, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Network television has something to prove this year: that it can make movies better than cable. And that means better viewing options for the audience in this final weekend of the first major "sweeps" ratings month of the season. Audience ratings taken in November will help determine future advertising rates on network row. And instead of cheap, women-in-jeopardy or disease-of-the-month movies this weekend, CBS and ABC have films -- a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Anne Tyler's "Saint Maybe" and a remake of "Rear Window" starring Christopher Reeve -- that are better than the best HBO has to offer: Stanley Tucci in tonight's "Winchell," a docudrama on the life of gossip Walter Winchell. Before you declare network television a dinosaur, think back to how much you enjoyed NBC's "The Temptations," or tune in to "Saint Maybe" or "Rear Window" tomorrow night. The beast of broadcasting is fighting for its life, and that's good news for us.

'Window' not Hitchcock. So what?

The most important thing to know about Christopher Reeve's remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is that it isn't really "Rear Window."

That's not to condemn it. In fact, it is a fascinating film in its own right, in the way that it takes all we know about Reeve and his tragic equestrian accident and weds it to the Cornell Woolrich story about a man who has taken to watching his neighbors through a courtyard window and becomes convinced one of them is a murderer. In that sense, ABC's "Rear Window" is an engaging, entertaining and clever piece of post-modern, pop-celebrity voyeurism.

But standards are standards, and I need to make this clear before dealing with the remake on its own terms: If I were to compare ABC's made-for-TV version airing tomorrow night with the 1954 classic point by point, it would not be a very happy experience for Reeve and Company. I went back and rented the original to see if memory was casting a false, rose-colored glow over it, and I found that Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is even better than I remembered.

We use the adjective "luminous" to describe every second actress these days, from Keri Russell of "Felicity" to Lisa Kudrow of "Friends." But Grace Kelly was luminous, and the first glimpse we get of her -- a tight shot of her face from the point of view of a waking Jimmy Stewart -- defines movie glamour.

Daryl Hannah plays an updated, briefcase-toting version of Kelly for ABC and, well, let's just say she's better than she was in "Splash."

And there is nothing in the ABC version that starts to compare with the witty, biting, adult repartee between Stewart and his nurse, played by the brilliant Thelma Ritter. The nurse here is played with a Caribbean accent and some mild grousing by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

So, why bother watching?

If you are a die-hard Hitchcock fan, maybe you shouldn't. But for anyone else, there is a lot to like in this film, especially what Eric Overmyer, of "Homicide: Life on the Street," has done with the screenplay.

On one level, he hooks us into the film by exploiting our voyeuristic interest in Reeve's personal story. Instead of opening in the apartment with a photographer (Stewart) in a wheelchair as Hitchcock did, this film opens with a auto accident in which an architect, Jason Kemp (Reeve), is seriously injured.

The first 10 minutes or so takes place in the hospital, as Kemp comes to grips with being a quadriplegic. The big scene is one in which one of his life-support tubes pops off the machine to which it is attached. Kemp gasps for breath as a nurse frantically searches for the problem. He is on death's door before the problem is fixed.

Those who have followed Reeve's recovery know this actually happened to him.

The speech a doctor makes about Kemp's "work ethic" in rehabilitation, as well as Kemp's conviction that a cure will be found, will also sound very familiar to Reeve's fans.

Then, there's another level of voyeurism. Once back in his apartment, Kemp starts spying through the windows of people in a building behind his. The building and the windows here are considerably different from Hitchcock's. In the remake, they look much more like giant television screens, which Kemp passively watches alone in the dark.

We watch Kemp on our TV screen as he watches his neighbors on his. His voyeurism into their personal lives and struggles is paralleled by our voyeurism of Reeve. By the time you realize all of this, you are too deeply involved to walk away without knowing how it's going to end for Kemp and his colleague (Hannah).

The ending is not a tidy one. But, then, our post-modern world is a far messier place than the one Stewart and Kelly graced in 1954.

"Call me Citizen Voyeur," Kemp says at one point in the film.

Call the remake of "Rear Window" a victory for Reeve both as executive producer and star. But, be warned, it's not Hitchcock.

Where: ABC (WMAR, Channel 2)

When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

I would watch Stanley Tucci in anything -- even "Winchell."

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