When the sleeper hit “Disturbia” hit theaters last year, every major movie review of it mentioned the Alfred Hitchcock classic “Rear Window” and with good reason: The makers of “Disturbia” clearly delighted in paying homage to 1954 thriller with their plot and plenty of little touches.
But when exactly does winking homage turn into cinematic thievery?
Attorneys for the estate of the late Sheldon Abend (one of the true characters in Hollywood; more on him in a moment) filed a copyright infringement lawsuit on Monday in Manhattan. The suit names Dreamworks, Paramount Pictures, executive producer Steven Spielberg and others involved in the making of “Disturbia” and claims they essentially made a remake of “Rear Window” without bothering to pay for the rights to the source material. (Here’s a bare-bones Associated Press story on the suit, and a meatier Reuters article.)
You can’t watch “Disturbia” and not think of “Rear Window”: Both present a confined voyeurs (one by injury, one by house-arrest electronic cuff) who spy on their neighbors by staring down through their windows. One neighbor, it turns out, may be a murderer, but can the voyeur prove it and also keep a distance from the danger?
The sublime 1954 film, which starred Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly and Raymond Burr, was based on “It Had to Be Murder,” a short story by Cornell Woolrich from 1942. Woolrich died in 1968 and the rights to the story were bought by Abend.
Abend, who was a boxer and a tug-boat coal-stoker before entering the literary and film world, died in 2003. He represented the author estates of Tennessee Williams, George Bernard Shaw and Damon Runyon, and with his Stetson hat and out-sized persona he seemed like one of the latter’s colorful characters. Gary North wrote a very interesting obituary of Abend for Daily Variety that discusses a previous lawsuit involving “Rear Window” as a property that set a notable precedent. Abend was on the winning side that time, we’ll see how it turns out for his estate.
It’s hardly new in Hollywood to cop someone else’s idea. In fact, here’s a whole photo gallery of “non-remake” remakes that was compiled by Patrick Kevin Day, a good friend to the Hero Complex. But “Disturbia” does seem like one of the most brazen examples of “borrowing” the story and spirit of a film, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
The timing of the lawsuit is probably uncomfortable since the “Disturbia” team — led by executive producer Spielberg, director D.J. Caruso and star Shia LaBeouf — are back on Sept. 26 with “Eagle Eye,” a high-tech thriller. I visited the set earlier this year, I’ve seen a good chunk of the film, and what did it’s man-on-the-run premise instantly remind me of? That would be “North by Northwest.“
There’s an early scene in the upcoming tech-thriller “Eagle Eye,” a suspected terrorist is in the back seat of an SUV bouncing along a rugged road in Afghanistan as a U.S. spy drone follows it from the skies overhead. The drone detects a cellphone in the car, captures its number and sends it to Washington. Intelligence agents dial the number and, as its owner starts to answer it, they order the camera to snap a photo, which is then transmitted to a distant American command center where a missile attack is being considered.
Even with that kind of eye-popping technology, the world is still complicated: “Is it him?” the officials ask as they study the grainy image and move forward with the airstrike despite their qualms. That’s the crux of this DreamWorks film: More technology doesn’t necessarily eliminate human error and sometimes it creates a high-definition version of human corruption.
The film, which opens Sept. 26, reteams star Shia LaBeouf with director D.J. Caruso, a tandem that worked together on the 2007 hit “Disturbia,” a sort of “Rear Window” for the 21st century with its tense tale of voyeurism and suspicion. If LaBeouf was Jimmy Stewart last time, in “Eagle Eye” he’s channeling Cary Grant in his “North by Northwest” man-on-the-run mode. LaBeouf portrays a scruffy, bright underachiever who comes home one afternoon to find his apartment piled high with mail-order weapons and bomb ingredients — he’s been framed as a terrorist and he spends the rest of the film essentially running for his life.
You can read the rest of the feature right here. Now the similarities between “Rear Window” and “Disturbia” are far more obvious than “Eagle Eye” and “North By Northwest” (with the latter pair, it’s more about the plot energy than the specific story points) but it is interesting that Caruso seems to be spending some considerable study time in the Hitchock library. Hey, it worked for Brian DePalma.
— Geoff Boucher
“Disturbia” poster image and “Eagle Eye” photo courtesy of Dreamworks.