When an actor makes such a singular impression in a role, an assumption is widely made: the character is surely a wonderful complement of the actor's authentic self. Then, when the actor then moves into roles atypical of the defining one, the outcomes can feel actorly - i.e., inauthentic. The actor's supremely frustrated response may well be, 'Don't fence me in.' 

If I could just get the late Christopher Reeve's affecting performance as a sincere, direct and vulnerable Superman out of my mind, I highly suspect I would classify his performance in 1982’s DEATHTRAP, as a sociopathic young playwright, as outstanding. With memories invading, the performance is still - at the very least - a good one and he makes a worthy opponent to Michael Caine’s stridently frustrated veteran. In the film, a faithful adaptation of Ira Levin’s stage play, Reeve’s swift morphing from gawky enthusiasm to Byronic thunder is both a surprising and gripping pleasure. And while a few effects in his performance come courtesy of Sidney Lumet's strategic inserts of close-ups from a wide angle lens - rendering Reeve's square-jawed features as sharp and angular - the menace is mostly his. If not for SUPERMAN on his resume, DEATHTRAP would inform you this was an actor to watch. 

In 1982, Reeve also essayed a priest of dubious ambitions in MONSIGNOR. But, brilliantly, Reeve's next opportunity to summon the menace came via the character that solidified him in the public conscience. Why not extend yourself through the character that has typecast you? 'Look what else comes naturally to me.'  

With 1983s SUPERMAN III, Reeve could do just that, with a couple of reels showcasing a Man of Steel transformed by defective Kryptonite into a volatile Super-bad boy. We see Kal-El as a glowering presence in a bar, flicking peanuts so violently they shatter the alcoholic beverages in sight. What, as written, could be pure bathos, is instead crisp and effective. At another point, Superman mocks an appeal to stop an unfolding crisis (“I always get there in time, don’t I?”), preferring instead to place the moves on the attractive appeal-er in question. (“C’mon, let’s relax a little.”) This bad boy is so striking, he literally splits with his alter-ego, Clark Kent. The innocence and naivety of Kent ultimately saves Superman from this bullying instinct. But not before Reeve has turned an array of distinguishing heroic features - the clenched jaw, the heroic curl - on their collective head. 

Had SUPERMAN III - a move into the slapstick and an anxious, cynical treatise on the rise of Reaganism - been anywhere near the critical and commercial success of its predecessors, would this menacing display have been promptly recognised alongside the other attractions Reeve offered? Or was the original imprint - of sensitive super heroics - too strong to puncture, anyway? Artistically, these are secondary questions. Reeve could summon the menace. 

Menace of the operatic kind was not exactly what was summoned for his portrayal of Basil Ransom in Mechant Ivory’s 1984 adaptation of Henry James THE BOSTONIANS. His character’s 19th century patronising, (male) supremacist jabs may curl the viewer's lip (Did Superman just say that?), but the mustachioed dash and barely concealed insecurity are what makes the overarching impression here. And Reeve soon returned to Earnest Superman, although the original conception of the nemesis of 1987’s SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE would effectively have been an encore of the 'bad model' Supes - an acknowledgement, thus, of the effectiveness of said model. Other projects for Reeve, such as STREET SMART (1987) and SWITCHING CHANNELS (1988), were ultimately lightly cynical spins on the Kent-ian reporter. Reeve’s star power was waning by this point; but his work remained good - he always put in the effort - with television providing the platform in which to reinforce his broader range. 

BUMP IN THE NIGHT (1991), the first of Reeve's small-screen bumps with villainy, is an almost defiantly run-of-the-mill 'TV movie of the week'. Almost, as it does afford Reeve a genuinely thought-provoking characterisation. As the film progresses, it falls into the routine beats of a police procedural, but its heart - its sad heart - lies in the hopeless fantasies of Reeve's lonely (but proactive enough to be deeply harmful) paedophile, Lawrence Muller. Reeve brings a delicacy to Muller, and you can see in those early interactions with the boy, Muller's heart is skipping a beat. (His stammer is an affecting touch.) Are we not all entitled to pursue romantic love? Well... 
But the limitations of the TV thriller, circa 1991, simply cannot accommodate a substantial psychological study of the man. What the tale spares Muller is a demise via vigilante hand. The material acknowledges that Muller's romantic and sexual desires are what draw him surely and ineluctably towards his own demise. And what the script (based on Isabelle Holland's novel) touches upon, and Reeve reinforces powerfully in his characterisation, is the all-to-recognisable human need behind something as horrendously unfair and anxiety-provoking as the grooming of a child. For something so routine, BUMP IN THE NIGHT cannot help but haunt the viewer. 

Reeve's subsequent excursions into 'badness' - DEATH DREAMS (1991) and NIGHTMARE IN THE DAYLIGHT (1992) - are perhaps less routine telefilms (DEATH DREAMS, in particular, is given some interesting stylistic flourishes by director Martin Donovan). But both performances are far more sedate or limited affairs for Reeve as, in each case, the character’s underlying intention must remain under wraps until the final reel, and then Reeve has too little time or opportunity to break out and leave an impression. Mostly, the characterisations are unpleasant preppies, which Reeve can give physical presence to, but he doesn’t seem especially vitalised by or comfortable with. They do, however, still manage to capture a degree of Reeve’s deft balance of delicacy and thunder. 

His next excursion, the Hitchcockian-titled and flavoured ABOVE SUSPICION (1995), sits more comfortably on the energised mantel of earlier films. Part of its frisson is retrospective: Reeve’s detective is confined to a wheelchair - and apparently depressed - for the majority of the film’s length. (ABOVE SUSPICION would be Reeve’s final film before his infamous equestrian accident.) Reeve’s detective is a Hitchcockian antihero: despicable, and yet on some car wreck-level one cannot help but be immersed in how he masters his emotionality and his corporeality to coldly achieve his aims. (A sequence where Reeve’s detective administers a lie detector test to himself is as unsettling as it is energising.) 

This is another fairly routine television film in dialogue and delivery, although offering more to compel than its immediate predecessors. The motivations and emotions are as fascinating as the machinations, and demand their own answers, but the latter is almost exclusively given preference over the former. Reeve’s detective is furious at an affair, but what is it, in the unravelling of events, that makes his chronic-achiever/perfectionist cry? There are glimmers that a depressed Superman will fuel this film the way the delicate anguish fuelled BUMP IN THE NIGHT or the pale-faced rage invigorated DEATHTRAP. But there is too little chance for this character material to breath. Reeve holds the movie with a subtle alertness that belies an otherwise unruffled exterior, but there is also the sense the dictates of a police procedural deprived him the opportunity for rich character work. 

A procedural needs a dramatic punch or two. Brightly, ABOVE SUSPICION has a corker: a sharp, giddy, 'did that just happen?' moment that sears itself into Reeve’s filmic iconography. It is not merely the blast of shock, but what immediately follows: that piercing gaze of Reeve’s, so sincere when courting Lois Lane, now used to reveal the almost inhuman - and certainly inhumane - capacity of a character. 

And so we have Christopher Reeve’s shadow filmography. These days you need to engage with obscure sellers to experience it in its fullness. It’s out there to be found. In 1981’s SUPERMAN II, we see Superman stripped of his powers via an animation of Christopher Reeve’s earnest visage being split and peeled away. The effect, though dated, is sinister and impactful. Reeve made good on its promise.

Published February 25, 2022

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