A PERFECT MURDER (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexuality and Language

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Directed by: Andrew Davis

Written by: Patrick Smith Kelly

(based on the play DIAL M FOR MURDER by Frederick Knott)

Starring: Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, David Suchet & Sarita Choudhury

Anybody who dares to remake an Alfred Hitchcock film is bound to face scrutiny right out of the gate. I’m sure there are more, but I can only think of four instances of a filmmaker attempting to redo a Hitchcock masterpiece: a made-for-TV version of REAR WINDOW, Gus Van Sant’s useless shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO, Platinum Dunes’s upcoming reboot of THE BIRDS, and this update of DIAL M FOR MURDER. While I still consider DIAL M FOR MURDER to be a flawless classic with one of the most ingeniously simple twist endings of all-time, I would go on a limb saying that A PERFECT MURDER is the way a remake should be done. It never comes close to topping the 1954 original, but the plot has been reworked and reshaped with new construction. The outline is similar, but changes have been made that complicate things and open up new directions for the plot to go.

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Steven and Emily Taylor are a wealthy couple living in an extravagant lifestyle in New York. Appearances can be deceiving as Steven is losing money hand over fist and Emily is having an affair behind his back with David Shaw, a starving artist. Faster than you can say murderous motivation, Steven has figured out who David is and hires him to kill Emily, thus solving his financial problems and the burden of an unfaithful wife. He’s killing two birds with one stone, but the killing here is to be taken literally. Unfortunately for Steven, the plot doesn’t go the way he thought it would and a whole new can of worms is opened with double-crossing, incriminating evidence, and a few dead bodies.

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The biggest positive I can give A PERFECT MURDER is how creative the reworking of this well-known plot went. Frederick Knott’s play is still performed to this day and gives the illusion that everything is extremely complicated, but is actually quite diabolically simple. A PERFECT MURDER adds a handful of new directions to the story that I didn’t expect and I was actually wondering where things were headed for a good portion of the film. It wasn’t because the screenplay was brilliant (the writer only moved on to pen DON’T SAY A WORD and that was the conclusion of his career in movies), but I did appreciate that my attention was kept on the screen if only for curiosity of how things would eventually close. Turns out that the climax is ham-fisted and clichéd. The alternate ending is actually a more satisfying wrap-up though it didn’t necessarily end on a brilliant note either.

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On the other side of the coin, the characters are very bland and the cast members don’t necessarily inject charisma or emotions needed to make watching these people enjoyable. I didn’t have any strong feelings for Michael Douglas to possibly get away with murder or Gwyneth Paltrow to do some investigating into the incident. They have no chemistry together, which might have been the point, but there characters weren’t given any real screen time to develop in a convincing manner. Viggo Mortensen as David, a character with skeletons in his own closet, is just as wooden as Douglas and Paltrow. An additional character of a detective serves as merely means to an end, popping up in a total of four scenes that collectively fill under 10 minutes of screen time. It really seemed as if none of the actors or actresses were trying at all.

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Nobody really cared to make this a solid update of a suspenseful classic with the exception of a screenwriter who botches it in the end and a director who does give a bit of atmosphere. There was an appropriately dark tone to the whole film that suited the content of the story. It almost seemed like the visual scheme of David Fincher’s SE7EN was employed for this fairly standard thriller. I did appreciate grim humor in the dialogue exchanges between Douglas and Mortensen. The plot changes made expand the story of play from a mere apartment setting to around the city. The R rating allows for some F-bombs, brief moments of bloody violence (one scene is gruesomely cool with a cooking utensil turned unconventional weapon), and a sex scene or two. I appreciated that the updated plot kept me on my toes, but didn’t care about the characters or the disappointing final moments.

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A PERFECT MURDER is far better than a certain other Hitchcock remake (which starred a woefully miscast Vince Vaughn as the iconic Norman Bates). I appreciated that the director tried to make this a glossy, well-crafted film and that the screenwriter reworked many of the twists for a remake that would surprise those familiar with the source material. Pitch-black humor and a good atmosphere also keep this from being a bad flick, but the wooden acting of a cast consisting of performers who don’t appear to give a single shit about the movie they’re making bring this film down a lot. The ending is cheesy beyond belief and almost feels like they gave up on a creative climax. The movie just sort of shrugs and cuts to credits. In the end, plans were set in motion for a good thriller and upended by certain factors that no one took into consideration…kind of like how Michael Douglas’s murder plot falls apart in this film.

Grade: C

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