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Movie Review: Despite Provocative Twist, A PERFECT MURDER Can't Beat Hitchcock

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What killed Warner Bros.’ A Perfect Murder – what consigned it to a quick, ignominious death even before it hit theaters in 1998 – was when folks heard that it aimed to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Just let that seep in.  Andrew Davis, the filmmaker behind such contemporary action classics as Code of Silence and The Fugitive, aimed to improve on perfection.  Even in remake-crazy Hollywood, that one’s a big no-no: you don’t mess with the Best.  Forget that Dial M isn’t one of Hitchcock’s greats; it’s still Alfred F—king Hitchcock.  Attention must be paid.

The irony is that A Perfect Murder screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly added a twist far nastier and more inspired than anything in Hitch’s adaptation of the Frederick Knott stage play.  In Dial M for Murder, Hitch puts the focus on the doomed love triangle between Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings; Kelly is cheating on Milland with Cummings’ dopey writer, and so Milland hires a petty criminal to take out his unfaithful wife.  Fairly standard noir stuff, with not much to show for it besides Hitch’s coolly professional style (he turns the murder attempt on Kelly’s life into a setpiece rivaling his iconic Psycho work).

In A Perfect Murder, the balance of power is more….interesting.  Same basic setup: Michael Douglas is the sociopathic older husband, Gwyneth Paltrow does her best Grace Kelly as Douglas’ younger wife, and Viggo Mortensen is her lover, who’s now a moody painter instead of an upbeat writer because no one plays tortured and pretentious as well as Viggo Mortensen (note: this is not an insult).

But here’s the rub.  When Douglas finds out that he’s a cuckold, he asks Mortensen to kill Paltrow.  See, Mortensen isn’t just a painter – he’s also an ex-convict who seduces rich women for their money (and Paltrow is very, very rich), so Douglas figures that he’s only asking of slightly more criminality than Mortensen was already planning (fear not, spoiler-averse – Davis and Kelly drop this bombshell at the end of the first act).

It’s a great revision, and one that makes A Perfect Murder surprisingly absorbing for its first forty minutes.  There are no heroes here; Douglas is playing another variation on his Wall Street Master of the Universe bastard, a bastard Paltrow would rather cheat on than divorce, except her assignation appears just as amoral as her husband.  They’re all rotters, and we get a perverse glee from watching them plot and scheme against one another (Douglas, as per usual, deserves some sort of medal for making his white collar madman the most engaging character in the film).  It all culminates in a nifty (and bloody) suspense sequence where Paltrow comes under attack in her and Douglas’ massive apartment, and for a moment, I dreamed an exciting dream: if the Perfect Murder crew would change Mortensen’s character so much, who’s to say the assault on Paltrow wouldn’t play out differently from its Dial M counterpart?

And at that moment, when I dared to imagine that A Perfect Murder might one-up Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, that the movie shifted gears yet again, this time becoming frighteningly, aggressively mediocre.

There’s another twist, all right, except it negates much of what made Mortensen interesting; and there’s a lot of rote police procedural filler (featuring David Suchet doing an uninspired variation on his Poirot character); and Douglas starts hamming it up so badly you wish he had a mustache to twirl; and the whole thing ends in a shootout.  In a shootout.  You’ve seen “Law and Order” episodes that resolve themselves more compellingly.  That’s the unkindest cut of all; that this thriller goes through pains to distinguish itself from the Master’s work, and it’s only at the end that we realize it succeeded by becoming something that Hitchcock could never – and would never – make: a safe failure.

At least the Blu-ray looks nice.  Ace cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s sleek compositions look precise and clear, while the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio offers a subdued-but-immersive audio experience.

Features are surprisingly robust: two terrific group audio commentaries, one with Andrew Davis, Patrick Smith Kelly, and Michael Douglas, and one with producer Peter Macgregor-Scott, Dariusz Wolski, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, set decorator Debra Schutt, and production designer Philip Rosenberg; and an alternate ending that – while no better than the cruddy ending in the theatrical cut – has a nice commentary with Davis.

If you expect nothing, A Perfect Murder works.  It’s glossy and brainless, and the three leads are strong.  But as an attempt to best Alfred Hitchcock, it’s a failure; it bungles any and all attempts at audacity and settles for “meh.”

A Perfect Murder is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.