Monday 16 June 2014

Movie Review: A Perfect Murder (1998)

A rich businessman plots to kill his cheating wife in A Perfect Murder, a contemporary re-imagining of Hitchcock's 1954 Dial M For Murder.

In New York City, married and independently wealthy socialite Emily Taylor (Gwyneth Paltrow) is having a hot affair with artist David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). Emily's husband Steven (Michael Douglas), a businessman facing huge losses due to bad bets in the currency markets, knows about the affair and exposes David as a con man with a record of fleecing rich women. Steven confronts David and offers him $500,000 to kill Emily, with the murder to be staged as a botched home invasion.

David agrees, and Steven leaves Emily home alone for one evening, and arranges for David to enter via the servants' door. However, the struggle between Emily and the intruder does not go as planned, leaving Steven with new and unexpected problems: a dead body in his kitchen, detective Mohamed Karaman (David Suchet) on his tail, and blackmail on his growing list of problems to contend with.

A Perfect Murder maintains tension at an enjoyably elevated level, and the Patrick Smith Kelly script generates a steady current of mistrust and betrayal to build up the thriller elements. The pacing is brisk, and the film packs plenty of incident into its relatively compact 108 minutes of running time.

However, A Perfect Murder modernizes Dial M For Murder without coming close to matching it. The exquisite wit and joviality of Hitchcock's original is lost, replaced by pervasive glumness. Steven and Emily are an unhappy, stressed couple, David is a con man pretending to be a hot adulterer, and none of them emerge as sympathetic characters worth caring about. Even detective Karaman is morose, although giving him an Arab ethnicity is a welcome touch.

The plan for the murder is superficial rather than thoughtful, and the cascading subsequent events move away from a cerebral battle to crass blackmail, scratchy tape recordings and hissing threats. The film ends with an explosion of messy violence far removed from the original intent of a finely crafted crime.

Director Andrew Davis does give the movie an impressive shine, and A Perfect Murder is visually appealing. The settings are glitzy, the Taylors living in a luxurious apartment and circulating among New York's elite. Emily works at the United Nations, Steven works in a high-tech office filled with monitors displaying impressive data, and they attend the poshest parties. Paltrow's short and very blonde hairdo lights up any room she enters, in a nod to Hitchcock's love of blonde bombshells.

The performances are adequate, the trio of Douglas, Paltrow and Mortensen going about their business with commendable efficiency, although there is little character depth for them to explore. Douglas is all angry businessman putting on a good face, Paltrow is the abandoned wife oozing demure sexuality, and Mortensen is the fake passionate artist having perfected his schtick to attract bored rich women.

A Perfect Murder is far from the perfect film, but rather a passable foray into the murderous minds of the rich and desperate.

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