Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The people who remade the crafty Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller “Dial M for Murder” (1954) as “A Perfect Murder,” with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen, clearly knew their business. As cinematic remakes rate, “A Perfect Murder” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a commendably entertaining, often hard-edged, but superior spouse-murdering spectacle which should baffle and captivate any armchair sleuth right up to its explosive, slam-bang finale. Not only have former Steven Seagal action director Andrew Davis and freshman scenarist Patrick Smith Kelly, cleverly updated this vintage but tawdry tale of deceit, but they have also condensed several plot elements so that the story is both more palatable as well as less predictable. Industry insiders claim that test audiences hated the initial ending, so Douglas and Paltrow came back to reshoot a new ending. Consequently, “A Perfect Murder” is never a slavish scene-by-scene remake of “Dial M for Murder,” but a deferential, no-nonsense, white knuckled yarn, with gritty touches of 1990s amorality.

In “A Perfect Murder,” ruthless but financially strapped tycoon Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas) discovers that his elegant but unfaithful wife Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) is cheating on him with sleazy artist David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). Emily justifies her extramarital affair because Steven suffocates her with his domineering ways. According to Emily, Steven also fails to fulfill her emotional needs. On the contrary, David quenches Emily’s passion and makes her happy. Steven confronts David early in the movie at a diner party that Emily had planned to attend alone. Changing his mind at the last possible minute, Steven accompanies Emily to the festivity where he catches his wife off-guard as she is chatting with Shaw. David and Steven speak briefly and Shaw states that he received his art degree from Berkeley.

Later, Taylor exposes Shaw for the fraud that he is, and then blackmails him. David turns out to be an ex-con with two strikes against him. Moreover, Taylor threatens to alert the police about Shaw for an unsolved crime hanging over the ex-con’s head. Not only has David lied to Steven about his shady past, but also he has lied to poor Emily. Anyway, Steven offers David a $100-thousand dollars up front to kill Emily, and he promises an additional $400-thousand on completion of the homicide. Incredibly, David agrees. Shaw prefers Taylor’s loot to Emily’s love. Steven details a simple plan. He has stashed a key outside their apartment which David can use to gain access to their apartment without arousing suspicion. While Steven is at his club for the evening playing cards, he intends to call Emily. When Emily answers on the kitchen phone, David can slip up behind and strangle her. After he murders Emily, David is supposed to tamper with the door locks to make it appear as if a burglary had occurred.

Veteran director Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive” and “Code of Silence”) and scenarist Patrick Smith Kelly have revamped the stodgy 1950s’ “Dial M for Murder” scenario and eliminated several problems that hampered the Hitchcock film. Obviously, Hitchcock could not depict the sexual and criminal elements in the story with the same artistic latitude available to contemporary filmmakers. Rated “R” for ‘restricted,’ “A Perfect Murder” contains scenes of implied nudity, simulated sex, murder, and profanity, with 9 “f--k” words, 2 “sh-t” words, and 5 “hells” sprinkled in for local color. People are either stabbing or shooting at each other in “A Perfect Murder,” and the three principle characters stalk each other like rabid gunmen in a spaghetti western. Davis keeps the sex, violence, and profanity at comparably moderate, non-gratuitous levels. Nevertheless, “A Perfect Murder” spills more blood and portrays its violence with great authenticity than “Dial M for Murder,” but nothing approaching the visceral sadism of earlier Michael Douglas outings such as “Basic Instinct” and “Fatal Attraction.” Dutifully, Davis and Kelly have left some things intact. For instance, the key still plays a pivotal part in convicting the killer.

Aside from conforming this minor Hitchcock classic to today’s more realistic standards, Davis and Kelly have actually improved on the plot. In “Dial M for Murder,” Alfred Hitchcock devoted vast intervals of time to setting up the involved story with reams of exposition. Exposition is the vitally important stuff about the story that the audience must know to appreciate the actions of the characters. None of this information, however, is readily accessible, so the characters have to mention it in their dialogue so that the audience will know what is happening. Intricately conceived as “Dial M” was, the characters spent for too much time explaining the story. In “Dial M,” Ray Milland played the role that Michael Douglas took over in “A Perfect Murder.” Milland shares an entire scene with the murderer in “Dial M” where he must remind the killer that they are old school chums separated over the years. He reveals the killer’s wicked past and blackmails him, too. Happily, the loquacity that clutters the dialogue in “Dial M” has been pared down to the absolute, bare essentials, so “A Perfect Murder” doesn’t stall out on dialogue ad nauseam. The characters in “Dial M” stand around and discuss their predicaments, while the characters in “A Perfect Murder” go out to do things.

Just as cinematic morality has changed pervasively since 1954, so too has the technology. Cell phones, for example, have replaced standard wired telephones in Steven’s intricate scheme to kill his wife. Nearly all of the main leads as well as the secondary characters have been changed. Davis and Kelly have either enlarged or shrunken their roles. The murderer and the lover in “Dial M” consist of two entirely different characters. Gone is the lover played by Robert Cummings from the Hitchcock film, while Anthony Dawson’s murderer is combined with the lover. Condensing these two roles, the filmmakers of “A Perfect Murder” streamline the plot and make it more exciting. In “Dial M,” John Williams played the stylist British detective who figured prominently in unraveled the mystery. As Det. Mohammed Karaman, his counterpart in “A Perfect Murder,” David (“Executive Decision”) Suchet occupies less screen time. He doesn’t harass the Michael Douglas villain as much as Williams’ detective did to Milland in “Dial M”. Curiously enough, the producers here make an issue out of the detective’s Arabic heritage. During the interrogation scene, Det. Karaman and Emily share a moment when she converses with him in his native language. As peripheral characterization, this is fine, but the filmmakers never integrate it into the plot. It makes you wonder if this language gimmick played a bigger part in the resolution of the action, but got cut out when the ending changed.

One of the biggest changes in “A Perfect Murder” is wife’s role. Unlike the Grace Kelly character from “Dial M” who remained largely passive, Gwyneth Paltrow plays an aggressive multi-lingual U.N. translator and aide to the U.S. Ambassador. Paltrow’s unfaithful wife gets out often enough to learn incriminating things about her husband that Grace Kelly never did in the Hitchcock original. The scene where Paltrow struggles desperately against her assailant is better than the similar scene where Grace Kelly stabbed her killer with a pair of scissors.

They’ve changed the physical settings, too. The action in “Dial M” strays only occasionally from the cramped quarters of the London apartment inhabited by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Transplanting the plot to America, Davis and Kelly open up the action and venture out into the means streets of New York City. Davis and Kelly ditch the expressionistic English courtroom scenes where Grace Kelly’s character was convicted of murdering the man who tried to strangle her, too! In “A Perfect Murder,” Davis and Kelly discard this part of the original plot from Frederick Knot’s play.
Veteran action helmer Andrew Davis keeps the story moving swiftly along so that the complicated plot never decelerates the action. Davis doesn’t let the pacing lollygag. He stages the action for maximum impact. The fight scenes are brutal but brief. Davis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski often film the action so that the perspective that audiences have implicates them in the skullduggery. Wolski’s dark, brooding Rembrandt lighting enhances the air of danger. The standard shot in “A Perfect Murder” is either a close-up or a medium shot that uncomfortably confines the characters. Davis builds considerable suspense and tension by surprising his audience at intervals with sudden off-screen action that explodes on camera. Characters come barreling off-screen to smash into other unsuspecting characters on screen. These sure fire tactics guarantee that audiences will jump. Along with production designer Philip Rosenberg, Davis creates a murky, hostile environment for his characters to inhabit.

Perhaps the worst flaw in “A Perfect Murder” is the unappealing characters. None of these people deserve much sympathy. A dapper Michael Douglas gives off sinister vibes. Steven Taylor resembles Douglas’s Oscar winning performance as Gordon Gecko from Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” Douglas projects an effortlessly cocksure attitude that makes him an ideal thug. He wears dark apparel, and he is constantly in the midst of a scheme and a lie. As his wife Emily, Gwyneth Paltrow comes closest to attracting sympathy because she is the most vulnerable character. Nevertheless, Emily’s extramarital affair set off this chain reaction, so she isn’t entirely whitewashed. Although she wants to do the right thing, Emily is basically as selfish about herself as are both Steven and David. When we first glimpse her, she is wallowing in a spacious but seedy loft apartment with David (‘G.I. Jane’s” Viggo Mortensen). Mortensen delivers another solid performance as a scumbag. Momentarily, David’s vile painter appears to outfox both Steven and Emily. As competitors, David and Steven are almost evenly matched, though Douglas’s screen image wins out over the lesser known Mortensen.

Indeed, the Patrick Kelly screenplay bears its share of implausibilities, but so too did “Dial M.” Obviously, society does not allow movies to glamorize the act of murder, especially by letting a character commit murder without paying for the crime. Consequently, sharp and sagacious as Steven Taylor is, he is outsmarted once by the double-crossing David and later by Emily, who wins the upper hand in one of his inconsistently ignorant moments. Neither of these crucial incidents is telegraphed in the script. They occur straight out of the blue with zero foreshadowing, so that the audiences as well as Steven are caught entirely by surprise. Sure, that’s cheating, but the dramatic revelation that comes with each incident justifies it. Perhaps the biggest flaw in both movies is that a strong man cannot overpower a weak woman. Ultimately, between the two films, “A Perfect Murder” has more flash and headlong momentum than the literate and stage bound “Dial M for Murder.”

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