A Perfect Murder
Screenplay : Patrick Smith Kelly (based on the play "Dial M For Murder" by Frederick Knotts)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Michael Douglas (Steven Taylor), Gwyneth Paltrow (Emily Bradford), Viggo Mortensen (David Shaw), David Suchet (Det. Mohamed Karaman), Sarita Choudhury (Raquel Martinez), Constance Towers (Sandra Bradford), Michael P. Moran (Det. Bobby Fain)
If there's one thing we've learned from movies in general and film noir in particular, there's no such thing as a perfect murder. The ill-fated scheme depicted in the ironically-titled neo-noir "A Perfect Murder" is a prime example of this. Of course, in the end it's not the developments of the murder plot or the attempted act itself that are really of interest -- it's the aftermath that counts.
The man behind it all is a cold-hearted Wall Street tycoon named Steven Taylor, played with ruthless efficiency by Michael Douglas with perfectly-gelled hair and slick, expensive suits. His beautiful, young trophy wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow), is having a steamy, passionate affair with a long-haired Bohemian artist named David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). Because Steven is rich and powerful and has many connections, he knows about the affair, and decides to exploit it to his own purposes. He wants Emily dead, not only out of vengeance for her unfaithfulness, but because of certain financial advantages that would come his way if Emily were to -- how to say it? -- meet with an accident.
So Steven blackmails David into committing the murder himself, but as mentioned above, it is hardly a perfect murder. In fact, because it takes place only half-way through the movie, we know it will be a botched murder, and Steven will spend the rest of the film trying to erase all the evidence that points to him as being intricately involved. Unfortunately for Steven, it is obvious that there is much more evidence than he could have possibly anticipated, and as much as he lies, connives, and threatens, there will always be one little detail that gets overlooked.
"A Perfect Murder" was adapted from Frederick Knott's popular Broadway stage-play, "Dial M For Murder," which was turned into a 3-D movie in 1954 by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock made it a point to retain the story's theatrical roots by keeping all the action confined to a single room, with few exceptions. First-time screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly and director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") take the exact opposite approach. They borrow Knott's underlying motive and the basic scenario for the murder itself (involving a planned telephone call that seems a bit pointless in this new version), but other than that, "A Perfect Murder" bears little resemblance to its source material.
For one thing, the movie expands its action to a number of locales all over New York, including Steven and Emily's beautifully cold and museum-like Wall Street apartment, Steven's even more museum-like office, and David's enormous studio/apartment loft, the kind that only starving artists in movies get to live in.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ("Dark City," "The Crow") films the proceedings in the same style that pervades the films of David Fincher and the Coen Brothers; color noir might be good name for it. Wolski manages to capture the same foreboding essence of the classic black and white film noirs by using heavy, muted colors and stylized, unnatural light. Even outside in the sunlight, everything seems too bright and too defined; it gives one a definite sense of unease.
Director Andrew Davis does a fine job of building suspense throughout the film, although much of it is reliant on the audience becoming what Hitchcock referred to as a "Peeping Tom audience." Like Hitchcock did in "Dial M For Murder," Davis does a mean trick by deriving the majority of the suspense from constantly toying with the idea of whether or not Steven will get caught.
From the outset, we know he's guilty, and we know he's a callous, selfish SOB with no morals. And yet, when he's scurrying to cover up the murder scene to erase his involvement, or he's trying to intercept an incriminating tape recording before his wife hears it, the audience is essentially on his side. It's twisted, but at the same time, it's undeniably effective.
©1998 James Kendrick