A remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954) and the Frederick Knott play from which it was derived, A Perfect Murder (1998) cannily reconfigures its plot and characters for a much more cynical, modern day audience. Patrick Smith Kelly's screenplay deviates from its source quite a bit, but the results aren't terrible. Much of the film works and there are more genuine surprises and fewer disappointments than fans of the original film might have anticipated. I'm damning the film with faint praise, but my honest reaction was that it was better than I thought it'd be.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of the film is acceptable, with an okay transfer and extras ported over from the 1998 and 2009 DVDs.
Wall Street hedge fund manager Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas, unavoidably recalling his Wall Street role) is married to heiress Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow, visually patterned after Grace Kelly from the original film). Emily, however, is in the midst of a passionate affair with a starving artist living in a Brooklyn loft, David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). Emily feels guilty about her infidelity but is certain Steven is oblivious.
However, as in Dial M for Murder, Steven not only is aware of the affair, he's been carefully plotting his wife's murder. Currently under investigation by the Securities & Exchange Commission for illegal investments, Emily's $100 million fortune is just too good to risk losing to David.
Unlike Hitchcock's film, in which the Steven character blackmails an old college acquaintance into murdering Steven's wife, in A Perfect Murder Steven blackmails David. Where the David character in Dial M was a decent fellow whose only offense was sleeping with a married woman, in A Perfect Murder David is a career criminal named Winston Lagrange, who has a long record conning rich women. Steven blackmails David/Winston into murdering Emily, promising him $500,000 in cash once the deed is done.
(Spoilers) Again as in Dial M for Murder, the murder plot goes awry, with Emily killing her assailant during the assault. However, the lifeless, would-be murderer turns out not to be David/Winston, but instead a total stranger. What's going on here? Where's David/Winston? How will Steven hide the murder plot from Detective Mohamed Karaman (David Suchet, looking but not sounding like Hercule Poirot)?
A Perfect Murder has its plusses and minuses. What hurts the film most is Douglas's character, who is shown to be a menacing control freak even before the main titles are over. He's also prone to over-the-top malevolent dialogue, such as when he surprises Emily outside her office at lunchtime. "What if there were no tomorrow?" he asks, the day before her would-be murder. "Wouldn't you regret not having one last lunch with your husband?"
This begs the obvious question why the much younger Emily would ever marry such a man in the first place. Part of the reason Dial M for Murder works so well is because the Steven character (played by Ray Milland) is suave, intelligent, and charming. Grace Kelly's character has no idea he's plotting to murder her, adding to the suspense. Here Emily seems foolhardy just being alone in the same room as this creep.
Mortensen isn't particularly appealing, either, lacking Bob Cummings breezy charm from the original film. Here, David is just an inexpressive, monosyllabic, grungy artist type, a wealthy person's negative stereotype of the lazy poor looking for an easy score.
But the idea of making David an unscrupulous con artist after Emily's millions, and later having him turn the tables on Steven shows some originality and cleverness, though that also all but evaporates the fun of the original play and Hitchcock's film: watching the husband's intricate murder plot unravel, and his extremely intelligent (but ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to cover his tracks from the doggedly determined gentleman detective (John Williams). It also shifts the balance of the story in favor of Steven and David, leaving David Suchet with a disappointingly inconsequential part to play.
The film is clumsy in other ways, such as some dreadfully apparent foreshadowing of Emily's use of a meat thermometer (!), while its high-concept, blood-and-thunder climax is woefully predictable. The disc includes an alternate ending, which is darker and yet more cynical but which also plays a bit more satisfactorily than the one eventually chosen.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 projection and presented here in 1080p, 1.78:1 full-frame format, A Perfect Murder looks okay if a bit muted and dirty, possibly a deliberate visual look by director Andrew Davis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio comes alive mostly via James Newton Howard's score; 5.1 audio in both French and Spanish is available, as are subtitle options in all three languages. And more than that, as my PlayStation 3 defaulted to hidden Japanese audio and subtitle options as well.
Besides the aforementioned alternate ending (in standard-def), supplements include two feature-length audio commentaries featuring Douglas, Davis, Kelly, Wolski, and others, with Davis also appearing on a track accompanying the alternate ending. For such a fair-to-middling movie, the commentaries are actually pretty interesting.
Not great, but A Perfect Murder could have been awful and in the final analysis is a fairly respectable remake, not as good as the original perhaps but, on its own terms, reasonably satisfying. Mildly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.