A Perfect Murder (1998)

D: Andrew Davis
S: Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen

Slick update of Frederick Knott's Dial M For Murder (previously, famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock) written by Patrick Smith Kelly and nicely directed by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, Under Siege). Wall Street trader Michael Douglas conspires to murder his wife Gywenth Paltrow with the help of struggling artist Viggo Mortensen, who also happens to be her lover. Kelly has cooked up some nice variants on the basic plot of Knott's play, and Davis has broadened Hitchcock's direction to incorporate some excellent use of New York locations. Clever use of sweeping camerawork and intricate set design helps to build tension and give the audience a good sense of the physical environment without seeming theatrical. The film still rests on the performances of its leads however, and in that respect it remains close to its stage origins.

Douglas is marvellous in something of a return to his role as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. He is well-groomed, very controlled and highly predatory. Initially he seems the victim of Paltrow's infidelity, but as the plot unfolds, the depth of his scheming becomes evident (kudos to Kelly here), and the performance takes on layers of characterisation which add to the drama. Paltrow does nicely in the previously decorative role of the society wife, which is suitably broadened out and to which some level of moral culpability has been added. Mortensen brings a nice edginess to his role, but again it is the clever twists in Kelly's script which provides him with the opportunity to manipulate our expectations. Adding support is David Suchet as a suspicious police detective and Sarita Choudury as Paltrow's confidant, but it's really a three character piece in which the principals have been well cast and clearly enjoy their performances. It is to Davis' credit that the film maintains its cinematic character and despite the vast swathes of dialogue, never loses pace.

The climax is something of a cop-out, but DVD viewers will be able to take advantage of a more morally ambiguous resolution tested in early previews and then dropped. As is the film gives rather too clear a line of sight to its heroine after having established her moral failings early on. On the whole it is a rather chilling indictment of hypocrisy and corruption in a world of hidden motivations, half-truths and too much money for comfort. The trappings of the married couple's Manhattan apartment contrast with the attic space of the struggling artist, revealing a social inequity which barely masks the moral malaise which drives the story. In a world of materialist priorities, what is murder but another business transaction? Granted Paltrow is seen to be less driven by greed than her male co-stars, but she nonetheless gets off the hook pretty light with an abrupt and somewhat silly action sequence in which Douglas loses his carefully established sense of self-control and premeditation. The alternate ending is more dramatically satisfying, though it does not give its audience that final adrenaline rush and catharsis that the genre demands in the age of hi-octane.

A Perfect Murder is, for the most part, a well worked thriller which takes familiar ingredients and adds enough narrative flourishes to keep it interesting. It is well crafted, well acted and stylishly designed. It is not the most startling meditation upon human frailty ever seen, but it will provide a good evening's entertainment for a slightly more adult viewing audience than the usual fodder demands. Fans of its cast will get more from it than casual viewers, and though it is proof that there is nothing new under the sun in contemporary American film, it also demonstrates that there is nothing at all wrong with doing something well, no matter how familiar.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.