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‘A Perfect Murder’ is well directed, but suffers from an uneven script

227499.1020.AA Perfect Murder

Written by Patrick Smith Kelly

Directed by Andrew Davis

USA, 1998

In a makeshift loft apartment in one of Manhattan’s forgotten districts, two lovers, Emily and David (Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen) embrace passionately under the bed sheets amidst a collection of amateur paintings. Emily is a successful aid to the United States ambassador at the United Nations, while David is a struggling artist hoping to catch a break in the New York art scene. The glitch in their happiness is that Emily is married to another man, Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas), an investor. Steven, perceptive and driven by the suspicion that his wife may be cheating on him, quickly collects all the information necessary to confirm his suspicions and some dirty secrets about David’s past. Rather than threaten David with murderous rage, Steven makes the artist an offer: murder Emily and earn $500,000 in the process.

Andrew Davis’ A Perfect Murder is essentially a remake of Dial M for Murder, a stage play written by Frederick Knott and adapted to the silver screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954, a story in which a spiteful and desperate husband hires an old acquaintance to plot the murder of his wife. What results of the assassination attempt differs considerably in both film versions, a testament to the many variant aftermaths that can emerge from such a premise. Davis’ picture, more so than Hitchcock’s, can be analyzed as a tale of two halves. Unfortunately, this is not strictly because there remains much story to tell after Steven’s stab at offing Emily fails, but because the quality levels of each section differs by a fair margin.

Noteworthy is the sense that the first act, the more familiar of the two, is superior. Perhaps this is the result of said familiarity, as the ease of recognition makes the viewer’s immersion into the film that much smoother. It is tempting to argue, however, that more is at play in making the first segment easily digestible apart from the fact that the viewer already knows much of the set-up. Davis, aided in no small part by his leading actors, places his pawns with an effortless slickness that hearkens somewhat to an older era of Hollywood storytelling. The set-up swims in visceral, raw simplicity filmmakers dare not subjugate their films to in the modern era. There is a singular intensity to the emotions and motivations guiding the trio that film buffs familiar with movies of the classic noir period can warm up to. Setting aside Emily’s multilingual talents as a diplomat’s assistant, David’s struggling career as a painter, and whatever complicated financial tomfoolery Steven is in entangled in, each personality is succinctly drawn. Emily is disillusioned by her marriage and charmed by David’s rugged, bohemian romanticism, just as he has fallen under her spell. Steven is a shark, a territorial bloodhound. He wants what is his and has the influence to right what her perceives as wrongs. When questioned by David as to why he seeks Emily’s death, Steven tersely replies that his reasons concern none other than himself.  Based on this information alone, Steven may be slotted into the category of old-school vengeful husband.

To further prove the point of the movie’s joyful simplicity, consider for a moment David’s switch from ardent defender of his love for the fair-haired Emily to exposed career con man who is made an offer that he simply cannot refuse. This entire change happens in a 5-minute scene yet given who the character is (even as an archetype), it makes sense. The emotions are running incredibly high but the language of money has a way of seducing the virtuous as much as the corrupt.

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Everything leading up to the fateful night runs smoothly to the extent that the first 45 minutes breeze by like nothing at all. Among the highlights is the scene in which Steven gives David a walkthrough around his upper-class, sublimely decorated Manhattan condo, explaining the step-by-step processes they are both to abide by for the plan to see itself through. The acting and direction is subtle and spot. The film tightens the noose by revealing that Emily feels increasingly morally conflicted as she oscillates between a passionate romance with David and the façade of a happy marriage she play-acts with Steven. She is even on the verge of admitting her infidelity to her husband as he heads for his poker game, leaving her alone at the mercy of her murderer. Her assailant arrives at the agreed-upon time, tries to kill Emily in the kitchen, but she impressively holds her own as much as she can until finally plunging a thermometer into the man’s neck.

So concludes a well-paced, at times sensual first half during which the battle lines are drawn between characters’ backs. A Perfect Murder’s second half never lives up to the levels of visceral fun of its first, though. It begins solidly enough with the revelation that a man alien to Steven and the audience was the fellow Emily thwarted when the ski mask is peeled off the deceased’s head by the police on the kitchen floor. Suddenly Steven, the master planner, has a new series of challenges on his hands. Not only is his wife still alive, he has to ensure she never finds out about his role in this little nightmare and the man he actually hired to perform the deed is lurking about somewhere, his motives unbeknownst to anyone as of yet.

Unfortunately, most of the thrills end there. The remainder of the film is a mishmash of half-hearted story ideas, few of which truly come to fruition. A perfect example is the introduction of the detective tasked with putting the puzzle pieces together, Mohamed Karaman (David Suchet). Suchet, best known for his depiction of Agatha Christie’s famous Hercule Poirot detective in a British TV series on ITV, is an excellent actor, capable of summoning the strength of a Michael Ironside (whom he physically resembles to a degree) but with more range. His inclusion is perplexing to say the least. On the one hand, the addition of an investigator in a film in which the audience is cognizant of all the details surrounding a murder attempt is surely to add tension by having his presence put either the victim or perpetrator at risk. Not only does the detective immediately believe Emily acted purely in self-defense, his suspicions about her husband’s role in the matter ultimately lead to nothing as he is only seen for a total of maybe three of four scenes including the end.

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A larger issue looming over the picture is what it does with David. It is one thing to reveal him as a con man, therefore warning the audience that he is not to be trusted, but his character arc is handled in befuddling fashion. One assumes he hired a friend or accomplice to commit the deed because he dared not do it himself. Even so, he nonetheless accepted to take the risk of sending in a big man into her home to have her murdered. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to blackmail Steven, asking him in the process if he should keep screwing his wife, although he and Emily barely see each other for the rest of the movie, and mopes over…it isn’t clear what exactly. He carries a picture of Emily around and looks at it longingly, occasionally. Again, he was okay with hirng a goon to have her killed. On an emotional level, David becomes a complete mess during the second half.

The only effective drama after the botched murder attempt is Emily’s decision to take control of the situation and learn the truth behind the matter through her own efforts. Paltrow is a dependable lead, and she and Douglas share a number of good scenes together, with one character seemingly always privy to more information than the other and trying to either play the other for the fool or entrap them. Sadly, Steven’s motivations for wanting to be rid of Emily, which were understood to be purely emotional and impulsive, turn out to be because of her wealth and the money she would leave him in the event of her passing, something he needs badly after his recent international dealings have gone sour. By no means a bad explanation, it simply is not as interesting or as fun as a peeved husband thinking mostly with his little head.

A Perfect Murder is anything but. Far from a complete misfire, Andrew Davis starts things off nicely and manages to cover some of the cracks in the armor with some slick direction and an impressive cast, but the script is woefully uneven, even unsure of itself at times. It makes for a decent thriller but all three leads have been in far better movies than this.

-Edgar Chaput

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