It’s a perilous process to remake the master of suspense. “A Perfect Murder,” based on the play and subsequent Hitchcock film “Dial M for Murder,” freely adapts a lesser work by the master and only serves to prove that even that minor bygone film is superior to high-gloss, misconceived modernization. The notion of a crime of passion executed with icy precision has been superseded by issues of commerce and rendered a cold and cynical piece. The upshot is a few thrills, too many twists and box office that may see some initial fire, followed by rapid erosion. Though superior to last year’s star-driven suspense remake of “Diabolique,” this “Murder” is still an artistic misdemeanor.
Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) is married to commodities trader Stephen Taylor (Michael Douglas) but romantically entangled with bohemian painter David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). On the surface the story embraces such familiar love triangle dynamics as a woman forsaken by a work-obsessed husband who’s become oblivious to her emotional needs, and an involvement with a sensitive, poor but attentive man.
To the script’s credit, it doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince us that this is the perfect indiscretion. Stephen not only knows about the affair, but he’s also gone ahead and checked up on Emily’s new beau. On the pretense of buying some artwork, he visits David at his loft and confronts him with a dossier that includes a string of aliases, jail time and a series of past scams in which he’s defrauded wealthy, lonely women. So much for true love.
Stephen’s willing to forgive and forget if David will do him one favor — he’d like David to murder Emily. He’ll also throw in $500,000 for David’s trouble. And he’s made it just a touch easier by carefully plotting out a way of doing it that will look like death by misadventure.
It’s perforce that things won’t go exactly as planned. The dilemma in this “Perfect Murder” is its singular failure at creating a rooting interest for a character or situation. Once David is exposed and agrees to the conspiracy, he’s lost our sympathy. Stephen’s principal charm is the gift of a salesman’s panache with the ability to sell snow to Eskimos. But he lacks even the irrational passion of jealousy, and is driven to homicide solely by the allure of Emily’s gelt.
On the receiving end, the targeted woman suffers overly from being the cover model for smart woman, dumb choices. Her vulnerability wears thin as she habitually fails to grasp the obvious. So the prospect of a cat and mouse game — between husband and wife or killer and cop — in which the rodent inches toward the cheese is denied us and replaced with arbitrary story turns that offer surprise without punch. It’s as if the filmmakers decided to retain some obvious set pieces from the original and foolishly jettison those elements of humor and texture that made an essentially creaky idea fun to watch.
What’s chiefly out of kilter in “A Perfect Murder” is its leaden seriousness. The cast and creators seem convinced that this murder mystery has important social underpinnings a la “In Cold Blood.” The source material simply doesn’t support that approach. Hitchcock played against the gravity of murder with bright colors and personalities; director Andrew Davis concocts an inky tone throughout that embraces the lighting, costumes and David’s paintings. Psychologically, light will not penetrate the scene.
Technically, one can’t fault the craft of the crew or cast. Douglas makes a game attempt to recall Gordon Gekko several years on but losing his edge, and Paltrow grasps at any opportunity to enliven a standard woman in peril part. Mortensen, a generally underused actor, makes the most of his character’s unmasking, but David Suchet, as the investigating detective, appears to be suffering the pain of a strait-jacketed role.
For those who believe there’s no such thing as “A Perfect Murder,” this film certainly bears out that contention.