A Perfect Murder

(Andrew Davis, USA, 1998)


Don't you just love the depiction of artists in glossy Hollywood movies? David (Viggo Mortensen) in A Perfect Murder is a supposedly poor, struggling New York painter who lives and works in an unaccountably vast studio (courtesy, according to the credits, of Dennis Hopper).

In this downtown cave, David splashes paint and scrawls cryptic questions on enlarged photographs of his amour, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow). His leather jacket sports a carefully placed rip.

The instant that Steven (Michael Douglas), a snaky, well-groomed money man from uptown, steps into this space, he can tell that David's art is "angry". Furthermore, Steven can sum up quicker than any art critic what David's painting really is: "Trashy – but potent."

Steven knows a few things about trashiness and potency, because Emily, his younger, richer, trophy wife, is currently being unfaithful with David. But Steven has done a little research into the artist's mysterious past, and he uses it to pressure David into accepting an intriguing proposition: disguised as a mugger, he must break into Steven's luxury apartment and kill Emily.

A Perfect Murder is a new screen version of Frederick Knott's play Dial M For Murder. In interviews, Douglas graciously dismisses Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 adaptation of this piece as "shit". There is in fact scarcely any ground for comparing the two versions. Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive [1993], Chain Reaction [1996]) eschews Hitchcock's whimsical wit and refined touch, bringing the story much closer to contemporary models of slick neo-film-noir and sleazy erotic thriller.

Patrick Smith Kelly's debut script updates the setting and complicates the intrigue of the original but has many lumpy aspects, especially in its dialogue. Paltrow visibly blanches having to say: "David is committed to his painting – and me." Douglas' lines are peppered with such tortuous conjunctions as: "I'm knee deep in bohemian cachet."

As for the character of Emily, she is knee deep in multi-cultural cachet. Her best friend is Spanish (although played by an Indian actor, Sarita Choudhury). She walks the run-down, ethnic parts of town without fear. She converses with all and sundry – including the investigating cop Mohamed Karamon (David Suchet) – in their native tongue. This appears to be the film's clumsy way of giving Emily a saintly halo, an aura of streetwise authenticity lacking from Steven and his high-flying milieu.

A Perfect Murder is not especially potent, but it is certainly trashy fun. As in Hush (1998), Paltrow comes into her own as a seemingly frail, scared thing who can really act tough when the situation calls for it. Douglas enjoyably seethes suspicion and suppressed menace from his first entrance. And Mortensen – equal parts sensitive artist and proletarian thug – is simply a hoot.

MORE Davis: Holes

© Adrian Martin October 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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