Courtesy Photo
107 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, June 5, 1998
Directed by Andrew Davis

Starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen & David Suchet

"Dial M" remaded as a erotic thriller -- and it ain't bad

The good news about "A Perfect Murder" is that it never tries to emulate Alfred Hitchcock.

A clenching remake of 1954's "Dial M for Murder," it succeeds wildly at tying stomachs in knots, but takes its cues from the currently chic erotic thriller genre rather than try to reproduce the work of a master.

The bad news is, Michael Douglas, playing a financially strapped commodities trader bent on offing his young wife for her fortune, turns in yet another furrowed brow and greasy hair performance that poorly echoes Gordon Gecko.

The good news about the bad news is that Douglas is just what the part calls for. His controlled, maniacal menace is right at home in this kind of steamy, tense and twisting narrative.

Directed by Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") with an eye for the gripping, the intelligent and the sordid, "Murder" opens in the industrial loft of an artist (Viggo Mortensen, "G.I. Jane") during a hot and heavy sex scene with Douglas' wealthy wife, the elegantly refined yet spicy Gwyneth Paltrow.

Davis uses this episode, thick with ominous "ahh-ahhhh" choir music and much heavy breathing, to establish a dark and musky mood that lingers over the film. Rather vanilla methodology, it is extremely effective nonetheless.

The picture centers around Paltrow, whose anti-victim performance is incandescence, classy and smart. Any pretty young thing could have played this role as a helpless trophy wife, but it's largely Paltrow's perceptive character that keeps this film from becoming another "Basic Instinct."

Quickly established as an independent, durable woman stuck in a rocky marriage, Emily Taylor (Paltrow) has found passion with the artist, who is not at all what he seems.

The esoteric David (Mortensen) is sexy, but more than a little smarmy. He's hidden his criminal background from Emily and is planning to bilk her of her fortune. When her nefarious husband Steven (Douglas) discovers the affair -- and subsequently David's past -- the two-faced lover is blackmailed into helping murder her as well.

Steven has the perfect plan (of course) -- a intricate breaking and entering scenario at the couple's Central Park West penthouse in which Emily will be killed while running to answer a persistently ringing phone, thereby "surprising" the intruder.

My whole body froze watching this sequence unfold. At the other end of the fateful phone call is Douglas, at a poker game, listening coldly as his wife fights for her life. It is the most chilling of several suspenseful scenes, and director Davis knows it. Emily survives, and revisits the scene of the crime later, taking the audience along in her panic as she relives the attack.

But "A Perfect Murder" isn't even half over at this point. Emily's husband is still broke, and now he's being reverse-blackmailed by David over the murder plot. Convinced his wife still must die, her demise will have to be much more complicated now.

What's more, Emily has begun to suspect the attempt on her life was no accident, setting in motion an array of hand-wringing twists that build to a fresh revamp on the standard thriller climax. In fact, it's more like a showdown, and Paltrow has the upper hand.

The fact that Paltrow isn't soft and defenseless (even if she does have poor romantic judgment) is this picture's best asset. But beyond that, it's an sharp thriller with numerous unexpected and, more importantly, sound plot turns.

"A Perfect Murder" occasionally licks its chops with scenes that threaten to become tawdry, but that's really nothing more than a stylistic move to distinguish it from the Hitchcock original, and it does a fine job in that regard.

But Davis also knows to give credit where it's due and pays homage to sultan of suspense with a trepidatious train sequence that skillfully pecks at the nerves in the best Hitchcockian tradition.

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