"A Perfect Murder," a sleek, chic re-telling of Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder," is an altogether respectable adaptation, taking one of the master's least compelling suspense movies and giving it a few extra twists and high gloss -- not to mention a couple of extra corpses.
In fact, aside from its '90s-style ending -- which replaces psychological finesse with coarse brutality -- "A Perfect Murder" is, in many ways, better than its antecedent.
In the 1954 film, Grace Kelly played a wife who has been cheating on her husband (Ray Milland) with an American crime novelist (Robert Cummings). The husband finds out and plots to have her killed; when the crime goes awry, he frames her for the murder of her own killer.
"A Perfect Murder," which has been re-adapted (it was originally a play) by screenwriter Patrick Smith Kelly and director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive"), throws enough new elements into the mix that fans of the Hitchcock movie will still be surprised by some of the plot turns. What's more, the suffocating one-room drama of the original has been opened up to include stunningly appointed Manhattan apartments, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur and a posh country estate.
No one is more suited to reprise a Grace Kelly role than Gwyneth Paltrow, whose swan-like beauty is tempered here with palpable intelligence: Her Emily Taylor may be young, rich and beautiful, but she also has substance. When a police detective (David Suchet, woefully underused) speaks Arabic, Emily -- a translator at the United Nations -- doesn't hesitate to speak his language; similarly, when she finds herself in Washington Heights she immediately begins to speak Spanish. It's a small touch but it goes a long way in humanizing a woman whose only other distinguishing characteristic is that she's deceiving her husband.
Then again, consider the husband. Michael Douglas has made such an expert career of playing heartless capitalist titans that by now it's easy to forget that he's acting: It's as if Gordon Gekko, hydra-like, had sprung a thousand heads. Douglas' Steven Taylor has shed the urbane charm that made Ray Milland's character such an obsequiously likable villain; the fun of "Dial M for Murder" was how he kept fixing cocktails for everyone whenever he was in a pinch. "A Perfect Murder" doesn't busy itself with such niceties: It's an all-business thriller, with a stripped-down, economical appeal. ("A Perfect Murder" deserves extra kudos for the all-too-rare image of an Arab character who isn't a terrorist.)
Telephones and house keys still figure largely in this film, but filmgoers will be kept guessing about the outcome until the disappointingly bloody conclusion. Is it a function of the New Sobriety or Hollywood's poverty of imagination that what used to be resolved over a dry martini now must explode in a paroxysm of brute violence? It's enough to make a sophistication-starved audience turn to drink.
'A Perfect Murder'
Starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow
Directed by Andrew Davis
Rated R (violence, sexuality and language)
Released by Warner Brothers
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 6/05/98