A husband betrayed, a wife double-crossed, and a murder for hire gone horribly wrong: where have I seen this before? Oh right, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Thankfully, there’s enough spirited originality in director Andrew Davis’ A Perfect Murder (1998) to make me appreciate this oft regurgitated scenario a second time around. A Perfect Murder is pure revenge tragedy, slickly packaged and stylishly produced with more twists and turns than Hitchcock’s classic, particularly in its last act.
The film stars Michael Douglas as Wall Street hedge fund manager, Steven Taylor, living luxuriously in New York with his much younger wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has recently become involved with starving artist, David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). For Emily the affair is based on raw passion and a growing mistrust of her own husband’s intentions toward her. Unfortunately for Em’, she really doesn’t know how to pick men. David is actually con artist Winston Lagrange who has bilked many wealthy and unsuspecting married women out of thousands of dollars in a clever blackmail scheme. He’s getting ready to do the same to Em’, except that Steven already knows his wife is being unfaithful. Actually, as far as the ruthless Steven is concerned, Emily’s indiscretions with David could not have come at a better time.
Having made one too many illegal investments Steven’s financial stability is about to implode. In order to maintain his fabulous lifestyle he needs 100 million dollars – coincidentally exactly how much he stands to inherit from his wife’s estate upon her death. Steven contacts David under the pretext that he’s fascinated by his art and arranges a meeting at his loft to discuss his work. However, once there Steven confronts David with his past and the knowledge of his and Emily’s affair. Cornered by the truth, David admits the affair and Steven proposes a truce with a twist. He can have $500,000 cash if he agrees to murder Emily.
But David’s into money, not blood and turns Steven down flat – at first. So Steven casually informs David that he has no choice in the matter. After all, it would be his word against that of a convicted con artist, and if Steven went to the police and claimed a third blackmail attempt on Emily for their affair David would surely go to prison for a minimum of fifteen years. Faced with the very real possibility of doing hard time, David agrees to Steven’s scheme.
The next evening Steven goes to the club for his regular card game leaving Emily alone. Earlier he has taken her key without her knowledge and left it outside the service entrance for David to find. The plan is foolproof. Steven will telephone Emily at ten o’clock, thereby establishing his alibi at precisely the moment David is killing his wife. What can go wrong? Plenty! With no stomach for murder, David has paid a portion of his ill-gotten gains to another man who plays the part of the masked intruder. Only Emily is better prepared than anyone could have imagined. While being strangled in the kitchen she frantically reaches for the meat thermometer and jabs it into her attacker’s neck.
Upon returning home Steven hears his wife’s whimpers and knows that something has gone horribly wrong. He skulks into the kitchen to find Emily shivering in a corner and the body of her assailant still lying dead in a pool of blood. Thinking quickly, Steven ushers Emily out of the room, finds a key in the dead man’s pocket and returns it to her keychain. But when Police Detective Mohamed Karaman (David Suchet) arrives on the scene he is not entirely convinced by Steven’s suggestion that the motive for the attempt on his wife’s life was actually a botched robbery. Karaman and Emily develop a bond of trust after she speaks to him in his native language and Karaman is further convinced that Steven had something to do with the crime after observing his reaction to the unmasking of the murderer who is not David.
Steven takes Emily to recuperate to her mother, Sandra’s (Constance Towers) estate outside the city. Left alone in her bedroom Emily attempts to call David to let him know she is alright. Assuming she died the night before David is paralyzed at hearing the sound of her voice on his answering machine. He doesn’t pick up the receiver in time, but moments later Steven hits the redial button from another room in the house and tells David to meet him on the ferry. The two recap what has happened and Steven tells David to lie low while he formulates another plan to get rid of Emily.
In the meantime, Emily tells Sandra that she has decided to leave Steven whom she no longer trusts. Upon returning to the penthouse, Emily packs her bags and moves in with her best friend, Raquel Martinez (Sarita Choudhury) who inquires how much money Steven would inherit in the event of Emily’s death. The insinuation that her husband is responsible leads Emily on a fact finding mission. She learns that Steven’s investment portfolio is in serious trouble and manages to trace the key on her keychain back to her assailant’s seedy apartment. Confronting Steven with the knowledge that only he could have put the dead man’s key on her chain, Steven spins a diabolically clever explanation.
He tells Emily that he knew about her affair and that David has masterminded the entire ordeal, having already blackmailed him for hush money. He further exposes David’s past to Emily who is numbed into submission. Embarrassed by what she misperceives as her own naiveté, Emily sides with Steven. It seems as though David’s goose is cooked, except that David has been thinking ahead also, having made a tape recording of Steven outlining the plot to their perfect murder. The two conspirators agree to meet in a public park where David blackmails Steven for more money and safe passage out of New York.
It appears as though Steven is over a barrel. But as David takes his private compartment on a train bound for Montreal, Steven lunges from its private bathroom and mortally wounds David with a knife. As he dies, David sadistically smiles and tells Steven that it’s already too late for him too, having mailed a copy of the recorded murder confession to Emily at the apartment. Rushing home, Steven finds Emily already waiting for him on the terrace. But he also notices that the mail is on his desk yet to be opened. Steven finds David’s tape and hides it inside the safe in his den. Believing he has gotten away with a perfect murder, he decides to take a shower. But Emily notices the empty bag where the money used to be. She opens the safe, finds the tape and listens to it.
When Steven emerges from the shower she tells him she still hasn’t found her house key, then suggests she might run out to pick up some take out for dinner. Hearing Emily leave by the front door, Steven sprints to the service entrance where he discovers Emily’s key. Unfortunately for Steven, Emily hasn’t really gone out. She’s waiting for him with the truth. Unable to paint himself out of the corner this time Steven decides he must kill his wife. But Emily has planned ahead. She pulls out a gun and shoots Steven dead. Det. Karaman arrives with the police to take her statement, and Emily hands over the tape recording to exonerate her of Steven’s cold-blooded murder.
A Perfect Murder is a diabolically delicious nail biter. Patrick Smith Kelly’s screenplay (very loosely based on Frederick Knott’s play and the Hitchcock film) veers far enough away from its original source material to stand on its own, while cleverly resurrecting threadbare plot points from Dial M for Murder that alert the savvier viewer to its homage. Dariusz Wolski’s velvety dark cinematography evokes the moneyed playground of Manhattan with a moody elegance of uncertainty.
Michael Douglas can play a cad like nobody else. His Steven Taylor is a wicked bastard, manipulative, despicable and without as much as a shred of moral conscience, and yet strangely compelling and even, at times, likeable. Gwenyth Paltrow is compelling as the uncertain wife, while Viggo Mortensen’s con artist is justly perverse and equally as scummy. With these skilled performances the screenplay takes us on a harrowing thrill ride into the bleak recesses of a murderer’s mind, a wife’s shame and a husband’s plotted deceptions, never once overreaching or missing its mark. A Perfect Murder isn’t a perfect thriller, but it’s solid enough where it counts to hold our interest and prickle the hairs on the backs of our necks.
Warner Home Video gives us a handsome 1080p upgrade with a minor caveat. Colors are bold and fully saturated. However, like Warner’s Blu-ray of Hamlet, I found the flesh tones in A Perfect Murder occasionally ‘piggy-pink’ rather than naturally rendered. Having just had my monitor calibrated and my eyes checked at the optometrist, and given the green light from both my TV techy and doctor, I don’t think either is to blame for this rather odd anomaly. What is? Good question.
I saw A Perfect Murder at the theater and don’t recall the flesh tones being quite so…well…pink. Colour balancing or vinegar syndrome in the original film elements would be the culprits on this Blu-ray except that the rest of the colours look just fine. Blacks are velvety deep. Blues are blue. Greens are very green. So why is the flesh ‘pinky-pink’? Don’t know. But take my word for it: it is. The audio gets a quantum boost in DTS 5.1 – with the score really coming to life. Dialogue and effects sound natural and integrated. Extras are threadbare and direct imports from the DVD from 1999 – 2 audio commentaries and theatrical trailers.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)