A Perfect Murder

846261A Perfect Murder, the new remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, is twisty and preposterous and boring; the last adjective seals its doom, for if it were twisty and preposterous and entertaining, it would be, well, a Hitchcock film. Or even vintage De Palma. As it is, the film plays like something you’d watch half-attentively on the USA network — a rickety plot machine that delivers the twists on schedule, with teasing little bits of sleaze and gore. But not nearly enough sleaze and gore — the movie is tasteful, for God’s sake, as if this were a serious endeavor instead of a pale, pulpy thriller.

Michael Douglas, by now a specialist in wealthy, implosive white guys who are rotting from the inside out, is some sort of tycoon — it hardly matters what exactly he does — who doesn’t trust his young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). When Douglas sees Paltrow cozying up to a lank-haired hipster artist (Viggo Mortensen, looking like an unholy cross between Kurt Cobain and Harlan Ellison) at a cocktail party, he goes right up to Viggo and takes an interest in his paintings. Of course he suspects that Viggo and Gwyneth are doing more than discussing art, and of course he’s right, and of course he wants her dead. But instead of hiring someone else to snuff her, Douglas wants Viggo to do it. Huh?

Hitchcock could put this over — he could put pretty much anything over — but Andrew Davis, whose strengths lie in clean, economical action (Under Siege, The Fugitive), isn’t enough of a brilliant liar to help us suspend our disbelief. And his usual solid craftsmanship apparently wasn’t available to him here. Aesthetically, A Perfect Murder tries for an air of sleek malice, but it just looks and feels rancid. The cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski (who also shot — badly — The Crow and Dark City), may be the worst director of photography now working. (He ranks down there with Victor Kemper, one of Pauline Kael’s favorite punching bags in the ’70s.) There’s a scene between Gwyneth Paltrow and the Indian actress Sarita Choudhury (Mississippi Masala) — two of the great beauties of modern film — and Wolski’s lighting destroys them. I have to hand it to the guy; I didn’t know it was possible to make these women (especially Choudhury) look sickly and unattractive.

The movie falls into the predictable pattern of who’s-plotting-against-who, with everyone’s motivations reduced to cardboard. There’s some nasty business involving a meat thermometer, and Davis blows a great chance for sick horror-comedy — De Palma would’ve had the wit to show the thing taking the temperature of its victim. David Suchet plays a detective of Middle Eastern descent, a touch that seems included just so that Gwyneth can talk to him in his native language; she also speaks fluent Spanish, and I vaguely recall now that she’s supposed to be an interpreter for the United Nations — but why? It doesn’t figure in the plot, which in any case defines her entirely as a two-dimensional slut.

Just when the movie is winding down, Constance Towers shows up as Gwyneth’s mother, which amused me on many levels. Towers, a semi-regular on General Hospital recently, is best known among film geeks for her work in Samuel Fuller’s classics Shock Corridor and especially The Naked Kiss, where she was first seen as a bald-headed hooker beating the hell out of a john. I couldn’t decide whether to imagine what A Perfect Murder would’ve been like in Sam Fuller’s hands (ridiculous and crude and wonderful), or to consider that Towers isn’t much older than her son-in-law Michael Douglas. All of this ping-ponged through my mind during the last half hour, when I was supposed to be engrossed by the routine thrills and twists. I suggest you, too, find something amusing to think about while watching A Perfect Murder. Or better yet, find another movie.

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