A Perfect Murder

A Perfect Murder (1997)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen
Extras: Alternate Ending, 2 Commentary Tracks, Production Notes

Alfred Hitchcock created some of the most fascinating and gripping thrillers in cinematic history, films that still hold up astonishingly well today, some thirty of more years later. Some of his films have become such classics of movie history that a vast number of filmmakers copy and derive from Hitchcock’s formula, inspired by but not entirely aping his ideas. Certain others go back to the source and try to re-make these classic films with a new spin to better suit our modern times. "A Perfect Murder" is such an instance, in which director Andrew Davis has taken the play "Dial M for Murder" and Hitchcock’s film version of the same name to create a thriller based on the same premise, weaving in new elements that grant the film wider appeal to today’s audiences. Unlike another current Hitchcock remake in the works, Davis displays sensitivity when it comes to balancing the original, proven recipe with new, modern-day influences. He manages to create a spellbinding thriller that, instead of trying to replace the classic original film, has a strong identity of its own, yet still fondly reminds us of Hitchcock’s work.

Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas) is a Wall Street banker who has risen a long way to achieve his riches. His successful investments and speculations allow him to live an extravagant upper-class lifestyle with his wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow). Emily seems like a devoted, faithful wife, but in reality, she has an affair with a young, penniless painter. Although she thinks herself safe, Steve knows everything about the affair, and has also been able to uncover the painter’s dark past. One day he pays the artist a visit and confronts him with knowledge about the affair and the fact that Taylor knows about the artist’s prison time and past con games against rich women. All seems lost for the artist… until when Taylor makes him an offer. He is willing to pay 400,000 in cash for the death of his wife. Taylor has already laid out a detailed plan, one which will supply him with a firm alibi and keep the murder from being traced to his wife’s lover. He prepares the final steps and leaves the house that night for a game of cards with friends. When he returns later that night, he finds his wife alive and the masked killer dead in a pool of his own blood. When police officers remove the mask, the killer is not who Steve expected. Before him lies a total stranger…

"A Perfect Murder" exhibits the same attention to detail as Hitchcock’s classic "Dial M For Murder". Halfway through the story, the film takes an unexpected turn and introduces completely new plot elements and a racy new resolution to the premise. The film is very well produced with great images and an outstanding production design that screams of designer clothes and interiors. Every little item seems to be worth a fortune and it reminds the viewer that even in the richest layers of our society, happiness cannot be bought, and some problems just don’t go away with the flash of a credit card.

The film is carried by a strong cast. Michael Douglas, as the betrayed husband who wants his wife dead, is superb. This role allows him to blend a number of personalities together masterfully. His calculated manners and his cold demeanor quickly give way to his warm and charismatic self as a husband when his wife or other people are around. Nothing indicates his plan for the perfect murder, and even when things go haywire, he manages to stay on top most of the time. He improvises brilliantly and quickly adapts to unexpected developments, never letting down his guard. Gwyneth Paltrow puts in a strong performance as the victimized bad wife who has to learn that nothing and no-one around her is what it seems. Viggo Mortensen is perfectly cast as the "artistic" murderer, who easily switches from the charming lover to the cold criminal. Most of his credibility comes from how he plays off the tortured soul, knowing he has to kill the one he believes he loves. When snared like an animal, he becomes as vicious as a wild animal and tries to make the best of the situation.

"A Perfect Murder" comes as a Special Edition release from Warner Home Video in both <$PS,pan & scan> and an <$16x9,anamorphic> enhanced <$PS,widescreen> version that restores the film’s original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The transfer is rich, bringing out the best of the film’s atmospheric cinematography. The director of photography, Dariusz Wolski, uses delicate lighting set-ups and intricate shadows to create an ominous, yet warm, environment for the film. All the meticulous work that went into these images has been captured and perfectly reproduced on this DVD transfer. Due to its intricate content, some of the scenes exhibit a bit of <$aliasing,aliasing distortion>, however, when downconverted to a regular 4:3 TV screen. This is a technical problem and has nothing to do with the quality of the disc itself, which is a splendid example of the format’s strengths. Color reproduction on this disc is perfect with strong, well-defined colors without smearing or bleeding. <$pixelation,Pixelation> or <$chroma,chroma noise> is virtually non-existent.

James Newton Howard complements the film’s visual atmosphere with a strong, mostly orchestral soundtrack. Presented in a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio track, the soundtrack adds depth to the images and helps immensely in building tension in the right moments. The music has been spotted extremely well and never gives away clues of actions to come, edgy without being obtrusive at all. The film features a number of good surround effects, although use of directional effects is usually limited to very active scenes and a number of ambient effects. "A Perfect Murder" is presented in English and French on this disc, with English captions and French subtitles. Unfortunately a Spanish dub or subtitles are sorely missing from the disc for some reason.

For its supplements, the disc contains an alternate ending, which has been scrapped in favor of the film’s theatrical ending. Although I agree with the filmmaker’s decision for the theatrical ending, the alternate ending nicely plays off the cat and mouse feel of the film a little more when it turns the tables and replays a key scene of the film for a new perspective. The disc also contains two separate <$commentary,commentary track>s with director Andrew Davis, producer Peter MacGregor-Scott, the film’s star Michael Douglas and many others.

"A Perfect Murder" is a slick thriller of the nineties, using a well-known theme to its advantage. From the early opening minutes all the way to the end credits, the filmmakers manage to grip the viewer and never let go. This is rather surprising, as the film initially develops at a rather moderate speed. The way these events are presented, however, gets viewers intrigued and interested in what is to come. When things go wrong in the story and the participants have to adjust themselves to a number of surprise events, the film becomes a tense and clever thrill-ride. Check it out. I am sure you’ll enjoy it.