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by: Scott Renshaw

You'll be seeing ads for A Perfect Murder trumpeting "from the director of The Fugitive," which should set off a few alarms. If you're inclined to do the math, you'll note that The Fugitive came out five years ago, and you may reasonably wonder what Mr. Davis has been up to in the interrim. The answer is two films Warner Bros. is hoping everyone has long forgotten: the bloated, laughless caper comedy Steal Big, Steal Little and the bloated, lifeless action film Chain Reaction. Those films too were advertised as "from the director of The Fugitive, only the director of The Fugitive never showed up. Could Davis finally display the film-making skill which once held viewers on the edge of their seats, but seems to have been in hibernation for half a decade?

I'm pleased to note that Davis directs A Perfect Murder with plenty of style and savvy. Too bad the script is such a mess. The film is based on Frederick Knott's play "Dial M For Murder," previously made in 1954 by a fellow named Hitchcock. This version casts Michael Douglas as Steven Taylor, a wealthy New York commodities broker with a lovely young wife named Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow). Though she's a highly-educated diplomat with the United Nations, Emily is treated like a trophy by Steven, leading her to seek fulfillment in an affair with aspiring artist David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). Unfortunately, Steven learns of the affair, and has the natural reaction of wanting to kill somebody. His approach, however, is somewhat unusual: he offers David half a million dollars to kill her.

Thus begin the expected twists and turns and double-dealing, with the three principal characters regularly exchanging the upper hand. All three roles are well-cast and well-performed: Paltrow playing the smart but vulnerable ingenue, Mortensen playing the sexy but dangerous "other man," and Douglas playing the calculating, morally shady businessman as only he can. Douglas in particular gives the material a welcome edge, pitching tart dialogue with a superior sneer and making it supremely satisfying to watch his plans go awry. Davis' production team, including production designer Philip Rosenberg and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, creates an appropriately gothic atmosphere which complements tautly directed individual sequences. All these elements are crafted by Davis into a satisfying package which will likely keep you intrigued while you're watching.

Watch out for the drive home, when the whole thing may fall apart in your head so fast you'll lose sight of the road. On the one hand, A Perfect Murder contains as many metaphorically unfired guns as any film in the history of post-Chekhovian drama. Why does it matter that Emily is multi-lingual? Why is one character left conspicuously wounded-but-not-dead, never to appear again? Why does a sharp-witted homicide detective (the talented David Suchet, in a magnetic but under-used performance) play virtually no role in the investigation? On the other hand, it underlines some of its plot points so blatantly that it's more than vaguely insulting (INSERT LINGERING CLOSE-UP OF A MEAT THERMOMETER HERE), and drops key clues into the narrative from out of nowhere. Add to that a story which dumps intellectual gamesmanship for struggles over a gun, and it's no wonder the film went back before the camera's for an 11th-hour re-shoot of the final scenes. It makes a lot of changes from Dial M for Murder, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.

I suppose it's a credit to how much Davis does right that A Perfect Murder still feels generally engrossing until the anti-climactic climax. If a director is lucky, he gets a good script he can make even better with stylistic choices. On other occasions, the best he can do is apply makeup to all the blemishes. Between the film's mood and its solid performances,


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