"I take orders from the Octoboss."

A Perfect Murder

June 5, 1998

I thought I had reviewed A PERFECT MURDER before, but for some reason it didn’t come up when I searched for it, so I watched it again. Then when I searched for my DIAL M FOR MURDER review to refresh my memory I did find a review of A PERFECT MURDER from five years ago. But that review wasn’t that good so fuck that review. This is the first time I’ve reviewed it in my opinion.

A PERFECT MURDER is the first of two Viggo-Mortensen-co-starring Hitchcock remakes that came out in 1998. The other is Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, which is not a summer movie, but is worth bringing up as a comparison. While that was a complete anomaly – an audience-provoking experiment infused with bright colors and stylized costuming – this loose, updated remake of DIAL M FOR MURDER is an expensive, high gloss star vehicle. Remember? They used to make R-rated thrillers that were A-movies, sometimes by top directors. Michael Douglas’s movie before this was David Fincher’s THE GAME. For co-star Gwyneth Paltrow it was part of a prolific period – after being in SE7EN and then really blowing up with EMMA she starred in five 1998 movies: SLIDING DOORS, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, HUSH, this, and best picture winner SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE.

Douglas plays Steven Taylor, a thinly veiled take off on Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and/or a totally unrelated character who is a rich hedge fund guy like you’d expect Michael Douglas to play. His wife Emily (Paltrow) is richer than him, though, and apparently not satisfied with her life with him, or at least not satisfied to prevent her from sneaking off to a loft in Greenpoint to sleep with rugged artist dude David (Viggo Mortensen, EASTERN PROMISES).

At a party, Emily makes the dumb move of introducing David to her husband as her artist acquaintance whose work he should check out. And he does. He shows up at the art space and confronts him. Not only has he figured out what we already know, but also something we didn’t: this guy is a con man with a history of hooking up with rich women, taking their money and disappearing. That’s not to say Steven is the good guy here. He makes an offer to not turn David in, but instead pay him to kill Emily.

There’s a whole plan for how to get past security. Has to look like a break-in, but David leaves a key. Trouble is

1) when this ski-masked intruder attacks her in the kitchen she manages to fatally stab him in the neck

2) When they take off the mask it’s not David underneath! He couldn’t stomach it and paid some other guy to do it. (Romantic.)

So we got a classical noir type situation here – watching a bad person’s desperate struggle to swim his way out of the ever deepening lake of shit he created for himself by doing the wrong thing. I like that the good guy in this scenario is not innocent. She cheated on her husband and they don’t give her an excuse like he’s abusive or something. He just doesn’t understand her or listen to her enough. But she realizes she’s wrong and plans to admit the affair before the shit goes sour. After the attack she clearly doesn’t trust him, and we’re put in the position of hoping the guy trying to rip her off will screw over her husband.

In DIAL M MURDER, you remember, the wife is cheating, but the husband lures in a different guy, some dude he knew in college, to blackmail into killing her. And then she ends up getting sentenced to death for killing that guy and the boyfriend (a true crime writer) tries to devise a way to save her, so he’s kind of the hero. David-the-artist-conman-boyfriend is a totally different character, a sort of villainous victim, and I think Mortensen gives him more depth than another actor would’ve.

I wasn’t surprised to read that Mortensen really did some of the paintings in the movie. I was wondering while watching it if the little camera he plays with while meeting Steven on the ferry was one of his own. I don’t know how widely known this is, but since before he was even a Returning King Viggo was a total art dude. He’s a painter, photographer and poet, he started a small press and has recorded more than a dozen experimental albums. As an example, later in ’98 he released Recent Forgeries, a book collecting “writings, paintings, collages, assemblages, found objects, and photographs that point to the fluidity of meaning of a world in flux,” with a CD of music and spoken word and an introduction by Dennis Hopper.

He’d been acting in movies since WITNESS in ’85, and of course we know he’d been in LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III and AMERICAN YAKUZA, plus the artier stuff like THE REFLECTING SKIN and THE INDIAN RUNNER. But it was in the mid-’90s that he started to make a mark in big mainstream movies, and especially G.I. JANE in ’97. In ’98 he only did two movies, and whatever you think of Van Sant’s PSYCHO, you can’t tell me he wasn’t good in it – mostly because you probly don’t remember that he even was in it. Well, I’m here to inform you that he was good in it. And just a couple movies after that he was in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.

This is a good role for him because it combines his dangerous-hunk vibe with his sensitive-rugged-guy one. The latter is not a front. We know from the miniature collage portrait he carries that his feelings for Emily are real, even after he hired that guy to kill her. Mortensen makes this conflict interesting. I consider him the M.V.P. of the movie.

A PERFECT MURDER is adapted by Patrick Smith Kelly (DONT’ SAY A WORD, another thriller starring Douglas). Though it obviously borrows the “guy blackmails somebody into murdering his cheating wife but she kills the guy and he has to make sure nobody finds out he was involved [and gave the guy a key to the apartment]” premise, it’s pretty easy to mentally separate this from DIAL M FOR MURDER since it abandons the almost-entirely-set-in-the-apartment intimacy of the original play and movie. You could say Smith Kelly updates it a little (or adjusts it to Douglas’s screen persona) by adding a whole thing about his shady financial dealings.

It’s by no means a transcendent suspense thriller of the ’90s, but I don’t think it’s a cheesy one either. And it’s a handsome production. The cinematographer is Dariusz Wolski, who shot THE CROW, CRIMSON TIDE, DARK CITY, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and PROMETHEUS, to name a few, so it’s a pretty good looking movie, as Davis’s often are. As with his Chicago movies, he finds some good New York locations that capture a strong sense of place without feeling exactly like every other movie shot there.

Obviously I will always think of Davis as the director of CODE OF SILENCE, ABOVE THE LAW and UNDER SIEGE, but to most of the world he’s the director of THE FUGITIVE. Unfortunately after that best-picture-nominated achievement in ’93 he sort of fell off with STEAL BIG STEAL LITTLE (1995) and CHAIN REACTION (1996), so this fairly successful and at-least-not-hated movie was kind of a comeback for him. It’s not gonna be one of the highlights of the summer, but I don’t regret watching it again.

Anyway it seems there was a Canadian heavy metal band called A Perfect Murder that formed in 2000 so as you can see this is a very influential movie especially in Montreal.

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26 Responses to “A Perfect Murder”

  1. Yeah, that was a good one. Not great, but good enough that I remember it well enough to give it a thumbs up, although I only saw it once on VHS when it came out.

  2. I hope FrankensteinMiller returns to explain just what is “decent” about the “gray decent” Douglas character here. Seems like pretty much a shit in the end to me, and I’m feeling pretty confident in my belief that a shitty adulterer has not sunk as low as a shitty murderer, no matter where audience sympathies apparently fell in 1998. I think Mr. Subtlety already made the same point back in 2013, but maybe it bears repeating: dude, WTF happened to you where you root for the murderer over the adulterer? Christ!

  3. I think the reason the traditional studio thriller is all but extinct is because, back in the 90s and many eras previously, movies were sold almost entirely on star power. That means you could get people to see a twisty movie like this without giving away the whole plot. People would see “Cool, a Michael Douglas movie. I like Michael Douglas. I’ll see that.” Now, a movies is sold more on its premise more its stars, so there’s no way to market a movie like this without ruining it.

  4. Vern, Michael Douglas was not in The Rainmaker. Matt Damon was and it’s super enjoyable. The movie prior to The Game is Ghost and the Darkness which I hear is super good.

  5. Good point, Maj. I wonder if it’s also that those twisty stories went to television. And also the death of R rated movies made adult thrillers pretty impossible.

    I do think a number of them were sold on their premise. I guess Rebecca DeMornay was a star but I thought Hand that Rocks the Cradle made her a Star. Nanny from hell, cop from hell, roommate from hell, teenager from hell, all pretty digestible high concepts that sold a movie without having to give away the twists.

  6. Viggo was also married to Exene Cervenka of the classic LA punk band X for 10+ years and is possibly the only actor to work with both Beth B and Peter Jackson. Cool dude.

  7. To me, this is the ideal remake situation, where you take a good but not great original and put a different spin that gives it a lot more psychological layers. Really enjoyed this one. I still remember James Newton Howard’s fantastic score and while the ending is a bit rote, I really like the final moment between Gwenyth and the detective. May need to rewatch this one soon.

  8. The Rainmaker?! Now that’s the twist I always felt the second half of this film was missing.

    I saw this opening weekend because of Andrew Davis and Wolski, but I’ll admit this is the movie that reminded me of how awesome the Viggo was and is.

  9. Johnny Utah: So THAT’S what an incel looks like! I never thought I’d see one in the wild. I thought they were an urban legend. I mean, nobody that hilariously insecure would actually broadcast that fact to the whole world, would they?

    Fred: Yeah, I guess the thriller started to get more high concept as it aged. But even those “___ from hell” movies didn’t star nobodies. They were usually sold on the hope of seeing some hot starlet naked. Also, the 90s were when other genres started to go premise-driven as well, such as all the SPEED ripoffs replacing the action heroes of the 80s, so I guess that trend had already begun.

  10. Sorry – he produced THE RAINMAKER, and I haven’t seen it, so I didn’t realize I was reading the wrong part of IMDb.

    He also produced FACE/OFF though and I know he’s not in that.

  11. You should totally watch The Rainmaker. It’s an enjoyable Sunday afternoon movie.

  12. Wait? There was somebody here claiming to be an Incel?

  13. I’ve seen three versions of this story, and I think this is my least favourite one. Viggo is good, but the rest pales to both Hitch’ film and the TV remake.

  14. Sterny: Click on the other review and you’ll see.

  15. I’ll go to bat a little bit for THE RAINMAKER too, actually. I watched it just a few months ago for the first time and enjoyed it. I was kind of expecting something more like the other Grisham adaptations (and presumably books, but I never read ‘em) from around that time, where lawyers get caught up in dangerous, thriller-movie circumstances, but it’s a lot more low-key than that. More of a character piece. It’s a great role for Danny DiVito and it was directed by fuckin’ Francis Ford Coppola, so it’s not exactly incompetently made either.

  16. But Poirot got more love in the previous review!

    And no mention in either review for Constance Towers, who plays Paltrow’s mother? Towers starred in a couple of great John Ford westerns, and two pulp classics for Sam Fuller: THE NAKED KISS and SHOCK CORRIDOR. Her opening scene fight in THE NAKED KISS is pure gold.

  17. I’d also want to speak up for later Andrew Davis.

    My personal favourite must remain THE PACKAGE which he fitted in between Vern’s choices above, but HOLES is as great a Disney movie starring Shia LeBeouf based on a young adult magical realist novel as I ever expect to see. Worth it for John Voight’s “Mr. Sir” alone.

  18. Lol, never heard the term incel before this morning, Mr. M, but the shoe definitely seems to fit.

    I neglected to shower this movie with its due praise when I commented yesterday, so here goes. I enjoyed A Perfect Murder when I caught it on video in the late ‘90s but have never seen, or cared to see, it again. It was, um, perfectly enjoyable.

    Unsurprisingly, I think Viggo was the standout, but that may be post-hoc rather than what I really thought at the time. I do remember thinking he was fresh news with Fellowship in 2001, then discovering I’d seen him in multiple prior movies, including this one….which is strange because he doesn’t really have chameleon looks (as opposed to, say, Tom Hardy, who even now can still disappear into some roles so deeply as to become unrecognizable).

  19. It’s kind of easy to forget that he was a successful producer before he was a successful actor, not exactly the most common transition in Hollywood. There was a really good doc on him and his dad for HBO, and they talk about how difficult it was for Michael to do ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, but without Kirk in the lead (who had done the role for years on stage).

  20. I really hate when the media uses the term that were coined by the people they’re writing a story about. It only gives these low lifes a feeling that they’re worth something because they’re being called something. You know what I mean? I hate those cowards.

  21. I will also endorse The Rainmaker. It was by far the best of the Grisham wave, which were all mostly solid ’90s dramas, but Rainmaker took it to another level. Like even when Coppola took a paycheck job, he didn’t phone it in.

    I found it much more insightful into the process of putting together a legal case than just the showy courtroom monologues. The dirty tricks Damon and DeVito could pull and it worked. The opposition just fell for a trick and they’re supposed to be planning a professional case! Anyway, I dug that portrayal of the law.

  22. I remember this being an enjoyable movie but I really wanted to comment on RAINMAKER. I remember enjoying it but I had to laugh reading Easy Riders and Raging Bulls that RAINMAKER is where Coppola felt he hit Rick bottom. Not JACK, but RAINMAKER was his ‘I really need to re-evaluate my life. I need to change…’ moment.

  23. Francis Ford Coppola = Tobe Hooper.

  24. Wow, especially since Coppola’s later indie passion project was the unwatchable Youth Without Youth. I guess Tetro was okay, and never saw Twixt, but Rainmaker is solid.

    I also think there’s nothing wrong with being a good artist who uses his or her skills to provide services. He can make his passion projects, and also direct a movie that his studio buddies need (and not for free. One for them, one for me.) They were making Grisham thrillers back then so they needed a Grisham thriller. Why not make the best damn Grisham thriller you can?

    I thought the same thing watching Consenting Adults. I’m sure Alan J. Pakula didn’t want to be making the wipe swap murder mystery, but if erotic thrillers were what Hollywood was making, why not take the job and make the best damn wife swap thriller ever?

    Obviously most of us working stiffs have no choice but to navigate this. The interviews and articles I’m passionate about usually don’t pay as much as the Walking Dead/Game of Thrones/Marvel/Star Wars nerd shit does. But when I get an assignment I commit to being as interested in it and making it the best it can be for those people who want to read about it. I don’t consider it selling out, and in fact quite the opposite. It’s an opportunity to grow, and make a living.

  25. +1 for RAINMAKER and PERFECT MURDER. Both very competent, well-acted, suspenseful films (different kinds of suspense, to be sure).

    It’s easily been 16 years since I saw PERFECT MURDER, but the main things I remember:
    -Very well-cast. As Vern notes, it’s a perfect rich, cold, amoral, oily, trophy wife-having control freak douche role for Michael Douglas. Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the few young modern actresses of that era who could channel something approaching that “Hitchcock blonde” grace or charisma. Viggo brings that Viggo brooding intensity.

    -Even with both Douglas and Mortensen being sons of bitches, you really feel a sense of empathy and anxiety as things escalate and go sideways. Bad choices compounding on themselves, grave moral transgression and tactical mistake alike.

    -The scene when the killer goes after Gwyneth was staged pretty well and gets appropriately awkward and ugly. Not a gorefest, but they allow it to linger, and create a sense of felt trauma.

    Yeah, so, what I remember liking is that even though a lot of the people who suffer the most are creeps and low-lifes, you actually feel for them (or at least I did) as they reap what they’ve sown. His ability to evoke that kind of experience let’s you know Davis did something right here.

    Nothing game-changing, but a perfectly competent, satisfying little potboiler.

  26. As for RAINMAKER:
    -Great use of Danny DeVito in a nice little dramatic role. His status as a marquee comedy star was on the wane a bit here, and he did a really nice job here in a role very well-suited to him.
    -Super performances all around, from Voigt to our man Roy Scheider. And wasn’t Mickey Rourk in this, too, or did I hallucinate that?
    -The Great Benefit Insurance claim rejection letter: “You must be stupid, stupid, stupid!”

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