Selling Short

In the swank new thriller A Perfect Murder, Michael Douglas plays a cuckolded husband who loves his wife and plots her death at the same time. The performance is the culmination of Douglas’s work as an actor; he is superb – complexly nuanced in a way that he has never been before. For years, Michael Douglas has dominated one movie after another with his baleful stare and saturnine temperament. If anything, Douglas was too incisive an actor: In such movies as Wall Street and Fatal Attraction, his characters were defined by the single emotion of rage; they lacked depth and variety, the play of humor. In Basic Instinct and Falling Down, Douglas gave way to passion without humanizing passion, and even though one recognized his precision and skill, one could hardly warm to him. What was he so angry about? His face seemed fixed in a sneer. Yet he became a major box-office draw, and since snarlers have rarely become stars (Edward G. Robinson was an exception; Richard Widmark was a star mainly of B movies), something in Douglas obviously fascinated the public. That something, I think, was intelligence, which audiences instinctively reach out to. Douglas has played a certain type of man that we recognize as emblematic of our time – the success, the capitalist, the man who knows the score and prides himself on his perfect control of everything. Yet anger separates this man from other people. Isolated in a momentous job or a big house, cut off from love, friendship, and ease, Douglas the winner is also a loser, and even as we relished the character’s mastery, we also relished his unhappiness, which released us from envy.

In A Perfect Murder, we don’t at first know what has gone wrong between Steven Taylor (Douglas), a wealthy Wall Street investor, and his elegant young wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow). When the movie opens, Emily, who works at the U.N. as a translator, is in bed with her lover, David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen), a soulful young artist – at least, that is what Emily thinks he is. David is soft-spoken and makes haunted-looking portraits; most of all, he is attentive to Emily. Later that day, the Taylors go to some sort of posh benefit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and David is there, and from the way Douglas plays the scene – with icy politeness – it is clear that Steven knows that his wife and the artist are having an affair. It is also clear from Douglas’s manner – self-sufficient to the point of haughtiness – why the marriage is over. The debonair dark-blue shirts, just a touch flamboyant; the modishly long, swept-back hair – Douglas exudes egotistical well-being. No woman but a masochist could stay in love with this smug rotter for long. He is suffocating his young wife.

Steven has lost Emily’s love, and the loss is killing him. It is also amusing him. Douglas’s lips, which have gone softly sinister in recent years, quiver slightly; he even smiles, as if enjoying some private joke at his own expense. When Steven goes to see the artist in his Brooklyn loft – a dark, cavernous lair – he confronts him with self-lacerating humor, as if to say, “You’re a bum, and still you have ousted me from the marriage bed. Funny, isn’t it?” We admire the lucidity of this hateful man. He takes action the way men like him always do in movies: He hires someone to murder his wife.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, you may want to know that A Perfect Murder is based on the same Frederick Knott play that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 1954. Patrick Smith Kelly, the screenwriter, and Andrew Davis, the director, have productively (and rightly) updated the story, moving it from fifties London to contemporary New York, and from an atmosphere of quiet wealth to one of high-level finance and social power. They have also changed the plot in fascinating ways that I won’t reveal. Hitchcock accepted and even reveled in the stage-derived claustrophobia of the action; his direction amounted to virtuoso manipulation of limited means (there were many entrances and exits, an enormous fuss about door keys). In the married couple’s small apartment, the three principals (Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and, as the lover, Robert Cummings) mixed and drank many cocktails while exchanging perfectly phrased remarks. Hitchcock’s movie, which reeks of the stage, is a great deal of fun, an enduringly fascinating example of dry-ice elegance.

Andrew Davis, the director of The Fugitive, one of the best thrillers of recent years, has added pace and heat and explicit sexuality to the material without whipping up phony excitement. His direction is swift and very effective, and the movie, shot in shades of ebony (the color of black marble), looks exceptionally handsome. A Perfect Murder is a very proficient and enjoyable big-budget thriller. Yet there is one bizarre structural error. The filmmakers establish with many significant close-ups the character played by the fine British actor David Suchet – a New York police detective of Arab descent, whom Emily can talk to, conspiratorially, in Arabic. Then they drop him out of the movie – he plays no part in the violent dénouement. Feminism has intervened in the 45 years since Hitchcock handled this material: A woman must now fight her own battles. What is most memorable about the new version, however, is the emotional complexity of the husband who loves his wife yet whose pride won’t allow her to live. By conveying the bitters of private amusement, Douglas transcends the sexual-revenge clichés of the plot. Douglas’s objectivity – the ability to see the character as masterful yet also defeated and to take intellectual pleasure from Steven’s desperate gamesmanship – brings us close to him. We admire, almost like, this man. Douglas dominates this movie as he has dominated his past movies, but he’s never deserved the limelight more.

Selling Short