Remakes of classic films are often at the mercy of a particular form of critique; inevitably drawing comparisons, more often than not unfavorable, to the original. Shot-for-shot adaptations pose a particular set of bugbears for critics and audiences alike, but, arguably, the greater risk comes from “updating” a classic. Some alterations make sense: Refusing to drown Ariel in The Little Mermaid springs to mind as a good call for Disney; Bringing the story of The Taming of the Shrew to a 1990s American high school in 10 Things I Hate About You gave a centuries-old story a new perspective. Hans Christian Andersen and William Shakespeare have been ripe for the picking long before copyrights became an issue, and there is a certain leniency offered to a cinematic adaptation of another medium, even if the phrase “I preferred the book” is the go-to for those who have never even seen the movie. But adapting an existing film, and a classic at that, into another film? That sometimes isn’t so easy. This brings us to Andrew Davis‘1998 thriller, A Perfect Murderan updated remake of Alfred Hitchcock‘s Dial M For Murder.
Starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrowand a then up-and-coming Viggo MortensonDavis gives the classic all the contemporary gung-ho that befits a late 90s thriller. Stylistically, there are obvious changes to cater to a new audience: Lengthy monologues which explain the who, what, where, how, and why (very much an indication of the theatrical source material by Frederick Knott), are replaced with multiple locations, quick edits, and dialogue much more suited to modern sensibilities. The single living room in London is now scattered around New York – a luxurious Manhattan mansion, Soho, Penn Station, Washington Square Park, the Meatpacking District, and a myriad of noteworthy settings getting a guernsey.
Adding to the thriller aspect is the sense that there is always something intrinsically seedy about a New York setting – an undercurrent of corruption and subterfuge pervading each scene. This quality is not something Davis shies away from, also replacing the ex-tennis pro vocation of Hitchcock’s antagonist, Tony (Ray Milland), with Steven (Douglas), a dodgy hedge fund manager. Michael Douglas is no stranger to playing disconcerting characters, with a filmography that includes Wall Street, Basic Instinctand Fatal Attraction. His slow cadence and gentle smile can put audiences on the edge of their seats for the entire runtime. And that’s exactly what he does in A Perfect Murderbringing the tension and unease to another level.
There is a modernization of motive at play too. Dial M For Murder makes it all about money. An ex-tennis player who had no endorsements with Nike is by no means set for life. Tony admits that any money they have belongs to his wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), that this is precisely why they were married, and that her death would result in his financial freedom. Whereas, in A Perfect Murder, Steven has a few extra issues to discuss with his therapist: there’s the money, of course, but also pride. His wife, Emily (Paltrow), is presented, to a certain extent, as a trophy wife, but reveals a good deal of autonomy, education, and worldliness (apparently), which makes her more than just a symbol of Steven’s success, but a source of his pride and self-worth.
In other words, this attractive, wealthy, educated, productive, turtleneck-wearing woman makes him look like he is all these things too. The knowledge that she is cheating hits him in the heart and the ego as well as the pocket. His preoccupation with her affair has clouded his judgment when it comes to his usual practice of ripping people off and is seeing his own wealth diminish by the day. So how does a crooked and cuckolded hedge-fund-dealing New Yorker get back his manhood? Murder, of course! It is unquestionably a 90s thriller solution to issues that could be resolved by divorce, but it makes more sense coming from a character played by Michael Douglas than it does an ex-tennis player.
This brings us to Emily, another modernized character with little more than the independent wealth (adjusted for inflation) and icy qualities maintained, she is liberated and unapologetic. It is not inconceivable that she had had numerous affairs prior to David (Mortenson), and it must be said that when he is killed, the grieving process is a short one. On some level, she seems to be aware of the role she plays in her husband’s fragile ego, but never sentimentalizes their relationship and conducts her affair with all the decorum of a woman who would wear pearls in Brooklyn. Even in moments of solidarity between husband and wife, there is a coolness between the two which suggests that it’s not so much a marriage but an agreement.
As well as being a well-dressed patron of the art (ists), Emily is proactive enough to take on the role of detective, and despite our turtle-necked trophy wife looking as though she spends her time rolling around in cashmere and martinis, she’s quite the gumshoe. Padding out her CV, we learn she is fluent in Spanish, uncovering clues and endearing herself to the community that would apparently cause trouble if she were not able to order a cerveza with such poise. And the private school education does not stop at español and forensics. Our Renaissance Woman also has a good crack at carrying on a conversation in Arabic with Detective Mohamed Karaman, played by Hercule Poirot himself, David Suchet. This may seem increasingly implausible and we begin to wonder whether future scenes will suggest her mastery of kung-fu, understanding of entropy, and appreciation of K-pop, but we are mercifully spared any montages with the explanation: she is a translator for the United Nations. That’ll do.
Then we have David. A Perfect Murder‘s answer to Mark (Robert Cummings), David is a struggling painter as opposed to a novelist, although it likely neither offers much in the way of disposable income. They both have hair. That’s pretty much where the resemblance ends. Mortenson possesses an earthy masculinity; seductive, and a bit (ok, a lot) dangerous, whereas Mark is wishy-washy, talkative and a bit of a gossip. In addition to being a painter, David is also a bonafide con artist, with the seduction of wealthy women as his MO. In many ways, the relationships in Davis’ film are cynical but more realistic. The idea of Grace Kelly smitten with a man who would lose his mind at someone turning up the thermostat is a tough sell.
The biggest change is arguably the twist, a necessity within 1990s cinema. Where Dial M’For Murder sees Tony blackmail an old school chum to carry out his wife’s murder, Steven enlists the help of her lover, offering him $ 500,000 and the promise to not tell anyone about his penchant for trust fund babies. Although he accepts the offer, it turns out that David really does love Emily and can not go through with it, instead, hiring a third party to do the deed. Which I guess is something?
The denouement is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. Emily confronts Steven, presenting him with all her intel (in English) and there could easily be a version of this particular relationship that sees the characters agree to disagree, as perverse as it is; the loveless marriage could continue in their stark Manhattan mansion, with oily Steven doing his oily trades, and Turtleneck Emily picking up a new member of the proletariat. But it is not to be, and we have the necessary violence to punctuate the film, Emily coming out as the victor. The perfect ending for a sexy 90s thriller. It’s a far cry from Hitchcock’s version which saw all characters assembled in the living room, with a calm confession from Tony as he congratulates the Inspector and has one last scotch before he is arrested.