Friday, June 5, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`A Perfect Murder': The Clothes Are Nice, But The Details Don't Hold Up


Movie review XX 1/2 "A Perfect Murder" with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, Viggo Mortensen, David Suchet. Directed by Andrew Davis, from a screenplay by Patrick Smith Kelly (inspired by the play "Dial M for Murder," by Frederick Knott). Rated R. Running time: 107 minutes.

An ominously photographed New York City, focusing on an elegant uptown apartment and a funky downtown loft. An extramarital affair. Michael Douglas in a freight elevator. A steam-clouded bathroom.

Yes, "A Perfect Murder" certainly owes something to Hitchcock - it's a loose remake of his 1954 "Dial M for Murder" - but it owes a lot more to "Fatal Attraction." I kept hoping Glenn Close would show up and boil a bunny on the stove, but no such luck.

Not to say "A Perfect Murder" isn't enjoyable while it lasts. It's a sleek, shallow thriller that moves along nicely until its surprisingly flat ending. Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen make an attractive triangle, and the sets are elegantly murky. There's nothing here to make anyone forget "Dial M," and fans of that film might do better to simply stay home and rent it again, but "A Perfect Murder" is fun in a trashy, ooh-look-at-Gwyneth-and-Michael kind of way.

The story starts out simply: Emily Taylor, young heiress wife of powerful CEO Steven Taylor, is having an affair with David Shaw (Mortensen), a downtown artist whose hair is always hanging in his eyes and who seems to have plenty of spare time for afternoon trysts. (The ultimate yuppie scene appears here: the eroticization of espresso making.)

Steven, who's angry about the affair and happens to be having some cash-flow problems, contracts with Shaw to kill Emily for half a million bucks. A simple, foolproof plan - but nothing goes quite as scheduled, and the second two-thirds of the movie is a jumble of threats, blackmail, dead bodies, misplaced wedding rings and keys that don't seem to fit in the right locks (a detail right out of Hitchcock). And everything, of course, looks fabulous: This is the sort of thriller in which the $500,000 is carried around in a chic black Barneys bag.

As Steven, Douglas pulls out his usual array of half-smiles, enigmatic looks and smooth, purring speeches. He's not an expressive actor, but the upper-class-cad shtick he's been developing since "Fatal Attraction" suits the role perfectly. (The deadpan Steven, on visiting David's artfully scuzzy loft, murmurs, "I feel like I'm knee-deep in bohemian cachet.")

Paltrow performs her duties with aplomb, despite looking like Douglas' college-age daughter. Mortensen, who's definitely moving up in the world (he was last seen opposite Demi Moore in "G.I. Jane"), is appropriately sneery as David, whose dark motivations struggle with some inconvenient bursts of genuine feeling for Emily.

Director Andrew Davis, best known for "The Fugitive," tends to telegraph the action - when the camera lingers on a meat thermometer, we know that someone's going to do something nasty with it - but that's all part of the thriller-by-numbers game. And there are some nicely juxtaposed scenes, especially at the beginning, such as Emily and David in bed together intercut with glimpses of Steven, pacing in his office.

But there's little about the film that's memorable, except for the snazzy outfits. This is just as well, since many of the details don't hold up under scrutiny. (The Taylors live in an Upper East Side penthouse and they can't afford voice mail?) Essentially, "A Perfect Murder" is a movie to look at - and not to think about.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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