I mentioned Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder only the other day, and it reminded me that there was a big-budget glossy remake, which came out exactly twenty years ago - June 4th 1998. So I thought it would be interesting to consider them as a pair, and as an exercise in the art of the remake. Both films have the same premise: a man, his wife, her lover - and what a chap might be willing to do to resolve that situation. The remake makes one critical change to the plot - which I can never quite decide is brilliant, or too clever by half.
What the original has going for it is a hit title, which is about 30 per cent of the battle: Dial M for Murder. True, technically we push buttons (or touch-screens) on phones these days, but we still refer to it as "dialing", don't we? Maybe not: I used to be very fond of the commercials for the 24-hour mattress company Dial-A-Mattress: "Dial 1-800-Mattress and leave off the last S — for Savings!" But now I think about it, I'm not sure I've it that this millennium. Nevertheless, in 1998, discarding the title of Hitchcock's 1954 film (and of Frederick Knott's ingenious stage play) is the new director Andrew Davis's first mistake. From its bland title onwards, A Perfect Murder has an almost perverse instinct for making the wrong judgment on what to keep and what to junk. So the result is not so much a remake but more a fascinating masterclass in how to miss the point.
Dial M for Murder was a stagy little play which Hitchcock turned into a stagy little film. "Some people make the mistake," he said, "of trying to open the play up for the screen. That's a big mistake. I think the whole conception of a play is confinement within the proscenium — and that's what the author uses dramatically. Now you are undoing a newly knitted sweater. Pull it apart and you have nothing. In Dial M, I made sure that I would go outside as little as possible. I had a real tile floor laid down, the crack under the door, the shadow of the feet — all part of the stage play — and I made sure I didn't lose that." I took my kids to a not-quite-so-good stage thriller last summer, but we all had a grand old time - because claustrophobia (the sense that, in this case, the woman is trapped in a small room) is something live theatre can do very well. If you un-knit the sweater, as Hitchcock put it, you better have something else in mind to tie it all together again.
Hitchcock didn't, so he stuck with the stagey claustrophobia. Tension is partly an act of compression (it bleeds away in open space) and Dial M's poky London flat subtly reinforces the characters' circumstances: for all his urbanity and club memberships, Ray Milland as the husband represents a very English straitened gentility. You can see why Grace Kelly might be minded to stray, and why Milland might be tempted to murder. Hitchcock always enjoyed finding evil in ordinariness.
That's not the way of his successors. In the remake, Andrew Davis takes Hitchcock's London pied à terre and turns it into a glittering New York palace. Instead of Milland and Kelly, we have Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow swanking about a Central Park apartment that's the size of a department store. Davis's camera soars, unable to resist the skyline, the neon, the dizzy vertiginous wonder of Manhattan. Douglas is, inevitably, a star on Wall Street, with an office as big as a football field. His wife's lover, Viggo Mortensen, is - what else? - a hip (ie ghastly) downtown artist, with long hair, designer stubble, and a loft as big as a football field. Douglas is a sleek conqueror, tall, tanned, luxuriant hair swept back to expose a forehead as big as a football field.
Hitch was supposedly in love with Grace Kelly, but it's nothing to how Andrew Davis dotes on Michael Douglas. Although he's nominally trying to murder Gwyneth Paltrow, the real battle is between Douglas and the sets, a GQ fashion shoot and a World of Interiors spread locked in combat struggling to out-dazzle each other: Douglas's fleshy malevolence versus his apartment's marble sheen. This is an excellent cast: Douglas at the peak of his powers, Paltrow at the dawn of her stardom, and Mortensen at the height of his cool. But every shot radiates the color of money, and Hitchcock's taut little thriller evaporates in the gloss.
In the remake's best twist (warning: plot spoiler), Douglas goes along to Mortensen's paint-splattered loft and makes him an offer: I know you're screwing my wife, but, never mind that, how'd you like to murder her for half a million bucks? There's a polished fury that oozes from Douglas's every pore: he seems to take a kinky, misogynist, Hitchcockian satisfaction in resolving the problem of his wife's infidelity by getting her lover to kill her.
Better yet, he has a plan, and, amazingly, it's no different from Ray Milland's: he'll give Mortensen a key to the apartment and then phone Gwyneth Paltrow at a pre-arranged time, at which point Mortensen will strike. It's so typical of latterday Hollywood to inflate everything (the apartments, the salaries, the furnishings) except the plot devices - and then not to notice that they no longer work. The phone call business makes no sense: in 1954, in London, getting the GPO (the Post Office, which ran the only phone company) to cough up a single lousy telephone was a big deal, no matter who you were: you had to wait months for a line, and, when you got in, you used it. In 1998, in a pre-smartphone age nevertheless awash in answering machines and private lines and extensions in every room, why would someone as rich as Miss Paltrow's character be expected to rise from her bath and plod all the way drip-drip-dripping down to the kitchen to answer the telephone?
At this point David Suchet shows up as an Armenian Poirot and we settle back to see how he'll break down Douglas's "perfect murder". But he never has to. Andrew Davis is so determined to make his own mark on the material that he sidelines the cops and indulges in an ever more debilitating series of variations on Hitchcock's plot structure until pretty soon everyone's double-crossing everyone else, and, in that case, who cares? It's not a question of needing a good guy to root for, so much as needing a bad guy to root for: Hitch is never so foolish as to let Robert Cummings overshadow Milland's saturnine cool. A Perfect Murder takes a solid reliable stage thriller and weakens every link in the plot until the whole thing hinges on two ludicrous howlers. And, in a thriller, if the details don't convince, it's over. Watch the original - and marvel at how you can remake it on a Nineties budget and miss everything that works.
~Mark will be back imminently at 7pm-ish North American Eastern Time on Saturday night or 9am-is Aussie Eastern Time on Sunday morning to join Rowan Dean and Ross Cameron on Sky News' hit show Outsiders. Don't forget our Tales for Our Time sampler featuring Steyn on Conan Doyle, Conrad, Kipling, H G Wells and more, and the results of our Steyn Club first-birthday "Oh Happy Day" competition. For Sunday and Monday we will have our Memorial Day observances.
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