“A Perfect Murder,” the Michael Douglas-Gwyneth Paltrow suspenser that comes to video this week, is a loose reworking of a so-so Hitchcock film, 1954’s “Dial M for Murder,” But, even so, it rankles the diehards.
To a large extent, this is silly. Since traces of the director’s narrative grammar can be seen in nearly every movie today, why not go to the source? Hell, even Hitch made one of his movies twice — “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in 1934 and 1956. Besides, some of the best Hitch rips involve new scripts shot in derivative style. Stanley Donen’s 1963 “Charade,” for instance, may be the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made: posh, witty, with Cary Grant skating deliciously on the edge of absurdity as a mystery man guiding widow Audrey Hepburn through a body-strewn Paris. A decade later, Brian De Palma made a career out of mining Hitchcock’s style and plots; when “Sisters” came out in 1973, it seemed daringly perched between the exploitive funk of “Psycho” (with Margot Kidder almost as tremulously sympathetic as Norman Bates) and the romanticism of “Vertigo” (note the swoony score by Hitchcock regular Bernard Herrmann).
There have, of course, been straight remakes of Hitchcock, but they keep little of his fluid visual wit. For instance, while 1979’s “The Lady Vanishes” hews closely to Hitchcock’s 1938 version, the casting of crass Cybill Shepherd and fumbling Elliott Gould cancels any possibility of style. Far better is a Hitchcockian sequel, “Psycho II,” the 1983 attempt to cash in on the slasher-movie craze by reviving old Norman himself. Directed by Richard Franklin, it cannily lets star Anthony Perkins fill in the blanks left by the original, making Norman more than ever a victim of his own demons.
Then there are the Hitchcock parodies like Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” and the fiendish “Throw Momma From the Train,” in which writing instructor Billy Crystal sends one of his more backward continuing-ed students (Danny DeVito, who also directed) to see Hitch’s “Strangers on a Train,” setting off a blissfully ironic variation on that film’s crisscross murder plot.
Maybe that’s the way to approach the master: in smiling supplication. Lord knows, director Andrew Davis’ joyless, proficient “Murder” could have used some juice. Douglas, in full Gekko mode, and tissue-pale Paltrow take the roles (first filled by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly) of the rich older husband and the errant wife he plans to have killed. Murder’s one notable plot switch is that Paltrow’s lover, played by Viggo Mortensen, is a scuzz as well. Hitchcock kept his film (based on a play) close to the couple’s apartment; Murder fans out across Manhattan’s moneyed precincts, and while the sets are dreamy, it’s hard to care for these denizens of Trump Land. Comparing the endings is particularly instructive: What was a satisfying cat-and-mouse endgame between Milland and a detective (John Williams) is now a hasty, ridiculous shoot-out between man and wife. “Murder” makes a passable rental, but that, finally, is what’s wrong with it. It goes off without a Hitch.
Psycho II: B