Someday I may come to appreciate this director more (with this glorious exception); but, for the time being, the original, family-rated genre of noir – even noir with a moral foundation as almost all of Hitchcock's works possess – seems to miss the point. Noir is based on the presumption not only that we are fallen, but also that our plight is irreparable. Life with a moral end is for fools; charity is feckless because everyone is trying to exploit everyone else; the only thing worth doing is surviving, however enormous the price for that survival. Noir has led to subsets of modern genres of cinema, most notably those glorifying professional cozenage that only seem to please people who like seeing others squirm (I cannot count myself among those sadists). Yet for many years ostensible prudishness and family values – two things that can be both admirable and nauseating – ultimately prevented noir from doing what it was made to do: namely, be as sleazy as possible. Sexless, bloodless noir, as it were, is worse than alcohol-free beer; it's more like alcohol-free vodka. Modern cinema, however, allows for practically everything and often to great gory excess, and noir has rightly claimed its portion of the fun. Now tough-talking gumshoes actually see the marrow of murder with their (and our) very eyes, and the guileful gals who routinely attract these gumshoes – along with a lot of other unsavory types – do more than kiss and smoke cigarettes. This evolution would explain the rather smashing improvement on one of Hitchcock's classics in the form of this film.
We are trapped in the eternal triangle that has spawned so many stories of every quality level: a husband (Michael Douglas), a wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), and a paramour (Viggo Mortensen). Our husband, Steven Taylor, is in love with money, himself, and his wife's money, in that particular order. His wife Emily, about twenty-five or half Steven's age, has a gaudy family inheritance coming her way and so spends her time learning languages for work as a United Nations interpreter; that Emily's knowledge of languages appears to straddle the supernatural should tell you the film's exact proximity to reality. The third component in this fine set to accompany the wealthy materialist and the hyperlearned ingénue is, of course, the womanizing, penniless artist, who has the rather unfabulous name of David Shaw. David is a character who obviously has done some bad things in life, mostly, we suspect, to unsuspecting women. His artistic ability lies predominantly in his image: he is relaxed and cool in a studied way, always ready to emphasize art's superiority to life, always indifferent to the vicissitudes of the daily grind, which, as any genuine artist will tell you, is a sure sign of a fraud. Real artists constantly vacillate between plunging headlong into the creative world they love and embracing the realm in which everyone else seems to exist. The dichotomy has led many fine minds down to path to a total disconnect with common activities, words, and thoughts, and ultimately to dreary isolation in the darkest corners of their ever-lacerated psyche. Our David, who paints rather shabby, omnifarious blurs, as well as a few bathetic portraits, is not who Emily thinks he is. She is madly in love with him while he keeps a certain distance abetted by an occasional semi-confession that suggests he might be changing his ways. Apart from the explicit lack of evidence of change in womanizing charlatans throughout history, there is also the tiny matter of sweet Emily's moneybags ancestry – a fact that does not elude the watchful, leering eyes of Steven.
Douglas has long held the title of most loveable sleazeball, and for good reason. There is something in his speech and mannerisms that expresses selfish desire in such an aesthetically pleasing way that we cannot help thinking how one goes about maintaining such an aura. Near the beginning of our tale he confronts David with extensive knowledge about his adultery, a revelation that would have brought someone truly enamored to plead for the well-being of his soulmate. But this is precisely what does not occur. Once his game is exposed – that is to say, once Steven phrases his suspicions in such an unambiguous way as to show exactly what he thinks of David – the artist retreats to the impecunious and helpless persona that has served him in the past in the pluming of many a silly goose. A satanic pact is then struck that should tell you all you need to know about the two men at work. Of course, as satanic pacts go, this one dooms both sides when it goes awry owing to one party's hesitation, a quite justified hesitation at that, to trust the other party. Steven insists on attending his weekly card game, Emily is instructed to take a long, hot, reflex-deadening bath, and I will leave matters right there.
The original Hitchcock production was based on a play that functioned by having oblivious characters being offscreen at crucial moments, one of the easier conceits of drama since the Greeks began plotting a bevy of bad things during their soliloquies. The annoying stage details notwithstanding, what Dial M for Murder suffers from is the old adage of all talk and no walk. The characters scheme and dream with such malice but then behave so civilly to one another that it would take superhuman acting to overcome, which while good is not on hand. A Perfect Murder, in its reluctance to pull punches, transforms an intriguing story that could easily have originated as a barroom test of oneupmanship into a greasy, messy parable for getting what you wish for. And for Steven and David, what they really want lies far beyond the young blonde heiress who ricochets between them.