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Female Trouble 

From Paltrow to Pickford

Wednesday, Jun 3 1998
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Surely one of the most bizarre dispatches from Hollywood recently was the news that director Gus Van Sant is planning to re-make Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Though there's nothing new or interesting about the essential idea of remakes - even from a director such as Van Sant, once identified, somewhat quaintly it turns out, as an independent - what did provoke some incredulity was the revelation that the grunge poet of Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho will be filming a shot-by-shot re-creation of the 1960 shocker, employing Hitchcock's own famously detailed script notes to retell a story that has inspired everyone from the most debauched schlockmeister to the most rarefied film theorist.

A Perfect Murder, which needless to say isn't, is less a remake of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder than an indistinct echo, a shadow play. Based on a Broad-way success and shot for Warner's in 1953, the Hitchcock film stars Grace Kelly as a wealthy woman whose lapsed tennis-pro husband, played with insinuating ease by Ray Milland, hires a raincoated killer to do her in in their own London flat.

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The thriller is tin-plated Hitchcock, claustrophobic and awkward ("There isn't very much we can say about that one, is there?" he once remarked to a bewitched Francois Truf-faut), notable only for the predictability of its impeccable craft, those ridiculously conspicuous scissors, and for being the only one of the director's features to be shot in 3-D.

Although star Mi-chael Douglas looms in the remake with as much menace as Hitch-cock's gleaming shears, the most blatant gimmick in A Perfect Murder isn't its functional use of film space, but its script, written by Pat-rick Smith Kelly and credited as being based on Frederick Knott's original play. Once again, Douglas essays a coarser variation on Gordon Gekko, as a Wall Street cowboy named Steven Taylor who, when the film opens, is being energetically cuckolded by his young heiress wife, Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow). The wife's partner in betrayal is a Brooklyn painter named David Shaw, whose strokes on canvas are less important than those executed on the altarlike bed in his boho loft. Played by the talented Viggo Mortensen, who was last seen barking orders at Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, David looks good in splatter and has undeniable rough-trade appeal, but is of dubious enough character to have hair that turns progressively greasier as the movie wears on.

Even if you've never seen Dial M for Murder, it's easy to glean what happens in A Perfect Murder from the print ad: "A powerful husband. An unfaithful wife. A jealous lover. All of them have a motive. Each of them has a plan." (Is this how Kelly pitched his script to the studio?) Each of the characters does have a plan, after a fashion, and each scheme receives far too much screen time and at least one aborted ending. As Emily blithely goes about her day - working at the U.N., where she translates various languages for the U.S. ambassador, stopping for a quickie at her lover's loft, then back home again to slide under her husband's boot - Steven plots her demise. The slight, new kink here is that it isn't just the husband who's going in for the kill, but quite possibly the lover as well.

All of this might be far more diverting if the audience weren't as keen as Douglas' husband to see a quick end to Paltrow's simp: Hands down, the single most exciting moment in the movie is when Emily is hurled over a kitchen table. Director Andrew Davis, who showed such promise with The Fugitive, isn't able to coax many thrills from this formulaic package, though he does manage to squeeze juice into the script's few zingers and to furnish the film with the burnished, well-appointed looks of a Lexus commercial. Best of all, either Davis or his casting director has been smart enough to give David Suchet a pivotal role as the detective with a bead on the truth. Suchet, who turned in a memorably clammy perform-ance in the independent film Sunday, steals A Perfect Murder whenever he's onscreen; his performance is a desperately necessary jolt.

For her part, Paltrow, who hasn't given a decent performance since her startling turn in Flesh and Bone, nearly sucks the movie dry. Paltrow may have been dipped in the same gene pool as Grace Kelly, but what a sensational bore she is! She makes the former princess look like an actor not just with range, but emotion. Douglas, a limited screen presence who's invariably better playing a villain than an everyman - here he looks like Robert Evans with the mouth of a carp - seems almost electric by comparison; at the very least, he seems alive. Mortensen generally seems bored. It gives away nothing to say that it all turns out exactly as the advertisements promise, or to note that David's decency is never really an issue, since it's axiomatic in contemporary movies that a man who volunteers cunnilingus can never be truly bad.

The story of Frances Marion, subject of Cari Beauchamp's meticulously researched book Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, is one of the most fascinating you've never heard. The first woman writer to win an Academy Award, Marion wrote her first screenplay in 1915 for Mary Pickford, worked with producers Irving Thalberg and David Selznick, and over the course of her career authored scripts filmed by King Vidor, Frank Borzage, George Cukor, John Ford, Victor Seastrom and Raoul Walsh. She directed two films and produced a handful of others, married four times and raised two sons. The title of Beauchamp's book comes from Marion's claim to have spent her life "searching for a man to look up to without lying down."

Among her best-remembered scripts are those for Valentino's The Son of the Sheik, Seastrom's The Scarlet Letter and The Wind, Garbo's Anna Christie and Wallace Beery's The Champ; she also co-wrote Dinner at Eight and Camille, and under the pseudonym Frank M. Clifton wrote stories and scripts for 11 Westerns that starred her husband, Fred Thomson. Two of the scripts she wrote for Pickford are among the star's most famous, The Little Princess (1917) and Stella Maris (1918). Neither as nauseating as the Shirley Temple vehicle nor as magical as Alfonso Cuar-on's 1995 version, The Little Princess was directed by Marshall Neilan, who also shot the far more interesting Stella Maris.

In that film, Pickford plays two orphans whose paths inadvertently cross: Stella Maris, a wealthy, beautiful cripple, and Unity Blake, a plain, slightly hunched castoff. Based on a novel by William J. Locke, the film is lavishly melodramatic and features outrageous class politics. (The villainess is a "commoner" who beats Unity so brutally that the woman's hair comes undone.) It's hard to gauge Marion's skills from the intertitles ("Blimey - it stinks elergant."), but what is undeniable is the narrative's elegance, its whimsy and the opportunity it afforded Pickford, as the luckless Unity, to briefly shuck her sweetheart image. Pickford retired in 1933; 13 years later, her friend's career was ended by Louis B. Mayer, who told the writer, "You never did take the business serious enough." Marion died in 1973 at the age of 84; she's credited as having written 325 scripts.

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