During the day I read all sorts of interesting and challenging books: film theory, the latest works of my friends, and, of course, plotless and multivoiced modern novels with unhappy characters for whom love solves nothing and cerebration brings misery. But at night, when insomnia threatens, I read detective stories; specifically, as an anodyne to the plotless surge of each day’s nagging problems, the classic British whodunit. Not for me at 2 A.M. the tough-guy thriller in the Mickey Spillane mold, or such scary contemporary spinners of the lurid as James Ellroy, Stanley Ellin, Ian Rankin. Even the Italy of Timothy Williams’ Commissioner Trotti is too close to chaotic political realities to put me to sleep. I go for the Oxbridge amateur sleuths in the elegantly designed labyrinths of Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons. In the postmodern vein of the abrasive gumshoe, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond are as acidic as I’ll go.
Of course I read Nancy Drew as a teenager, but alongside and earlier than my identification with the female sleuth was my allegiance and attraction to the brilliant male detective. It started with Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, passed through a pseudofeminist Lord Peter Wimsey phase and blossomed into fanatical devotion with those melancholy and poetic loners, Adam Dalgliesh and Inspector Morse (as played by Roy Marsden and John Thaw, respectively). My shameful secret-a passion for the Great Male Rescuer-dates, as most guilty secrets do, from childhood. When I was little, my father used to put me to bed with stories, continued in serial form each night, starring our detective, Pierre Boco. Soothed by the power of reasonable men to make women secure and bring order to the world, I went peacefully to sleep … but at the price of a lifelong addiction to rescue fantasies!
Thus, it was with some dismay that I watched A Perfect Murder and waited-in vain-for the beady-eyed detective played by David Suchet to solve the mystery and save the day. Midway through the film, he arrives at the scene of the crime, scans the bloody mess with his all-seeing eyes, even establishes a rapport with the wife in jeopardy, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. But then, like somebody who’s been invited to a party only to have the door slammed in his face, he develops a blind spot, falls for Michael Douglas’ crafty alibi and, clueless and incompetent, virtually closes the case. Clearly, poor Mr. Suchet’s role got excised somewhere along the way to satisfy the demands of action audiences for a visceral solution. It may be that his genteel detective-savior, so compelling as the authoritative yet chameleonlike Poirot, is for the refined sensibilities of small-screen British mystery addicts like myself, not for bloodthirsty action audiences. But there’s also the mandate for the new, politically correct, take-charge heroine, i.e. Woman, Save Thyself.
I grew up with Damsel-in-Distress and Someone-to-Watch-Over-Me scenarios, and now they’ve switched gears to Woman-in-Jeopardy-Saves-Her-Own-Life scenarios. Where once Grace Kelly cowered and shivered and waited to be rescued, now Gwyneth Paltrow cowers and shivers and blows the villain away. Where Joan Fontaine, in Suspicion , simpered and trembled, Julia Roberts packs a rod in Sleeping With the Enemy . I know I should applaud this new assertiveness, but when a
pistol-toting heroine opens fire on a swinish husband or invincible villain, some craven romantic in me still wants to be rescued. Myths of chivalry, with us since the Middle Ages, meet the new myth of female sovereignty, and for yours truly, there’s static in the attic.
As you’re undoubtedly aware, A Perfect Murder is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (itself an adaptation of Frederick Knott’s stage play), and I should advise you to read no further if you don’t want the ending spoiled (or is it too late?). The original has been altered and refurbished (and refurnished!) for the 90’s-exuberantly nasty, deplorably materialistic and confused about the new power heroine. In Hitchcock’s version, Ray Milland’s laid-back tennis bum plotted the murder of his rich and beautiful wife (Grace Kelly), a dimwit to whom we felt slightly and enjoyably superior. In the new version, Mr. Douglas, who would never play a genial villain, becomes a monster of malignancy as he schemes to kill Ms. Paltrow, a sleek fashion plate of a wife. A certain character grandiosity is required lest they be upstaged by sets and props-a sumptuous Fifth Avenue apartment, museum-caliber paintings and other appurtenances of the superrich. (Imagine the idea of a prenup furrowing the brow of Grace Kelly!) As an avaricious junk bond salesman, Mr. Douglas targets Ms. Paltrow, using her artist-lover as hit man, while she, reflecting the pendulum swings in feminism itself, alternates between empowerment and victimization. One minute she’s coolly professional as a multilingual United Nations translator who knows her way around town. The next she’s being played for a fool by both her lover (a career criminal) and her conniving husband. Is she subject or object; a gorgeous piece of property, like the other objets d’art in the apartment, or a woman with inner resources and a gun permit?
The audience at the screening of A Perfect Murder , a funky neighborhood crowd at West 84th Street and Broadway, talked back to the screen and clearly felt none of my qualms when Ms. Paltrow takes justice into her hands. They were disgusted when she, assuming the role of the guilty party, fell for Mr. Douglas’ baldfaced lie about his transaction with her lover. I could see their point. He’s trying to kill her, and she’s apologizing for being unfaithful. So they were more than delighted when the tables turned. Not for them due process: They didn’t want to see Mr. Douglas carted off to the hoosegow for some hypothetical term of imprisonment. (The increasingly vicious forms of rough justice that have been ladled out to Michael Douglas since Fatal Attraction suggest that if only he’d done time then, he wouldn’t be forced to expiate that crime in film after film!) This was the sort of crowd reaction that no doubt caused the film’s ending to be changed after showings to test audiences.
Maud, the 3-year-old daughter of friends of mine, has just discovered the small screen. What she loves is musicals, particularly My Fair Lady and Funny Face . “We’re encouraging her Oedipal phase,” her dad tells me with only a trace of irony. But what does it mean for her future as a woman, we wonder, that she’s hooked on these fairy tales-stories without prenuptial agreements-so early and so profoundly?
Would Hitchcock’s plots be too tame for today’s public of do-it-yourself avengers? Hitchcock was the great maestro of female masochism, all those pale blondes inviting desecration and violation before being rescued. But Hitchcock’s portraits of women in distress were more complicated than the two-dimensional Dial M for Murder . For one thing, the rescuers were knights in seriously tarnished armor and the women, including Kelly in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window , were spirited sensualists who threatened male composure. Finally, Hitchcock showed us our complicity in the fairy-tale romance when, in one of cinema’s most dramatic coups, he pulls the rug out from under us halfway through Vertigo , revealing the woman in distress to be factitious, a romantic myth. To our chagrin, we and Jimmy Stewart have been seduced into preferring the novelettishly mysterious Madeleine to the more earthbound Judy, Kim Novak’s other, all-too-vulgar flesh and blood incarnation. To add insult to injury, Stewart prefers both over the Mozart-loving and humorously intelligent Midge, played with winning charm by Barbara Bel Geddes-the sensible woman from whom we all flee. But that’s what the fantasy apparatus of movies is all about!