Film Studies

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There's a movie opening this week called A Perfect Murder. I don't have anything to say about it as a work, but I wondered - "perfect" for whom? A Perfect Murder is an arresting title; it's wicked and alluring; it's a little along the lines of "What the Butler Saw" - as if to say, look, we know this isn't actually decent or allowed, but we think you'll get a thrill from it.

If you had to supply a quick definition for the "perfect" murder, it would probably be one you get away with. (Granted also a nice Roald Dahl-like elegance in the engineering - like a leg of lamb used as the murder weapon, then roasted and eaten.)

That surely suggests how far A Perfect Murder is aimed at the dreamer in all of us, the darker, plotting soul that has at least one person it would love to see removed ... if you felt you weren't going to be caught for it. Thus, if you work on the assumption that commercial cinema, the movies, the entertainment business, has always had as one of its greatest charms the power to show you - and let you fantasise in - something impossible or forbidden, it seems obvious why so much screentime is spent on killing, and the pursuit of its perfection.

We get angry with others; we can't understand why fate has had us related to him or her; we seek vengeance, clarification. But we smother that urge, and let the far-fetched thoughts of arsenic rest. And so we trudge on in life, wearier, more tightly locked in because of the self-denial. Movies, I think, owed their real power to the way they came along - in the period 1914-65 - when millions of us overcame our darkest, fantastic longings, but loved to see them acted out on screen. That's why, more or less, the movies dwell on sex and violence, and let the prim middle-class audience get its rocks and rapine off in the dark.

Healthy or unhealthy? I doubt we've ever known, or cared to find a way of measuring the answer - for fantasy is a cherished private privilege, the locked room where we triumph, and it functions in societies that know very different levels of censorship. However, there is this point to be made: somewhere in the 1960s, divorce and sexual experiment became real possibilities for that bourgeois audience - putting so much less load on fantasy. One reason why the movies "died", I think, is that people began to act out some of those urges; and because the large screen and its compulsive dark were replaced by the small picture of TV (burning so much less brightly), with the indoor lights left on. Just as cinema once urged us to dream, so TV helps us talk back, change the channel and mock the show. Kids of the TV age don't see the lustre or enchantment in the moving image the way prior generations did.

By the way, if you doubt this, did you see last Sunday's story about movie attendance? It is picking up a bit in Britain, thanks to multiplexes. But annual admissions in 1984 were 54 million - against 1,640 million in 1946.

Those numbers show a transition from reverence to scepticism, and I daresay that in most respects, it's good to have a populace less given to dreaming. But the "perfection" in murder comes from something else unique to film - the stealth, the grace, and the clean manner in which the killings occur.

Consider Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), in so many ways a model of the old ironic cruelty. It faithfully employs a superb device, or freedom, from Patricia Highsmith's original novel: that one of the tricky things with murder is not just that if you have a motive you will be a suspect, but that if you need to kill, you will be nervous and less artistic about it. So ... criss-cross. You do my killing, and I'll do yours. We both kill strangers. That's what Bruno (Robert Walker) says to Guy (Farley Granger) when he bumps into him on a train. Guy is a success, a handsome tennis star. Bruno does nothing but put on weight - and have the stunning idea.

He tracks down Guy's nasty wife (and the movies do nasty wives as well as they do sweet new loves). Hitchcock enlists us in the pursuit; his camera carries us along. And then Bruno throttles the bitch - she goggles, she puffs, she expires - and he hands the body down into the lens or mouth of the camera, as if it was his gift to us, the voyeurs who urged it on. There's no agony, no loss. Just a professional job handed with expert finesse. Perfect, and a perfection that eases away all thoughts of moral damage. The dead are better off dead, old boy - that's what Harry Lime said a couple of years earlier in The Third Man.

I'm just thinking aloud, of course. But I wonder if somehow we have found a way of taking life (and murder) less seriously because of all those movie deaths. After all, no one would think to make or offer a movie called A Perfect Rape or A Perfect Child Molestation. You'd have to call it ... Lolita.