Judge Brett Cullum now knows what a Merchant-Ivory version of Beverly Hills Cop might be like.
Axel: Oh God, this isn't heat. This is murder!
HVE has been releasing The Merchant Ivory Collection in association with The Criterion Collection, with the supervision of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory themselves. The Perfect Murder seems an unusual choice for this series, since the picture is actually directed by Zafar Hai. Merchant wanted to start a film unit to make independent features in Bombay; for this film, he served as executive producer, provided the financial backing, and helped acquire the rights to the source material. The Perfect Murder is based on the novel of the same title by H.R.F. Keating. It was never released widely outside of India, and only made some film festival appearances here in the United States. I can't imagine it's a movie Merchant Ivory fans have been clamoring for, but it does prove to be quite enjoyable, even if it is—surprisingly—a light comedy without any murders committed.
The plot is a simple "whodunit," where Bombay police Inspector Ghote (Naseeruddin Shah, Captain Nemo in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) investigates a near- (but not quite) fatal attack on a rich industrialist's private secretary. At the same time Ghote is stuck on a diamond smuggling case that seems to have reached a dead end. Tagging along on the investigation is a Swedish criminologist observing Bombay police methods, Axel Svensson (Stellan Skarsgård, Exorcist: The Beginning). They find themselves involved in at least three separate cases that seem unrelated, but as they dig deeper, they find that all things are intertwined in the Bombay underworld. Many big-name Indian actors make appearances, e.g. Amjad Khan, who plays a "Godfather" figure at the head of a family that may be involved in more than just real estate deals. Also present is Indian cooking legend Madhur Jaffrey, who is the visually striking matriarch of the family. All the actors do a fine job of filling their respective roles, but it is the agreeable chemistry between Shah and Skarsgård that really makes the movie so enjoyable. They both had enough charisma to break out of the local industries of their respective countries, and together they are a magical combination.
The funny thing about this movie is how it's pitched. The box looks all serious and dour, with Skarsgård and Jaffery looking sullenly at the camera, and even the description on the back of the jewel case makes you think this is going to be a classy Agatha Christie type murder case set in Bombay. I was expecting Death On the Nile—but actually got Beverly Hills Cop. Okay, so I'd actually call it Bombay Hills Cop. The Perfect Murder is a really funny cop buddy movie where the Swedish Axel (ironically the same name as Eddie Murphy's character in his comedy) finds himself oddly coupled with Inspector Ghote. Their styles totally clash, with the Swede wanting to "rough people up" for information and the Indian inspector insisting they remain polite and calm under all circumstances. There are tons of humorous scenes like one where Ghote leads an angry mob of women protesting pornography into the criminal syndicate's hideout by switching the signs on two buildings. It's the old "banana in a tail pipe," Bombay style! You go in expecting a dour, reflective Merchant-Ivory murder mystery, and end up with a slapstick Indian cop buddy movie. No wonder nobody ever heard of this one. It was mis-marketed, and probably confused whatever art house moviegoers were drawn by the Merchant Ivory brand name slapped on it. Adding to this confusion is the title itself. Nobody is really murdered in the course of the film; they're merely attacked in an attempted homicide.
The Bombay scenery is fantastic, and that is where the Merchant-Ivory connection seems to slip in. Walter Lassally was hand-picked by them to lens the film, so it ends up looking a lot like their pictures in the way the camera works within the story. Bombay plays the role of another character, since so much of the flavor of the movie is the result of what appear to be documentary shots of what the streets are like. It's a wild, colorful world, and the perfect setting for our two conflicting characters to spar and fumble. Bombay makes The Perfect Murder feel like a rich Indian dish full of spices and complex flavors that are intoxicating and exotic. It couldn't take place anywhere else, and I'm glad to see the city so well represented in a film. If you're curious about Bollywood, there is even a sequence in the film showing a scene being shot on the set of an Indian musical.
I could see this being a very enjoyable rental for fans of the actors involved, or anyone intrigued by India. It could be a purchase if you're looking to add a good film out of Bombay to your international collection. The disc sports a nice artifact-free widescreen transfer that is anamorphically enhanced. It looks dazzling. The sound is very problematic, though. It's a monaural mix that makes hearing the dialogue clearly a real chore. The Indian accents are so thick I had to switch to the English subtitles to catch everything, but it didn't help that the sound mix seems way too subdued to allow you to hear very well. There are no special features included on the disc at all. I thoroughly enjoyed the feature, and think its a great light mystery with a lot of charming comedy running through it. So put some chutney on your popcorn and go for it. Just don't expect a serious film like Howard's End or Room With a View and you'll be fine. The Perfect Murder would have probably done boffo box office and confused less people if they had called it "Beverly Hills Cop 3: The Bombay Case." It's more sophisticated than that…but you get the idea.
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