Tuesday, December 11, 2012


So, who is Tom Ripley? When I ask this question, I must limit the scope to Patricia Highsmith's original novel, as well as to Anthony Minghella's 1999 film adaptation, as well as -- and this is more to the point of today's post -- René Clement's 1960 adaptation of the novel, called Purple Noon. The Clement film was released last week as a gorgeous Blu-ray by Criterion, and in the lead up to that release I was moved to finally -- finally! -- read Highsmith's novel and rewatch as much as I was able to of Minghella's film. And there, as it pertained to "research" prior to watching Purple Noon, my focus had to stay. I haven't read any of the other books of what I've recently learned is sometimes referred to as the "Ripliad," Highsmith's series of five novels, which she wrote over the course of pretty much her entire forty-something-year career, about a quite appalling and very clever murderer. I've seen the two adaptations of the third book, Ripley's Game, Wim Wenders The American Friend with Dennis Hopper as Ripley, and Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, which stars, as it was foreordained, John Malkovich. (The second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground, was turned into a film in 2005 by Roger Spottiswoode, with a screenplay co-written by His Eminence, Donald E. Westlake, and starring the not-quite-as-foreordained-as-John-Malkovich Berry Pepper as Ripley. To my knowledge, no one in the world has ever seen this movie.) But so, with that needless bookkeeping aside, I'm left asking "Who is Tom Ripley" because how the man is depicted in the Minghella and Clement films, and how those depictions do or do not match Highsmith's original, is something that people who care about this stuff care about quite a lot (I'm not judging, for I, too, care).

It's perhaps to be expected that Minghella ends up taking it in the teeth a bit, in comparison to Clement. The idea is that Minghella portrays Ripley as altogether too emotional, too damaged by others, too empathetic, even, and that Ripley as originally imagined by Highsmith was more of a cold-blooded alien, using humans and their weaknesses however he saw fit. The Ripley that exists in subsequent novels may well be like that, but in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella is not that far off when he shows him to be an awkward doofus scrambling for acceptance. I might as well dispense with the important elements of the plot now: Tom Ripley (Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Alain Delon in Purple Noon) lives in New York (San Francisco in Purple Noon), just barely getting by, when he's approached by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn in Minghella's film, barely there at all in Purple Noon) and asked, because Mr. Greenleaf has an inflated sense of the relationship between the two, to go to Italy, Mongibello specifically, and talk his son Dickie (Jude Law in Minghella's, Maurice Ronet in the Clement film, in which he is, for some reason, named Philippe Greenleaf) into returning home. Mr. Greenleaf will pay him to do this, and Tom agrees, seeing all sorts of potential in this situation. Once there, Ripley's psychopathy and sociopathy begins to bleed through -- in Highsmith and Minghella, Ripley is clearly sexually attracted to Dickie, and he soon idolizes the shallow young man, whose relationship with another American expat, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow in the one, Marie Laforet in the other) Tom dismisses as being one-sided on Marge's part. In Minghella's film, it might well be; in Highsmith and Clement, it's harder to say. In any case, Dickie is not one to idolize, but not because Tom is better than Dickie. Try telling that to Tom, though, who soon feels rejected and hated and angry. He decides to murder Dickie, not only out of vengeance, but also because Tom, a gifted mimic and forger, sees that with some hard work and imagination, he can take Dickie's place, and live Dickie's life, and spend Dickie's money. Not with Marge, who he intends to let down, as Dickie and via the Italian mail system, as gently as possible, which is to say, what Ripley would consider gently, which is to say, not very gently. Throw in a smug pal of Dickie's who becomes supicious, named Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman/Billy Kearns) and some Italian police, and you have the basics down.
Now, Minghella is not wrong, if his degree of faithfulness to Highsmith is of paramount importance, in making Ripley somewhat sensitive. It is true, however, that he goes overboard (this is something I talked about with Bryce Wilson as I was reading the novel, and he was correct). One of the unappealing things about his film, which is only really unappealing after you've read Highsmith, is how unpleasant he makes Dickie. Clement does this too, to a degree, but as we'll learn Clement is doing all sorts of different things in Purple Noon. In Minghella's film, Dickie is mean and thoughtless and selfish and brutish. In Highsmith, he's just kind of shallow, really. Freddie Miles is also much worse in Minghella's film -- he's barely in the Highsmith novel -- and (here's a spoiler for you) when you consider that these people, as victims, account for both the murders Highsmith included, you do sort of have to ask why Minghella felt compelled to push our sympathy so far in the direction of their murderer. Highsmith, who from what I understand was a genuine misanthrope in real life, does not do this. What interests her about Tom Ripley in that first novel is depicting a man who has always had the capacity to commit murder inside him but wasn't really aware of it, and then when the moment comes he finds without any surprise that he's entirely capable of taking another person's life. From there, her novel is about existing with this, not on the killer's conscience, but simply as something that is now part of his life. It's a thing he can and will do again, and he's fine with it. It's like suddenly discovering you have a talent for music. That's the skin-crawling brilliance of Highsmith's novel.

But Minghella wore his bleeding heart on his sleeve, and he seems to believe that if a person is living a sad life, which is how Highsmith portrays Ripley in the early parts of her book, then that life must be so sad, and so unfair that any victims left in the wake when the person living that life kicks back, must have had it coming, if not in strict moral, eye-for-an-eye terms, than at least in some karmic sense. If we're to sympathize with Ripley even after two murders (but not after three, Minghella having added one at the end, rather effectively, it must be said, and in a way that does sort of cut into the queasy empathy he'd been building up to that point) then his victims have to be a couple of real assholes. This is the sort of thinking that gets people like John Dillinger and Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde turned into folk heroes, and it's one of the time-honored movie cliches I'm least fond of. The curious thing about ending up feeling this way about Minghella's film -- a film I used to like a lot more than I do now -- is that it is, in terms of plot, quite faithful to the novel. It's not even unfaithful to the spirit, really, at least for a while. But my problem, fundamentally, is that what interests Minghella about Ripley is not as interesting as Ripley is, as he was originally conceived.

So where does this leave René Clement and Purple Noon? Clement achieves that weird thing that great filmmakers sometimes do, which is to adapt a great novel and remain more faithful to it by diverging wildly from it. Clement doesn't lose his mind and move the action from Italy to Antarctica and set it in 1980 (note: in 1960, 1980 would have been the future), but he does change a lot, some of it subtle, some of it rather bold. To begin with, Purple Noon kicks off with Ripley not only already in Mongibello -- Mr. Greenleaf's extremely brief appearance comes at the end -- but he's already locked into his relationship with Philippe and Marge. There's no build, Tom Ripley doesn't appear to be harboring an uncomfortable obsession with Philippe, no apparent hatred for Marge (quite the opposite, in fact). The key scene from Highsmith's novel, when Dickie stumbles on Ripley dressed in Dickie's clothes and just basking in them for various reasons, which Minghella also mines for all it's worth, occurs something like twenty minutes into Purple Noon, so that it's significance is not at all the same. Clement allows for some kind of strange sexual component when he has Delon, before Maurice Ronet as Philippe Greenleaf walks in, kissing his own mirror image, but whatever's going on in Ripley's head at the moment, which Highsmith would make clear to the reader if not to the somewhat muddled Ripley himself, and Minghella would probably have someone state outright, is left, by Clement, in the character's head. Purple Noon is not an act of psychoanalysis, which to varying degrees the other two versions of the film could be regarded as.
Not long after, we will learn that Ripley's plot all along has been to murder this man and take his identity. He tells Philippe as much, and then follows through. Minghella portrayed it as an act of passion, for Highsmith its status as a planned act lasted only a couple of hours, from conception to execution. In Purple Noon, Ripley could have been thinking about this for weeks. This changes Ripley utterly, or perhaps strips him to his core. It's hard to say which. Possibly neither. Pretty clearly though, in Clement's version, Philippe Greenleaf may not have been his first murder, which even in Highsmith we know for a fact Dickie was. In Purple Noon, Ripley does not discover that he's okay with committing murder, rather, he's always been okay with committing murder. Even if Philippe's his first victim, his own ease with it had long ago been worked out in his mind. As Ripley, Delon portrays the occasional moment of panic, where appropriate, but otherwise he's extraordinarily certain of himself. And why shouldn't he be? There's a conceit to Highsmith's premise, having to do with Ripley's physical resemblance to Dickie, which she pushes about as far as it can go, and perhaps further, and which Minghella really doesn't quite bring off, that Clement, Delon, and Ronet nail beautifully. There's no doubt in my mind that Delon's Ripley would fool the people he fools in Purple Noon, and without any kind of conscience to hold him back, why shouldn't his confidence be soaring? In Highsmith, Ripley only becomes truly comfortable with his own safety at the very end; Delon plays Ripley as though safety was his due. Clement takes this as an opportunity to eventually pile on the irony, in his biggest departure from the original novel. This is not Highsmith, but it is extremely interesting.

The other thing about Purple Noon that noses it well ahead of Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley is that it's just wonderfully made. I'd say a lot of this has to do with the fact that Clement made his film only seven years after Highsmith's book was published, and therefore his Mongibello would quite naturally resemble Highsmith's far more closely than Minghella's almost-forty-years-removed, art-directed-to-shit approach (I'm not knocking Minghella here, I basically like his work, but this is the deal with period pieces), but also take, for instance, the murder of Freddie Miles. There's nothing wrong with the way Minghella handles it, but Clement's framing, and clinical noting of odd details, recalls Highsmith's chillingly plainspoken style. Actually more to the point is that here Clement's editing and shot choices put me in mind of Jean-Pierre Melville, which, if there's higher praise I'd like to hear it. But that is the way Clement approaches this story of a murderer -- the way Melville approaches his stories about thieves. Stylistically, anyway, but when dealing with murder, the criminal mind becomes far less fathomable than it would be if all that was happening was some money was being stolen. This is why, for all its many and significant differences, Purple Noon feels more like Highsmith than Minghella's more surface meticulousness: Clement doesn't pretend to try and make us understand Ripley, and he knows that Highsmith was only fooling you into thinking you did.


Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the mention Bill.

I have to admit I'm still a bit curious what you made of the staging of Dickie's murder itself. I still feel that the way its shot it seems borderline self defense, or at the very least accidental in the sense that Ripley didn't intend to go so far. What say you?

bill r. said...

I actually don't agree. You were right about the rest of it, but watching the film again, Dickie slaps at Ripley, in a way that's far more humiliating than threatening. He didn't intend to go so far in the sense that he didn't get on the boat planning to kill Dickie, but once he starts I think he's committed to the concept.

Tony Dayoub said...

"In Highsmith, Ripley only becomes truly comfortable with his own safety at the very end; Delon plays Ripley as though safety was his due. Clement takes this as an opportunity to eventually pile on the irony, in his biggest departure from the original novel. This is not Highsmith, but it is extremely interesting."

I agree. The final twist has never really bothered me in terms of its lack of faithfulness to Highsmith because it leaves room for me to imagine that somehow Delon's Ripley shall find a way to wiggle out of his predicament. Damon's Ripley always struck me as a bit too uncomposed to adequately do the same in a similar situation.

My point is that even in its divergent ending, PURPLE NOON feels, if not exactly faithful, like it has at least struck the right tone.