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Patricia Highsmith never wrote a movie script - she had neither the interest nor the aptitude, she said - but several of her novels have made the transition from page to screen. The most famous instances are Strangers on a Train, brilliantly filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, and Purple Noon, a stunning 1960 thriller based on Highsmith's 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, which has also been adapted for television, radio, and the stage. It's the first of five Highsmith novels about Tom Ripley, a scoundrel who is very talented indeed, and the film by French director René Clément is as gorgeous as it is gripping.
The story begins in Rome, where Tom has gone on a mission to track down his old friend Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), return him to his wealthy father in San Francisco, and receive an easy $5,000 for completing the mission. He quickly locates Philippe, and since the timetable isn't too strict, he gladly agrees to hang around Rome for a while, living la dolce vita while Philippe foots the bill. Another attraction is Philippe's girlfriend, Marge Duval (Marie Laforêt), an attractive intellectual who's writing an art-history book. Tom soon becomes Philippe's rival, pouring on the charm to woo Marge away. It's an odd sort of rivalry, though: the two men seem more fascinated by each other than by Marge, and their increasingly tense friendship often expresses itself through quarrels and hostile acts.
Things come to a crisis when the three head for sunny Sicily on Philippe's fabulous yacht. Philippe maneuvers Tom into a dinghy behind the big boat, stranding him in the sea when the towrope breaks, and then he blows up at Marge, throwing her precious manuscript over the side. Tom gets back on board, horrible sunburn and all, but Marge goes ashore as soon as they reach land, leaving the men to continue the voyage on their own. This is when we discover that Tom's many talents include a knack for violence. Back at sea and safe from prying eyes, he strikes out at Philippe with a knife, ending their rivalry with a crisply timed murder. Then he assumes the dead man's identity, learning to forge his signature, access his money, and pose as the playboy he's wanted to be all along. Philippe had many friends and associates, though, and fooling them isn't as easy as doctoring a passport or tricking a banker. How long can he keep the impersonation going, and what will he do if someone sniffs out the ruse?
It's a truism that villains can be more compelling than heroes, and Tom Ripley is no exception. None of the people he contends with after the slaying - the police, Philippe's father, a suspicious friend named Freddy Miles - can compare with him in terms of craftiness, charisma, and impeccable savoir faire. You can't help identifying with him, and Clément has a Hitchcockian flair for getting us to stand in his ill-gotten designer shoes. In his grimly dazzling Psycho, released the same year, Hitchcock made serial killer Norman Bates so boyishly appealing that you want him to succeed even after you know the evil he embodies. Something similar happens in Purple Noon, where viewing the world through Tom's devious blue-green eyes is much too beguiling to feel very guilty about. With his socially subordinate background and deep hankering for the luxuries of life, Tom is an extra-devilish Great Gatsby, determined to realize his dreams by any means that come to hand.
Much of the credit for Tom's allure goes to Alain Delon, a promising young actor who became a star on the strength of this portrayal. It remains one of his most memorable achievements, which is striking when you remember how many major classics he's appeared in for such towering directors as Michelangelo Antonioni (Eclipse, 1962), Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, 1963), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, 1967), Louis Malle (Spirits of the Dead, 1968), and Joseph Losey (Mr. Klein, 1976). Although he was as handsome and graceful as they come, he never traded on surface appearances alone, and a close look at Purple Noon reveals an impressive store of acting skills - covering the whole spectrum, from voice tones and hand gestures to the way he wears his character's elegant clothes - that are firmly in his command even at this early stage of his career.
Delon also makes an excellent partner with Ronet in bringing out the story's sexual subtext, which had to be suggested rather than spelled out in the era when the picture was made. Like a number of Highsmith's novels, The Talented Mr. Ripley uses a narrative about the transference of guilt and the slipperiness of identity to probe homosexual currents running just below the radar of the characters' social environments, and to some extent below the radar of the characters themselves. Tom's attraction to Philippe's cushy existence drives a growing attraction to Philippe, sparking an obsession with Philippe's girlfriend, clothing, general demeanor, and entire way of life; this makes the story of the two men a dark-toned romance as well as a colorful murder yarn. Working from a screenplay he penned with Paul Gégauff, who had worked on some early French New Wave pictures, Clément intimates these connotations with subtlety and restraint, making them integral to the film without quite speaking them aloud.
Purple Noon reaps further benefits from luscious color cinematography by the great Henri Decaë, who had recently shot Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), and music by Nino Rota, whose scores for Federico Fellini are among the most admired in all cinema. Of the movies based on her books, Highsmith's favorite was Strangers on a Train, but she admired Purple Noon and loved Delon's performance; she disliked only the ending, which bows to crime-movie convention instead of reproducing her own tough-minded finale.
Highsmith died in 1995, four years before Anthony Minghella directed an English-language version of The Talented Mr. Ripley under the novel's original title, with Matt Damon as Tom, Jude Law as Dickie (formerly Philippe), and Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge. Damon is a fine actor, but he can't match Delon's magnetism. Purple Noon still stands as the most riveting adaptation of Ripley's first adventure, rivaled only by Strangers on a Train as the best Highsmith movie to date.
Director: René Clément
Producers: Robert and Raymond Hakim
Screenplay: René Clément, Paul Gégauff; based on Patricia Highsmith's novel The Talented Mr. Ripley
Cinematographer: Henri Decaë
Film Editing: Françoise Javet
Production Design: Paul Bertrand
Music: Nino Rota
With: Alain Delon (Tom Ripley), Maurice Ronet (Philippe Greenleaf), Marie Laforêt (Marge Duval), Bill Kearns (Freddy Miles), Erno Crisa (Inspector Riccordi), Frank Latimore (O'Brien), Ave Ninchi (Signora Gianna), Barbel Fanger (Mr. Greenleaf), Nicolas Petrov (Boris), Elvire Popesco (Mrs. Popova)
by David Sterritt