This essay about a character from film and literature is in part prompted by reminiscence. In 1976 I met Patricia Highsmith at her house in Moret, a tiny village near Fontainebleau. The encounter did not last very long, perhaps three quarters of an hour, and did not lead to any enduring correspondence. Highsmith’s distraction at the presence of this Australian enthusiast was not allowed to last. I missed the local train back, walked all the way to Fontainebleau and allowed a couple of things to stick in the memory which I will refer to later. Let me start at the beginning.
Sometime early in the ’60s I saw the poster image of Alain Delon, stripped to the waist, impossibly handsome, at the wheel of a sailing boat, over the bold title Full Sun (not Purple Noon, as it was called in America). Then there was the film – a sleek glossy thriller, unlike any American film I knew, which to the innocent eye looked like a New Wave movie. It was a film whose characters have American names (like that of Charlie Kohler in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le Pianiste [Shoot the Pianist, 1960]). There was luscious location shooting, lots of slippery handheld camera work by Henri Decaë, loads of white and blue natural light. (Colour wasn’t a feature of the early New Wave pictures but I could not distinguish the films from each other then. After all, we were denied A Bout de Souffle [Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959] and any films by Rohmer or Rivette or Varda or Demy. For a while, those three little sex comedies with which Phillipe de Broca launched his career were, so were told, the essence of the French New Wave.) Full Sun (Plein Soleil, René Clément, 1959) featured an amoral hero of complete fascination. If ever a film turned an actor into a star it was this was one. Alain Delon as Tom Ripley seemed to epitomise so much beautiful grace, despite playing a character who was gauche and out of his depth socially. But his darting watchful eyes served a character who wanted to get inside other people’s skin. Delon was the epitome of the romantic bad boy at a time when amoral heroes in Chabrol’s films and Truffaut’s films were all the go – even without Belmondo’s Michel.
The source material only registered on a second viewing, a novel titled The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. I started reading Highsmith at a rapid rate. At that time she had published seven or eight novels which she once described, very simply somewhere, as books in which she studied the effects of guilt on her characters. Whether her characters had committed a crime or not, did not make much difference. One of the exquisite ironies of her narratives was that sometimes the most innocuous and innocent act would have the most devastating consequences. In others, elaborate facades, inevitably leading to murder, were erected by people whose psychology was so far off the rails as to render them impervious to any thought of apprehension. The Blunderer, which had already been filmed in 1953 by Claude Autant-Lara (as Le Meurtrier, a film I’ve never seen), featured as its hero a man who buries a carpet in an attempt to simulate the feeling of burying his errant wife. This trivial stupidity leads to his doom. This Sweet Sickness, directed by Claude Miller in 1977, tells of a man who constructs an extraordinary separate existence for a woman who knows nothing of his infatuation.
Then there was the character of Tom Ripley, almost an antidote to the other Highsmith creations. Ripley is the street smart, smooth operator who feels no guilt at all, a man who can rationalise deceit, lies, criminal behaviour and even murder in a way not even the sharpest politician could equal. Highsmith’s opening lines of The Talented Mr Ripley quickly establish two things. Ripley is fearful of apprehension and he is already involved in a minor but elaborate piece of criminal confidence trickery.
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage heading his way. Tom walked faster.
And a page or so later:
This raised his total in cheques to one thousand eight hundred and sixty three dollars and fourteen cents he calculated in his head. A pity he couldn’t cash them.
The little scam involves requests for money, cashing cheques and impersonation – all designed to show that Ripley can easily carry off the much bigger game of impersonating Dickie Greenleaf and living off his money. After Tom returns to his flat, having just got the job of going to Europe to retrieve Dickie, we read:
slowly he took off his jacket and untied his tie, watching every move he made as if it were somebody else’s movements he was watching
Already Ripley’s self-awareness, his ability to step outside himself and become another character, is set by quintessential Highsmith prose – flat, containing no superfluous adjectives yet conjuring up the image perfectly. The attraction of the prose for filmmakers has never diminished. (Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, Michel Deville, Hans Geissendorfer [twice] and Claude Chabrol have also filmed her novels, as has the BBC in a brilliant six part serial of the early ’70s adapted from A Dog’s Ransom.)
For years, Ripley existed in my mind in the image of Alain Delon, an image reinforced by the novels which followed: Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game. I ignored the ending of René Clément’s film whereby the police net closed in right after the discovery of the body of the murdered Greenleaf (Phillipe in Full Sun, Dickie in the book and Anthony Minghella’s new screen adaptation  which keeps the book’s title). Highsmith got Ripley off scot free, an ending apparently insufficient in drama for the filmmakers, both of whom go for a different take – Clément for the irony of the ’50s, Minghella for the ambiguity of the ’90s. For Highsmith there was just a momentary apprehensive sweat before he sails off to Greece, the beneficiary of Dickie’s will, a solitary psychopath of great fascination.
Plein Soleil (Full Sun)
In Full Sun René Clément dispenses with the part of the novel set in New York. He simply plonks Ripley down on the pavement in Naples where he and Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) are drinking too much, chasing girls and generally living the lives of spoilt young men. An American friend, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns) lumbers past and the hostility between Freddie and Ripley becomes evident, mostly in Ripley’s suspicious glances. (Freddie is accompanied by two girls, one of whom either is, or else bears an astonishing resemblance to, an uncredited Romy Schneider.) Ripley and Greenleaf return to Mongibello on the Amalfi coast and we learn that Greenleaf is involved with Marge (Marie Laforêt), who is somewhat disapproving of this wilful behaviour and not really keen on Ripley’s presence in the household. All of this takes only minutes to establish.
Much of the economy can be ascribed to the scriptwriting skills of Paul Gégauff, a writer with quite exceptional capacities to compress and suggest in a minimum of words (dialogue). The late Brian Davies pointed out that the connection between this film and Claude Chabrol’s early career lay in Gégauff’s contribution. Starting with Les Cousins (1958), Chabrol and Gégauff collaborated on eleven films including Les Biches (1967), Que le Bete Meure/This Man Must Die(1969) and Ten Days Wonder (1971). The relationship ended, probably badly, with the bizarre Une Partie de Plaisir (1974) in which Gégauff and his family take the leading parts. The most memorable scene in early Chabrol (in Les Cousins) is that in which the evil Clovis (Claude Cerval) seduces Florence (Juliette Mayniel) on behalf of the leading man, Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy). Only Gégauff could have conceived it.
The murder of Greenleaf on the boat in Full Sun, a scene taken directly from Highsmith, is rendered by Clément and Gégauff as a coldly cruel, intentional act of violence. The plunging in of the knife under the table into the victim’s stomach is quite shocking in its brutal efficiency. Highsmith presaged this moment by describing Ripley’s murderous intent. In an incident which is brought from the book into both films, Ripley leaves Greenleaf thinking that the latter will be spending time with Marge. He then returns to Greenleaf’s house and starts trying on his clothing in front of a mirror and impersonating his voice. Highsmith goes on however to add:
“Marge, you must understand that I don’t love, you” Tom said into the mirror in Dickie’s voice.Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge’s throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower until he left her limp on the floor.
Clément could hardly use this image because he decides that Tom has eyes for Marge and will eventually seduce her. Minghella leaves it out probably because he is searching to make Ripley a more complex character, someone whose motives are a little more muddled and whose actions are more of the momentary opportunity than Highsmith created. Minghella in an interview in Sight & Sound (Feb 2000) talks about “unravel(ling) Ripley”. The crucial element of this unravelling is the focus on Ripley’s sexuality.
“Making Explicit the Book’s Gay Sub-Text”
Well that is how one reviewer succinctly put it. Much of that “gay sub-text” may be externally driven. Highsmith’s first book, Strangers on a Train (1951), was filmed by Hitchcock and there has been much focus on the relationship between Bruno and Guy. As well, it took some decades for it to be publicly revealed that Highsmith had published her second novel, The Price of Salt, about a lesbian affair, under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan. These may be colouring elements to any conception of Ripley in the ’90s. However, such externalities aside, there is much in the book that raises this tricky question and the question of what Highsmith is trying to tell us about Ripley. The opening sentence quoted above is followed by:
My God what did he want? He certainly wasn’t a pervert.
The last word being rendered in Italics. But the book does offer room for maneuver.
“Another thing I want to say, but clearly,” he said looking at Tom, “I’m not queer. I don’t know if you have the idea that I am or not”
“Queer?” Tom smiled faintly. “I never thought you were queer”
“Well Marge thinks you are.”
“Why?” Tom felt the blood go out of his face … Nobody had ever said it outright to him, not in this way.
.. “Dickie, I want to get this straight” Tom began, “I’m not queer either, and I don’t want anyone thinking I am.”
And on the passage goes for another page or so that I need not bore you with.
Minghella makes Ripley’s (Matt Damon) longing for Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) very explicit. He then goes on to elaborate the whole simple end of the book into a very long sequence where Ripley has settled himself down in Venice with his new lover, Peter Kingsley-Smith (Jack Davenport), a gay character dragged out of the background of the novel. Thus Ripley has quite a detailed sex life, one made more complicated by his romancing of the heiress Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett), a relationship, which in a coda with a lot of loose ends, leads to Peter’s murder as well. All this is derived from a book in which the author does play a little game with Ripley’s sexuality. This happens after the book first appears to say, in a memory Ripley has of spurning a woman’s romantic overtures, that Ripley is indeed a virgin. Minghella himself thinks that as well, according to his interview in Sight & Sound.
If this is the case you have to wonder where Ripley summoned up the gall to subtly proposition Dickie in the already famous scene where they are playing chess, with Dickie naked in the bath and Tom clothed outside it. Ripley suddenly says he is cold and asks if he can get in. Dickie’s look is sufficient for Ripley to quickly reply that he meant after Dickie had got out. Dickie does get out and the camera gazes on Ripley as he, and we, see his naked reflection. For a character represented as desperate to be manipulative and in control its quite a false move. And it rings somewhat uncertainly with Minghella’s statement that “a lot of what Ripley’s feeling is to do with a terror of what it means to feel physical interest.” Minghella also feels a need to further elaborate on Dickie’s character by adding to his ambiguous relationship with Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). He invents a local shopkeeper Silvana (Stefania Rocca), with whom Dickie is clandestinely involved and who eventually suicides while pregnant with Dickie’s child.
Cracking Open the Highsmith Nut
I have to confess to being unconvinced by this take on Ripley. Perhaps I prefer the earlier simpler model that Highsmith left. This version wants to steer around his complete amorality. He may sweat a little at the thought of apprehension but that’s it. In the Foreword to a collection of Highsmith short stories Graham Greene wrote:
This is a world without moral endings.It is not the world as we once believed we know it, but it is frighteningly more real to us than the house next door. Actions are sudden and impromptu and the motive sometimes so inexplicable that we simply have to accept them on trust. I believe because it is impossible.
Anthony Minghella’s film has taken the book as a text and a challenge. He wants to crack open the Ripley character, set out the pieces for all to see. This take on Ripley, where he has unrequited love for Dickie, is a view drawn from Highsmith herself.
He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility.
Minghella set this out himself in an interview in one of those “the making of” programs shown late at night on TV:
Its almost like Ripley has become the Dickie he wanted to be. It’s a Dickie with Ripley’s taste, Ripley’s desires. It’s a Ripley unconstrained, a Ripley who doesn’t hate himself. That’s the transformation.
This view of Ripley is seen to its best advantage when Freddie Miles, a brilliantly sour performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, discovers what is thought to be Dickie’s Rome hideaway. Instead Ripley is ensconced and wanders through complaining about the taste of the decoration (“Did you get this flat furnished?” he enquires) and denounces it (“Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, this isn’t Dickie. This is so bourgeois”).
Freddie also gets included to great effect in a scene common to both films but not in the Highsmith text when Tom peers through a hatch to catch a glimpse of Marge and Dickie making love below decks. The only words are those creepily uttered by Hoffman almost as an aside. “No peeping Tommy.”
The new film responds to the text but I feel a bit like Garbo at the end of a screening of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946) when she cried “give me back my beast!”)
Highsmith had a lifelong fascination with impersonators. One (of two) questions she asked me was what I thought it was about Melbourne that would attract the disgraced British MP John Stonehouse to take refuge there. “Huh” I think I answered.
Minghella’s film takes this very Highsmithian element much further. He desires to give Ripley a psychology far beyond the merely amoral. To pursue this he decides that Ripley has never met Dickie and the film starts with a series of Ripley lies – first to Dickie’s parents, then to Meredith Logue at the docks in France, then to Dickie himself. The Highsmith plot, already elaborate, is made even more intricately so, climaxing perhaps in the very finely timed scene where Ripley arranges to meet two people at the same place, one of whom thinks he’s Tom, the other of whom thinks he’s Dickie. Now I have to confess that this sort of plotting is largely missing from today’s movies. Caper films and crime thrillers just don’t try and keep the audience on a piece of string this long. Nor do they try for the moment with the policeman questioning Ripley as Greenleaf inside the flat while Marge waits outside expecting to see Greenleaf himself. That has a moment of quite visceral tension. But this elaboration lengthens Minghella’s film out to a quite unusual length for a thriller. It is close to fifty minutes longer than Clément’s film, due in no small part to its re-invention of Ripley’s past, the addition of characters and a desire for a couple of dramatic climaxes. The first has Marge screaming as she’s taken by boat in Venice after discovering incriminating evidence. The second has the long sequence where Ripley, upon being discovered, is forced into yet another murder. It also beefs up the part of Freddie Miles, though it’s hard to conceive of Highsmith ever resorting to the crudity of Freddie’s opening line: “Don’t you wish you could fuck everyone of them just once?!”
The Vile Marge Sherwood
The feature of the film that Minghella has the greatest trouble getting a Highsmithian grip on is the character of Marge Sherwood. Minghella talks of reading a letter that Highsmith wrote in which she referred to someone as “a vile creature, a Marge Sherwood type.” Highsmith’s view of Marge may be divined from the fact that she is the only person in the book who gets any physical description at all. When Ripley spies on Marge and Dickie together he registers disgust at “the big bulge of her behind.” Later there is a reference to her “gourd-like figure”.
Yet Minghella chooses to cast Gwyneth Paltrow, all skin and bones, beaming smiles and nice as you can be and not a malevolent bone in her body. It’s another Paltrow performance where she wants to be loved and ends up..well..up herself as she, no doubt in collaboration with the director, distorts the character, removes any coldheartedness and chases out any of Marge’s nasty possessive streak, the trait that drove Dickie into Tom’s company. Interesting. Marge/Paltrow gets her moment to emote on the Venice dock.
While the ambiguity of Ripley’s character is sought at great length, the rough edges in Marge remain unexplored. Why did Highsmith find her so vile? We’ll never know from Minghella’s film because he decided to make Dickie and Marge “perfectly agreeable people.” Odd. Or maybe just too complicated. Clément and Gégauff had the same problem and simply reduced her down to the pouting girlfriend who, having got sick of Greenleaf, is eventually seduced by Ripley.
1958 And All That
I found it odd that Minghella should choose to play the film as a period piece. He talks airily about wanting to make a film set when they might have been shooting La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960) around the next corner. Although he chose not to make the film in black and white, the colours do not give the film the look of the (few) Italian dramas made in colour at that time. (I’m struggling to think of one, certainly nothing by any of the major directors comes to mind; most did not get into colour until well into the sixties.) Yet here we have a film where the film stock is grainy, quite different from the slow stocks of the time I would think, and the look of brightly lit and garish colours. A film like Pane, amore, e. (Dino Risi, 1955), which still shows on World Movies on cable, looks nothing like The Talented Mr Ripley despite being set and filmed in the same part of the world (Sorrento in the case of the earlier film). There’s nothing in the Highsmith Ripley stories that suggests, let alone reeks of, local ’50s colour. In fact when Highsmith returned to Ripley, some fifteen years after the first book she quickly made clear that only a short time had passed between the episodes in the first book and the second. Only a few years have passed and Ripley has acquired a wealthy wife totally ignorant of his past, is worried that people might recognise him and has embarked on a scheme involving art forgeries.
Minghella seems to want to indulge himself in a showy return to the land of his forefathers. Or perhaps he thought that the idea of parents wanting to have errant children return home to run the family business was too much a ’50s concept.
In all this I’ve not got to the third Ripley, Dennis Hopper’s cowboy-hatted version in The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977, based on the third novel in the series, Ripley’s Game). Too late. But I think I can watch Ripleys on the screen in whatever version. He is the one character to whom Highsmith returned and I suspect she did so most explicitly to cock a snook at convention. In her best novel, to my mind at least, Edith’s Diary, she devoted much attention to a woman at odds with society, a woman who found difficulty adjusting her views to fashion or correctness. Finally Edith goes mad. Ripley was a figure of pure pleasure who just kept getting away with it. Minghella honours that.