The first of five novels Patricia Highsmith published about her murderous protagonist Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) begins with the eponymous central character fearful of his presumed pursuit by an older man and concludes with his self-assured dismissal of some Cretan policemen and confident conversation in Italian with a native cab driver. That trajectory from jejune self-consciousness to formidable multi-lingual confidence reinforces how the initial depiction of Highsmith’s most famous character amounts to both a coming-of-age narrative as well as a masterpiece of crime fiction. Odd as it might seem to assert, The Talented Mr. Ripley equally brings to mind both Henry James and Jim Thompson. It provides a commendably nuanced re-statement of James’ theme of the innocent American educated through an immersion in European sophistication, as well as Thompson’s proclivity for putting us inside the lopsided psychology of the sociopath. It also should reinforce how her works combine the textual dexterity of an assured stylist with the requisite shocks of a purveyor of pulp. Does it come as any surprise that, following study at Barnard College in English composition, playwriting and the short story, she wrote for a diverse body of comics from 1942 to 1948, Spy Smasher and Captain Midnight amongst them? Highsmith routinely satisfies our aesthetic hunger for verbal dexterity and our more coarse appetite for the visceral thrills of unlawful behaviour. Therefore, on page after page, she offers sentences that describe mayhem on the order of bashing someone’s head in with an oar imbued with language that embodies the balance and order of a classic syllogism.
Pointing out these parallels should reinforce the considerable artistry of Highsmith’s overtly straightforward, ostensibly unadorned style. Her consistent focus is on the narrative momentum of her plots, not the elaboration of their action with poetically tinged similes as in Raymond Chandler. Her work’s deliberate flatness of affect resembles the absence of emotion routinely displayed by a figure like Jack Webb’s classic Sgt. Joe Friday from Dragnet (“Just the facts, Ma’am.”) At the same time, that consistency of tone coincides with her fascination with and skill at dissecting abnormal states of mind. Even if Highsmith’s language never loses touch with lucidity, her protagonists abandon that behavioural centre of gravity almost as a matter of principle. And yet, they never act in a haphazard or unmotivated fashion. Part of the effectiveness and fascination of Highsmith’s fiction comes from her striking ability to delineate the unhinged urges of the abnormal personality as though it were capable of transparent and, paradoxically, logical acts. Tom Ripley murders in cold blood a handful of individuals over the course of five novels, but his homicidal behaviour cannot be said to lack motivation. Never mind that those motivations are pathological. Within the sphere of his thinking, every action on Ripley’s part amounts to the most rational and necessary response to a series of seemingly insurmountable dilemmas. That balance, if balance it should be called, calls for a considerable psychic highwire act on the part of the character as well as its creator, and few others have exhibited Highsmith’s sure-footed navigation of this conundrum (although Jeff Lindsay’s sequence of novels about the serial killer Dexter Morgan and the Showtime series it spawned (Dexter, 2006-) bear comparison.
René Clément’s 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Plein soleil (Purple Noon), starring Alain Delon as Riley, was the first cinematic work to tackle this complex character, though others would follow: Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977); John Malkovich in Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game (2002); Barry Pepper in Roger Spottiswoode’s Ripley Under Ground (2005) and Matt Damon in the 1999 remake of the first novel, directed by Anthony Minghella. Clément’s use of Delon certainly helped to seal the actor’s fame. The director traded upon both Delon’s physical beauty and the seeming impenetrability of his personality in order to dramatise Ripley’s role-playing and treatment of his own being virtually as a mannequin upon which to transfer the components of the personality and fortune of his victim, Dickie Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet). Clément conveys the impression of Ripley as a virtual blank slate, a murderous empty vessel that trades poverty and social ostracism for wealth and access to the upper class. While none of those traits are absent in Highsmith’s characterisation, they remain, for the most part, subordinate to Ripley’s consistently deliberated machinations. Delon comes across, by contrast, as more opaque than the character on the page, the willing recipient of the good fortune wrought by homicide and not the canny and cunning manipulator of circumstances to his own advantage. This shift may partly be an outcome of Delon’s sheer physical attractiveness and affectless exterior. David Thomson commends his portrayal as alluding to “sometimes a presence of nearly infinite complexity or mystery”, and yet, to this viewer, that façade more often seems little more than unfathomable attractiveness (1). Also, Delon fails to display Ripley’s admittedly caustic and often class-conscious sense of humour; he sees much of society as potential victims if for no other reason than his dismissal of them as dull and unattractive, taking up the psychic and social space that sophisticated individuals could more profitably occupy. For the most part, Delon instead conveys the qualities of a status-seeking upstart rather than the purveyor of a set of social and aesthetic principles, albeit ones that quite comfortably countenance the use of homicide to achieve a desired objective.
In addition, the abandonment of Highsmith’s conclusion and the insertion of formal punishment for Ripley’s crimes by Clément and his co-screenwriter Paul Gegauff completely overturn her amoral worldview. That Ripley escapes capture or conviction for his actions in the novel, and its four successors, does not convey a denunciation of conventional morality by Highsmith as it does her dramatic validation of Ripley’s modus operandi, his assertion of a body of rules and actions that possess purpose within his universe even if they are completely overturned once they collide with the codes of the rest of humanity. Plein soleil concludes with a neat plot twist, but one that all too effectively wraps up the complex construction of Highsmith’s narrative in which retribution amounts to little more than the intervention of convention in a universe in which the rules of behaviour cannot be measured by any kind of moral compass; guilt is not an operable notion; and remorse a gesture without meaning.
- David Thompson, “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p. 678.
Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (1960 France/Italy 112 mins)
Prod Co: Robert et Raymond Hakim/Paris Film/Paritalia/Titanus Prod: Robert Hakim, Raymond Hakim Dir: René Clément Scr: René Clément, Paul Gegauff, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley Phot: Henri Decaë Ed: Françoise Javet Prod Des: Paul Bertrand Mus: Nino Rota
Cast: Alain Delon, Marie Laforêt, Maurice Ronet, Elvire Popesco, Erno Crisa, Frank Latimore, Bill Kearns