A Tale of Two Ripleys

Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley is the twisted tale of a paranoid sociopath who commits two murders, assumes one of his victim’s identities…and then gets away with it. Not only does Tom Ripley end the book in triumph: from his entrance at the very start of the novel, we’ve been rooting for him. The Talented Mr. Ripley is one of those tales in which an antihero carries the reader’s sympathy. Despite the fact that Ripley is a dangerous lunatic, we want him to succeed.

(I trust that is the author’s brilliantly realized intention – and that I’m not on Tom’s side because paranoid sociopaths root for each other.)

The book has been filmed twice, first in a French version in 1960, and then the American version of 1999 with Matt Damon and Jude Law. That poses the question of why an American studio didn’t jump at the chance of filming a successful novel shortly after its appearance. Why, instead, do we have René Clément’s Plein Soleil with a bunch of (mostly) French actors talking French and pretending to be Americans?

I’d suggest that the book was too twisted – and too gay – for an American studio to film. Although Plein Soleil, as we shall soon see in depth, untwists much of Highsmith’s twistedness, enough of the novel’s perversity remains to show how the American film machine of the late 1950s would have found The Talented Mr. Ripley too hot to handle.

The principal twistedness of the book rests in how it bends our sympathies to a sociopathic, paranoid and homicidal antihero. Tom Ripley is not just a nut job, he’s an evil nut job devoid of any semblance of moral conscience. And, yet, thanks to Highsmith’s genius, Tom seduces us, and continues to seduce us in The Talented Mr. Ripley’s four sequels.

Although I would be the first to take issue today with the suggestion that a character’s homosexuality could be part of his twistedness, we can wonder whether the author’s depiction of Tom’s being (almost certainly) gay was included to trade on the reader’s homophobia and to add a further layer of pathology to Tom’s paranoid sociopathy. We should remember that, in 1955, homosexuality was still considered a pathological condition, so perhaps that was a piece of the author’s intention. While I personally don’t think that homophobia is a Highsmithian ingredient, one should note that Tom becomes less gay in three of the four sequels. (The Boy Who Followed Ripley from 1980 is, trust me, another story.)

In any event, the gay content of the book certainly helped to make The Talented Mr. Ripley the cinematic hot potato that Clément handles – and, to a degree, fumbles – in Plein Soleil.

First question (which is asked in as many words in the book): is Tom queer?

Basing the answer only on The Talented Mr. Ripley, the answer to that should be a resounding yes. Tom does answer the question in the negative at several points in the novel, but he’s some combination of lying and unaware of the nature of his feelings. We are told that Tom spent some time living as a rich man’s protégé in New York (the city in which we find him at the beginning of the novel.) A quick authorial aside establishes that the older man in question is gay. That same aside establishes that Tom was moving in gay circles when he was living in New York. Moreover, Tom never shows any interest in women:  he does have a female friend in the first few pages of the novel, but he clearly finds the novel’s principal female character, Marge, repellent.

Not having a girlfriend doesn’t make someone gay, however.

What does is the nature of his relationships with other men. And Tom’s relationship with Dickie Greenleaf is clearly a case of homosexual idealization that waxes into extreme frustration in the face of Dickie’s waning interest in Tom. (Whether some of Dickie’s interest in Tom is itself homosexual is an interesting question, but one for another time.)

I don’t see how the relationship can be read in any other way: it isn’t a bromance gone sour. Participants in bromances rarely fetishize the other guy’s clothes. They also rarely become literally insanely jealous of the other guy’s girlfriends.

Although I don’t think that it is a value judgment on homosexuality, reading Tom as gay gives the plot’s main engine its most twisted aspect. The story isn’t just that Tom is in love with Dickie and opts to murder Dickie because Dickie is rich and he wants Dickie’s money. Tom has an almost Jeffrey Dahmer-like desire to consume the object of his affection. In Tom Ripley’s case, it’s not eating Dickie, it’s becoming him. Tom is so in love with Dickie that his love is fulfilled by turning himself into the object of his affection. Tom – whose paranoia is partly rooted in extreme self-image problems – comes to love himself when he becomes the man he loved.

Avant la lettre Jeffrey Dahmer-like homosexual obsession, frustration and fulfillment were obviously too much for cinematic treatment in America. Thus it fell to René Clément to turn Monsieur Ripley (note that the French title takes away the title character’s talent) into Plein Soleil. It then fell to someone else to translate the film’s title into Purple Noon. If there’s something idiomatic connecting the two titles, my bilingualism is missing it.

The movie contains several departures from the book, two of them enormous. In Plein Soleil, Tom becomes unequivocally straight. Even more enormously, Tom gets caught.

With these two key shifts, Clément untwists much of Highsmith’s twistedness. His achievement in the movie is all the larger that, even without these to key ingredients, the movie maintains the book’s sense of perversity. From one angle, having Tom get caught in the last 90 seconds of the movie reinforces our sympathies for the character. Yes, he gets caught – but we don’t want him to get caught. Moreover, his being brought to justice allows the film to do something not possible in Highsmith’s ending: it forces us to consider our feelings about Tom, and catches us in our sympathies for a homicidal lunatic.

Clément effects his shift to a straight Tom who gets caught through a number of overlying changes to the original. Before starting in on these, I need to mention that Dickie gets a new name in the movie: Philippe. I am going to refer to Dickie by his Francophone alias when Plein Soleil is under discussion.

First narrative change: Philippe and Marge are involved.

They’re involved to the extent that Tom describes Marge to the police as Dickie’s fiancée. They most certainly are having a sexual relationship, and Philippe’s boat is rechristened the Marge, as opposed to Highsmith’s neutral name of Il Pipistrello (a pipistrello is a bat in Italian.)

In the book, Dickie and Marge are emphatically not having a sexual relationship, although that does nothing to stop Tom from having fits of delusional homosexual jealousy. As Tom opines, Highsmith’s Marge is in love with Dickie, but her feelings are not reciprocated. The author endows her Marge with very few prepossessing characteristics; the director turns her into a fairly conventional love interest.

Second change: Philippe is an asshole.

Worse, he’s an asshole who is obviously toying with Tom and not above torturing him physically. As played by Maurice Ronet, there can be no question of Tom’s falling in love with Philippe, let alone of his wanting to become Philippe. All Tom wants is to impersonate him so that he can get Philippe’s money.

When Tom murders Philippe, the viewer is probably glad that so unpleasant a jerk finally gets it. That, in turn, serves to steer our sympathies towards murderer rather than victim.

Highsmith’s Dickie isn’t exactly sensitive to Tom’s feelings, but he’s not hateful. Tom murders Dickie out of a combination of wounded feelings and innate socipathy. You can perhaps see why Tom murders his friend…but you’re not glad that the world has been relieved of him. Indeed, one of the gayer feelings a reader can have about Dickie’s murder is the realization that Tom has killed that which he loves. If we care about Tom, we’re likely to think that he may come to regret not having Dickie in his life anymore. (In the only passage in the book in which Tom does show a sign of regret, the regret is precisely for, not the murder, but for not being able to have the life with Dickie about which he’d fantasized.) In contrast to all of that, the film’s Philippe is just a means to an end.

Third change: Tom has a different motive for taking on the assignment to go find and bring back Philippe.

Whereas the deal in the original is that Tom gets an all expenses paid trip to Europe in exchange for seeking out Dickie, the M. Greenleaf of the movie (who, for some reason, lives in San Francisco rather than New York) offers Tom $5,000 for the return of his son. Although the very start of the movie has a sequence in which Tom and Philippe seem truly to enjoy each others’ company (it’s largely a case of Tom enjoying Philippe being an asshole to other people), love has nothing to do with Tom’s relationship with Philippe.

Fourth change: change of boat.

In the book, the murder of Dickie takes place in a small motoscafo that Tom and Dickie rent when they are visiting San Remo. (Tom realizes that the trip is intended as a kiss-off, whence his disillusionment with Dickie.) They are far from the Southern Italian town of Mongibello in which most of the first half of the novel is set.

In the movie, the murder takes place onboard the Marge, on the tail end of a pleasure cruise on which the three principals embarked together. The Marge is hardly a motoscafo: it’s a sailboat that sleeps four. During the cruise, Dickie becomes angry with Marge and throws a whole sheaf of her manuscript on Fra Angelico overboard. (In the book, Marge is writing a book about Mongibello.) Furiously, she demands to be dropped ashore, leaving Tom and Philippe alone together on the boat. At Philippe’s behest, they get into a strange poker game that Philippe loses on purpose so that he can pay Tom off and be rid of him. This sequence also includes the second part of a conversation between Tom and Philippe about how the former might murder the latter for his money. (Interestingly, during this part of the conversation, Tom and Philippe, who have tutoied each other thus far, revert to calling each other vous.)

The murder of Philippe lacks any element of passion and contains every element of premeditation: Tom has researched Philippe’s financial situation and has clearly moved the murder weapon so that it will be handy for stabbing Philippe when the time comes. In Highsmith, Tom bashes Dickie’s brains out with an oar that happens to be handy on the motorboat. It’s not completely spur-of-the-moment, but it lacks the premeditation of the movie.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley, the whole scheme to take on Dickie’s identity is concocted after the murder. Tom’s socipathy reveals itself in how he methodically disposes of the body and the boat without any trace of remorse or even awareness of what he’s done. Tom’s desperate efforts to dispose of the body in the movie are similar to those in the book, but there is no way the film’s Tom can dispose of the Marge the way he scuttles the motoscafo in the book. Although the police do recover the scuttled boat, Dickie’s body is never recovered, making it possible for Tom to perpetrate the fable of Dickie’s disappearance and probable suicide several months after the murder. In the movie, the Marge is brought back to port, where Tom attempts to sell her. (In the book Tom also sells Dickie’s boat, but the Pipistrello is simply an asset to liquidate. She plays no role in the narrative.) Indeed, it is the sale of the Marge that brings her back in the last few minutes of the film. The fate of Philippe’s corpse leads us to the…

Fifth (and biggest) change: the last quarter of the movie departs entirely from the book’s plot.

It replaces Tom’s logical scheme for getting Dickie’s money with an overcomplicated plan that, maybe not surprisingly, doesn’t work and, worse, gets him caught. Underlying this change is an added element to Tom’s prize package. Once things become too hot for him to continue impersonating Dickie, Tom has to revert to being Tom Ripley. That leaves him with the problem of how to gain control of Dickie’s money now that he can no longer go around forging Dickie’s signature.

In the book, that’s handled simply enough: Tom simply forges Dickie’s will and, after putting over the idea that Dickie committed suicide (and, very likely, the second murder Tom commits to protect his scheme), produces the document. Mr. Greenleaf immediately accedes to his son’s supposed last wishes, and Tom walks away from the novel scot-free and financially independent.

Clément retains Tom’s plan to convince the world that Philippe has committed suicide (and the murder of Freddie Miles), but he drastically alters Tom’s financial scheme. Rather than forging a will with himself as beneficiary, the movie’s Tom forges a letter to Philippe’s mother expressing Philippe’s supposed desire that all his possessions be left to Marge. That makes no sense prima facie, creating some suspense until the viewer figures out that Tom intends to acquire Marge along with the rest of Philippe’s possessions.

In the straightened-out ambience of the film, Marge becomes another thing of Philippe’s that Tom wants. By acquiring Marge, Tom will end up with everything Philippe ever had: both the money and the girl. In the event, Marge is easily won over, and the movie almost ends with a shot of Tom lounging triumphantly in a chair outside a seafront bar in Mongibello.

While that parallels the end of the book, it’s not the end of the movie. Just as Tom settles back in his chair looking as radiantly gorgeous as any human has the right to be, the Marge is hauled out of the water so she may be shown to a prospective buyer. Tied to the boat is the parcel containing Philippe’s body, which had somehow gotten caught on the boat’s rudder instead of sinking into watery oblivion. The movie ends with the Italian police moving in on Tom. Game over.

There are two probable forces behind Clément’s massive changes to The Talented Mr. Ripley. The first is surprising: some kind of desire for poetic justice. Letting Tom get away with two murders, several months of impersonating a dead person, repeated forgery, and finally inheriting Dickie’s money was, as I suggested above, too much for an American movie audience of the period to tolerate. Apparently it was too much for a French audience to tolerate as well. While getting the movie made in France was possible in 1960, that didn’t mean that it could allow evil to triumph at the end.

The second force is the choice to straighten out of a very gay novel. If a putative French audience would baulk at the novel’s ending, they would most certainly have trouble with the gayer aspects of the novel’s central relationship. Highsmith does some very daring things, and, while the novel was awarded the Grand Prix de la Littérature Policière in 1957, you can get away with things in print that you cannot get away with in film.

While the sensibilities of French audiences no doubt played a role in the straightening out of the movie, there was another reason behind the shift: the movie’s Ripley.

Alain Delon.

And a twenty-five-year-old Alain Delon at that.

In 1960, Delon was poised to break out as a major international movie star. His stock was rapidly rising in France, and he’d received some attractive publicity thanks to a romance with erstwhile costar Romy Schneider. He was also probably one of the ten best-looking men on the planet, as an amusing (and nearly obscene) 1959 film interview amply shows.

There was no way that such a young man, being touted as a French answer to James Dean would, at the most pivotal moment in his career, portray a gay character. Playing an antihero is one thing – there is something hot in Tom’s amorality – but playing a homosexual antihero is another. Delon’s ability to make women swoon was a large contributor to the stardom that Plein Soleil and its follow-up, Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli, would cement.

(Given the Visconti casting, Delon’s ability to make men swoon clearly didn’t hurt his career either.)

Even with all of Clément’s changes, Delon makes a splendid Tom Ripley. (Highsmith approved of him.) He even manages to suggest some of Tom’s insecurity in the early parts of the movie. One of the important successes in casting Delon is that Tom engages us. If we don’t like Tom, if we don’t root for him, the whole story falls apart. There’s no way not to find anyone who looks like Delon compelling. And sympathetic as well: making Philippe into such a jerk makes it easy for us to like Tom.

The Tom of the movie has a further sympathetic yet criminal moment when he bashes Freddie on the head. Although Freddie isn’t quite as obnoxious as Philippe, his encounter with Tom-as-Tom in the supposed Philippe’s apartment makes Freddie out to be thoroughly dislikable. Billy Kearns’ real-life American accent doesn’t endear him to the audience, either. Yes, Tom needs to murder Freddie for his scheme to continue, but it’s no major loss to humanity. That may explain the uncharacteristically humorous sequence in which Tom has to drag Freddie’s body downstairs and into his car. Clément’s Freddie is a buffoon; Highsmith’s is rather more realistic and dangerous.

The only time the audience may lose sympathy with the film’s antihero comes towards the end, when Tom begins to manipulate the put-upon Marge. She doesn’t deserve the treatment she receives. She’s not very interesting, but she hasn’t earned being cast as another pawn in Tom’s scheme. (It’s an unanswered question, but I get the impression that Tom doesn’t intend to murder Marge after he marries her and the money.)

While the idea of Alain Delon as ugly duckling is preposterous, Clément actually does manage to depict the transformation Tom undergoes in the book by not letting the camera dote on Delon until after the murder of Dickie. Right then, and for no really good narrative reason, Delon (and it’s Delon, not Tom) rips off his shirt, revealing a physique that a worked-out movie star of today would envy. (I refer the reader back to the interview to appreciate the effect of a shirtless young Alain Delon.)

As he takes on Dickie’s identity, Tom takes on Dickie’s clothes, which add glamour to his appearance. Tom just looks better after he’s killed Philippe, a visual equivalent to the self-confidence he gains in the book through becoming Dickie. The most striking example of this change in Tom comes when he sets about his plan to acquire Marge. Although she finds Tom antipathique and de trop in the first half of the movie, the “new” Tom of the second half has no trouble seducing her and winning her over to his side.

The director (and director of photography Henri Decaë) allow themselves two set pieces in which the camera gets to dwell on their star’s beauty. The first comes when a groggy Tom is interviewed from his bed in a Rome hotel after he is forced to resume his own identity in the face of the investigation of Freddie Miles’ death. There’s no need to have Tom in bed, nor is there one for Tom to sleep with his pajama top unbuttoned, but there is a need to show Delon to his fullest advantage. It’s not entirely gratuitous, however: Tom’s first interview with the police is one of his more triumphant moments. He’s succeeded in resuming his own identity, provided Tom with an alibi for Freddie’s murder, and sown the seeds of Philippe’s to-be-alleged disappearance. Tom Triumphant is the cinematographer’s excuse to let the camera loose on Delon.

Delon Purple Noon 2

This is managed even more extremely at the very end of the movie, when Delon, in an open shirt, swim trunks and barefoot lounges in a chair outside the Mongibello bar. The film’s second most iconic image results; it’s iconic for good reason.

Plein Soleil Photo 1

(The film’s most iconic image is featured at the top of this post.)

The great success of Delon’s Tom Ripley is the fascinating combination of evil and beauty. How can someone who looks like that be a sociopath? And, of course, the power that comes with that kind of looks makes Tom even more dangerous and compelling.

While Plein Soleil may not be great Highsmith (although it’s better Highsmith than Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train), it is a terrific movie. Its greatest asset is Delon, who justifiably became a major star as a result of his performance of an antihero (as opposed to the jeune premier roles he’d played in the 1950s.) He’s not just jaw-droppingly gorgeous: the filmmaker makes Delon’s beauty an integral part of the movie’s narrative fabric. He’s not just another pretty face (although “another pretty face” is an insult to Delon) for the audience to admire; his looks are a storytelling device.

Delon is by no means the Tom Ripley of the books (he’s not gay for starters), but he is compelling in a Ripley-like fashion and grabs the audience and doesn’t let go, just as Highsmith’s antihero does. Plein Soleil may lack the extreme perversity of the novel, but it captures at least some of its essence. It’s a movie Highsmith fans can enjoy. Although the script makes numerous and wholesale changes, it somehow manages not to feel like a bastardization of the marvelous original. Instead, it feels like a different take on the story of Tom Ripley and his first two murders, but one that keeps true to the spirit of the book.

At least until the last ten minutes. I have to admit that I find that the plan to acquire Marge along with Philippe’s money doesn’t ring true. Even if this Tom isn’t gay, there’s no reason for Delon to want Marie Laforêt. Even if you can accept that he would, I find it hard to accept the very end of the film. One of the pleasures of reading about Tom Ripley is that he gets away with his numerous crimes. Having the long arm of justice catch up with him cannot but feel like a gyp. One actually could end the movie with Tom Triumphant; less than 30 seconds of film would need to be lopped off the end to restore a Highsmithian ending. Perhaps – just perhaps – the original intent was to end the film with Tom succeeding and the final 30 seconds were tacked on as a revisionist afterthought.

As it stands, we can enjoy Plein Soleil and enjoy it very much. But we also have to agree with the authoress when she stated in an interview that “it was a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught.”

I also have to admit that, rereading the four other Ripleys in the past couple of weeks, my mind’s eye has imagined a Tom Ripley who bears a strong resemblance to Alain Delon.

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