Tom Ripley, my favorite psychopath, has figured in numerous movies but none better than Rene Clement’s “Purple Noon” (1960).
As Patricia Highsmith’s upwardly mobile shape-shifter, the young Alain Delon is the perfect emblem of glossy soullessness. Highsmith herself thought he was the perfect screen incarnation of Ripley.
She didn’t live to see Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), the Matt Damon redo of her 1955 novel. It was the first in the Ripley book series and also the basis for the Delon film.
Although better known than “Purple Noon” (out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion), it’s the lesser work.
Delon’s Tom is on an all-expenses-paid mission to Rome and the Mediterranean to retrieve his rich playboy friend Philippe (Dickie in the novel) Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) and deliver him back to his family in San Francisco. A social-climbing con artist, Tom savors Philippe’s dolce vita lifestyle.
But Philippe has a not-so-subtle upper class disdain for the scroungy Tom. When it becomes clear he has no intention of returning to America, Tom does the logical thing: He kills Philippe and assumes his identity.
Unlike the Minghella movie, which attempts to make Tom poignant and the story a cautionary tale about the lure of murder, Clement revels in Tom’s cool amorality and isn’t keen on imparting life lessons.
This is probably why Highsmith approved of this movie. It neither sentimentalizes Tom nor denies our fascination with his depravities. Only the film’s ending (stop reading here if you don’t want to know it), when Tom is caught by the cops, sells out Highsmith, who let him get away.
Sin has never looked more sun-baked than in “Purple Noon,” photographed by Henri Decae in such eye-popping hues that you may have to resist the impulse to put on shades. I’m tempted to call “Purple Noon” a guilty pleasure but really, what is there to be guilty about? Highsmith doth make sinners of us all.
A later Ripley novel, “Ripley’s Game,” was also filmed twice, memorably by Wim Wenders in 1977 as “The American Friend” and less so by Liliana Cavani in 2003, with John Malkovich doing his trademark creepy shtick as Tom.
In the Wenders’s movie, Dennis Hopper is the American expat who lures a Hamburg picture framer (Bruno Ganz) into committing murder. It’s an unsettling, almost hallucinogenic thriller that successfully merges Wenders’s existential angst with Highsmith’s nerveless, free-floating paranoia.
Almost unknown is “Ripley Under Ground,” based on a 1970 Highsmith novel. I saw it in 2005 at a Los Angeles film festival, whereupon it all but disappeared. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode and starring Barry Pepper (somewhat miscast) as Tom, it has a ripe, energetic appreciation of degeneracy.
Claude Chabrol’s “The Cry of the Owl” (1987), based on the 1962 Highsmith novel, is not in the Ripley series but this revenge drama showcases Chabrol’s well-honed Hitchcockian side.
Of course, with the murder-swap classic “Strangers on a Train” (1951), Hitchcock himself had a go at Highsmith, and it remains the best adaptation of them all. She agreed, even praising the liberties Hitchcock and co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler took with her first novel.
The Criterion disk includes a 1971 TV interview with Highsmith. Traipsing through the rural French village where she has secreted herself, she complains of the lack of inspiration in her surroundings.
“My characters are big crooks,” she says. “Unfortunately I only meet pastry chefs here.”
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own).
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