Movies We Like
Based on Patricia Highsmith's book The Talented Mr. Ripley (the first of her five Ripley novels known as the "Ripliad," she is also the author of the book that became Strangers on a Train), which of course was also filmed later by Anthony Minghella in ’99, the French version Purple Noon (Plein Soleil) proves to be a much more entertaining ride. That’s not to say that the American version isn’t also very good. I like it a lot and I don’t know which version is closer to Highsmith’s book, but where Minghella tried to ring psychological complexity out of simplicity, often making it feel overstuffed, director René Clément (most famous for Forbidden Games from ’52) goes for a more straightforward suntanned noir. And as much as I admired Matt Damon as Ripley, Clément’s ace-in-the-hole is the young French superstar Alain Delon who doesn’t wear his acting on his sleeve like Damon did--instead he just naturally oozes charisma, making the character less a super-geek psycho and more a smooth criminal.
The film starts right off with two American buddies (strangely, played by the French stars) living the cafe life in Italy. It’s casually mentioned that the father of the rich one, Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), has hired the other, Tom Ripley (Delon), to convince his party-boy son to return home to San Francisco (?!) and finally face his adult responsibilities. Of course, Minghella’s Ripley starts in the States, with the setup played out on camera; score this to Purple Noon for cutting to the chase. None of Philippe’s other rich friends care much for Tom, including his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforêt) and his pal, Freddie Miles (Billy Kearns, an actor actually born in America, though most of his career was in French cinema. He’s fine but the American version’s Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the movie in the role). But the ever cruel Philippe enjoys having Tom around where he can pick on him and taunt his lack of sophistication. (Ronet is much more mean-spirited and less charming than Jude Law’s take on Dickie). Ripley envies Philippe’s lifestyle, his money, his clothes, his freedom and his relationship with Marge. The American version gives Ripley an obvious homosexual obsession with his idol. Here it’s only lightly hinted at; Ripley’s main obsession is more financial and materialistic. The French version does not linger on their relationship long enough to get into those matters, and by the end of the first act, Ripley has purposely killed Philippe in order to steal his money and even woo Marge. The murder in the American version is a fit of passion; here it’s premeditated. The suspense comes in how he covers it up. It’s on a boat and it’s not easy. And the rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between Ripley and the police investigating the murder (and later Ripley is forced to kill Freddie), as Ripley pretends to be Philippe to keep the investigators and Marge off his trail.
Damon’s Ripley grows creepier as he pulls identity theft on his victim, seducing Cate Blanchett’s socialite and finally having a sexual relationship with a young bachelor (whom he ends up killing). None of that happens in Purple Noon. Instead this Ripley keeps his goal on the money and on Marge (whom he improbably does manage to seduce). The key is that, as Delon dons the rich man's clothes and lifestyle, his confidence grows, and he takes on much of Philippe’s personality, becoming the high class charmer he always dreamed of being. The performance and the film made the mostly unknown Delon a star. Though he never found his footing in American films, in Europe he has earned icon status on the strength of collaborations with major auteurs like Visconti (Rocco and his Brothers, The Leopard), Melville (Le Samourai, Un Flic) and Antonioni (L’Eclisse). His celebrated affairs with many famous beautiful women and his legal problems due to his connections to the underworld also managed to always keep him fascinating to the public.
Though the film is often lumped in with the French New Wave film movement that was taking shape at this time, (mostly because of proximity), it’s really a classic French director toying with newish elements. Though like so many of the French directors of the '60s, the influence of American films can be felt in it (film noir, Hitchcock), and it also had its own possible affect on films to follow like Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Godard’s Contempt and of course, the aforementioned The Talented Mr. Ripley. What ultimately makes this a more memorable flick than the more recent one is the French film's simplicity and authenticity. The streets, hotels and cafes of 1960s Naples and Rome are real in a home movie style, whereas Minghella’s film often looks like a beautiful high-priced travelog. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the deep-colored graininess of the older film has more power to haunt my memory. The ending of Purple Noon is also different from the later film and Highsmith’s book; like many films of the period there is moral opinion cast on the criminal and a "crime doesn’t pay" approach, as opposed to the more open-endedness that the author envisioned. (Which, of course, led to more books.) But even with a sorta cop-out ending, it’s still very powerful. Purple Noon was not made to be a would-be franchise or to win Oscars, it’s just a simple little taut thriller. It works. It works well, and no matter how much money and stars are thrown at besting it, it proves that longer and bigger are not always better.