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The Talented Mr. Ripley & Purple Noon

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Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) has been one of my favorite films since I saw it on the big screen while living in darkest Atlanta. A few years later, post-red pill, I bought the DVD and was struck anew at the brilliance of the script, performances, and direction. But I was also struck by the sheer whiteness of this film, which is set in 1958 and 1959 in New York City and Italy (Rome, Venice, the Bay of Naples). There’s nothing new about the idea of “escapist” entertainment. But when I first watched this film, I was not aware that one of the things I was escaping from was diversity.

Minghella’s movie is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel of the same name. Most film adaptations of novels are inferior to the original, but not Minghella’s. Spoilers ahead: To talk about the novel and its adaptations, I am going to have to summarize the story. But the film has not been in the theaters in 20 years. And don’t worry: You’ll still want to see it.

Highsmith’s Thomas Ripley is not a likable character. He’s a narcissist and a sociopath who makes money through forgery and other scams. In his early 20s, Ripley meets shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf at a bar. Ripley was passingly acquainted with his son, Dickie. The elder Greenleaf pays Ripley to go to Italy and persuade his wastrel son to come back and work for the family business.

In Italy, Ripley ingratiates himself with Dickie and becomes increasingly attracted to his lifestyle. Dickie’s girlfriend Marge Sherwood is skeptical of Ripley, accusing him of being homosexual, and eventually Dickie tires of Ripley as well, especially after he catches Ripley wearing his clothes and imitating his mannerisms.

On a trip to San Remo, Ripley murders Dickie, assumes his identity, breaks off his relationship with Marge, and moves to Rome. Dickie’s friend Freddie Miles locates the Rome apartment where Ripley is living as Dickie. Ripley kills Miles and dumps his body.

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Since Dickie is now a murder suspect, Ripley can no longer lead his life. Thus Ripley leads Dickie’s family to think he has committed suicide and begins to live in Venice under his own name. Mr. Greenleaf transfers Dickie’s trust fund to Ripley, in accordance with a will that Ripley has forged. Ripley ends up wealthy and free, but fears that he may eventually pay for his crimes.

It is a cleverly written book, and even though Ripley is not a sympathetic character, Highsmith manages to slowly seduce the readers into becoming accomplices in his crimes.

Minghella’s adaptation is far more three-dimensional and ultimately tragic. But Minghella understands that to make Tom Ripley tragic, he must also evoke some sympathy and admiration. Thus Minghella’s Ripley (one of Matt Damon’s finest roles) is not introduced as a calculating sociopath. Instead, he is an American middle-class everyman, an insecure, upwardly-mobile phony, an impoverished aesthete whose good looks and good taste offer him an entrée into high society. (Ripley slides into a slow-burning murderous rage when a Princeton silver-spoon describes his apartment as “bourgeois.”)

Ripley plays classical piano. (Bach’s Italian Concerto is one of his favorites.) One day, Ripley substitutes for a pianist at a classical recital, borrowing the fellow’s Princeton jacket. When Herbert Greenleaf spies the jacket and asks Ripley if he knew his son Dickie at Princeton, one gets the feeling that Ripley lies with no specific aim, just a general desire to ingratiate and keep the conversation going.

Mr. Greenleaf’s offer allows Ripley to enter a world of beauty and high culture he cannot otherwise afford, transported from his noisy basement apartment in the meatpacking district in a chauffeured limousine — the driver telling him that the Greenleaf name opens a lot of doors, foreshadowing what Ripley will do with that name — to a Cunard luxury liner for a first-class voyage to Italy.

When Ripley arrives in Mongibello, the fictional town on the Bay of Naples where Dickie and his girlfriend Marge Sherwood are living, the chemistry is far more complex than in Highsmith’s novel. Marge, beautifully played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is charmed rather than repelled by Ripley. And Ripley’s relationship with Dickie — brilliantly played by Jude Law — is far more intense.

Marge, Dickie, and Tom.

According to Highsmith, the character of Ripley is not homosexual. That was just Marge’s jealousy speaking. (A lesbian herself, Highsmith certainly had no hang-ups about homosexuality. She just didn’t see Ripley that way.) In Minghella’s film, however, Dickie Greenleaf is fearsomely handsome and charismatic, and Tom Ripley doesn’t just fall in love with his money and lifestyle, he falls in love with the man himself, and he is tormented by Dickie’s own seeming ambiguity on the subject. These changes to the story send the dramatic tension and conflict off the charts and make Ripley’s eventual murder of Dickie a tragic crime of passion, not merely a sociopath’s cold-blooded kill.

Minghella’s treatment of the murder of Freddie Miles (loathsomely played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the aftermath is very close to the book. When Ripley reverts to his own character, leaving behind the beautiful wardrobe and apartment he has purchased with Dickie’s money, he makes a fateful choice, taking Dickie’s rings, which were gifts from Marge. As he closes the lid of his piano, a single blurred reflection divides like an amoeba into two separate faces. Ripley is Ripley again.

Freddie Miles.

Later in Venice, Ripley meets with Mr. Greenleaf and Marge. When Marge finds Dickie’s rings in Ripley’s flat, there is a tense scene, in which Ripley panics and contemplates killing Marge to silence her. The whole thing is absurd. Marge is certain that Dickie never took off his rings. All Tom had to do was say that Dickie took off his rings whenever he contemplated being unfaithful to Marge, which is plausible and probably even true. In short, Minghella’s movie has the audience making up better lies than Ripley. Thus the film is far more adept at making the audience Ripley’s accomplices than Highsmith’s novel.

Mr. Greenleaf has hired a private investigator, Alvin MacCarron, to investigate Freddie’s death and Dickie’s disappearance. It turns out that Dickie once violently assaulted a Princeton classmate. They have concluded that Dickie probably murdered Freddie in a similar rage and then committed suicide. To thank Ripley for his loyalty — and to buy his silence — Greenleaf has decided to give Ripley a portion of his son’s trust, making him a wealthy man. As in the novel, it looks like Ripley is going to get off scot-free.

But no. Minghella’s movie also introduces new characters, who add dramatic tension and tragic pathos. When Ripley arrives in Italy, he meets Meredith Logue, bewitchingly played by Cate Blanchett. Again on an apparent whim, he lies and introduces himself as Dickie Greenleaf, a lie that will have consequences when he runs into her again in Rome after having killed Dickie and assumed his identity. Meredith has excellent taste, so she and “Dickie” become friends, shopping and attending the opera — Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, in which the title character kills a friend in a duel. Then they seem to slip into a romance, although one has to wonder if she is really Ripley’s type, being a girl and all.

Tom as “Dickie” and Meredith.

Peter Smith-Kingsley, played by Jack Davenport, is a musician and musicologist living in Venice. He is dangerous to Ripley’s ruse because he is friends with Meredith, who knows Ripley as Dickie, and with Marge, who knows him as Ripley. This makes for some tense cat-and-mouse drama. Smith-Kingsley is also homosexual, and given their mutual interest in music, he is a good match for Ripley, so when Ripley leaves Rome for Venice, he and Peter become lovers.

At the end of the movie, Ripley and Peter leave on a boat for Athens. Once out to sea, Ripley bumps into Meredith. This is a problem. She knows Ripley as Dickie, and she knowns Peter, who knows him as Ripley. She’s traveling with family, so he can’t just toss her overboard. And they can’t just stay in the cabin, because Peter has seen them together. (Kissing, no less.)

At this point, Ripley could have just come clean with Meredith about how his impulsive imposture, when he thought he would never see her again, snowballed because he could never summon up the courage to come clean. She probably would have accepted it. He could have even come clean with Smith-Kingsley about everything, and he probably would have accepted it. But instead, Ripley strangles Peter, probably the only person who ever loved him. Ripley may never be arrested, but he’s never going to “get away with” this kind of crime.

Peter Smith-Kingsley.

It is a wrenchingly tragic conclusion to an incredibly rich and powerful drama, and far more satisfying than Highsmith’s tiny, pro forma nod to the fact that Ripley, though untroubled by a conscience, will always fear the police.

The Talented Mister Ripley is one of the few films I find simply flawless. The script is brilliant both literarily and psychologically. The performances are uniformly excellent. These are Matt Damon’s and Jude Law’s best roles. It is Minghella’s best-directed film: an unapologetically Eurocentric, absolutely voluptuous vision of Italy at its most beautiful and America at its civilizational peak. Try it if you want to escape into the world of 1950s and early-1960s glamorous romantic thrillers like To Catch a Thief or Charade. Ripley turns darker than those films, but it is also more emotionally powerful and rewarding.

If you can’t get enough of Ripley, I’ve got good news: There’s another big-screen adaptation, René Clément’s 1960 film, Plein soleil (Purple Noon), starring Alain Delon in his first major role. Purple Noon is highly absorbing, but as a work of art, it falls far short of Minghella’s film.

Delon’s Ripley is simply a cold sociopath, although one wants him to be more, because Delon is stunningly handsome. None of the other characters are particularly likable either. Dickie Greenleaf (called Philippe here) is simply a bully, and Marge is a shrew. Freddie Miles is exactly the same. Minghella clearly cast his Dickie and Miles to look like their counterparts in Purple Noon.

Tom, Marge, and Philippe.

Minghella’s treatment of the death of Freddie Miles also owes a lot to Purple Noon. In Purple Noon, however, Ripley calmly cooks and eats a meal while Miles lies dead in the next room, a nice way to indicate sociopathy.

Whereas Minghella’s departures from Highsmith add depth and drama, Clément’s diminish the story, particularly the end, when Ripley gets caught. Let that be a lesson to you.

Made in the full sun

This ending was probably necessary in 1960, for The Talented Mr. Ripley in all of its incarnations drives moralists to distraction. Highsmith’s Ripley is a sociopathic murderer as anti-hero, the kind of thing that was hot during Generation Existential. Clément brings him to the screen as a pinup. If he didn’t get caught, French men would have pretended to be sociopaths too, French girls would have thrown themselves at them, and 1968 would have come early. When Minghella’s film came out, I heard it denounced as diabolical because it makes a sympathetic anti-hero out of a “gay serial killer.” But I’m not buying it. Save it for Hannibal Lecter, Sweeney Todd, and Dexter. Minghella’s Ripley is just good Will Hunting gone bad.

 

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19 Comments

  1. Apollos
    Posted March 7, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with the reading of the Highsmith novel, but everything else is quite good.

    Highsmith’s Ripley was far from a mere sociopath. He is depicted as someone with poor self-esteem due to the abuse of his aunt, who treats him like a homosexual and a weakling. Ripley has talent as an actor and with mathematics, but can’t find work in either. He is not even a successful criminal. He does forgeries and impersonates people, but seems to do it only for the fun of it. He can’t bring himself to have the guts to actually cash the checks he manages to con from people. He is a failure, though it is not entirely his fault that he is. He has been made a failure by his aunt and by society. He is a natural “actor” because he cannot bear being himself. Killing and impersonating Greenleaf seemed inevitable.

    Highsmith’s Ripley may also still be a homosexual despite her protestations, or perhaps more accurately he is Highsmith’s avatar, a lesbian in a man’s body. It’s clear that after the first novel, Highsmith began to wholly identify with Ripley. She has him mouth all of her political opinions. He likes what Highsmith likes. Her opinions and misanthropy become his own.

    There are also hints in the novels that he sympathizes and identifies with homosexuals. In the first novel, he smiles at the gay men performing acrobatics, making eye contact with one in particular and sharing a smile. Richard notices and judges him for it, which drives Ripley into a murderous rage. It echoes the type of treatment Ripley used to get from his aunt, who taunted him as a girly boy, but the fact remains that Ripley does not resent homosexuals and seems to form connections with them quickly–as if they are his own people. When Ripley encounters a homosexual in a different book (in the novel where Ripley impersonates a deceased painter), the homosexual admires Ripley’s criminality and Ripley has a natural rapport with him that he does not have with any other character in the novel, though the homosexual makes only a brief appearance in the novel. Again, we see an instant connection, as if Ripley is among his “own people.”

    The portrayal of Ripley as a homosexual in the movie, therefore, seems quite logical, though Ripley was just Highsmith indulging in her own murder fantasies. That’s why Ripley gets married! He’s Highsmith if she were a man and not a successful writer.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 7, 2020 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Ripley really is a sociopath, because he is constantly manipulating people and also murders two of them without any apparent compassion or remorse.

      • Orcish
        Posted March 7, 2020 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Psychopath. Psychopath>>sociopath>>antisocial personality disorder.

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted March 7, 2020 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          There’s no clear distinction between the terms.

          • Eihwas14
            Posted March 7, 2020 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

            Fwiw, I was taught by the criminologist whom Candace Starling was based on that psychopaths are physically incapable of feeling empathy – though the cab be taught to see and emulate it. Sociopaths have learned the behavior as a coping mechanism.

    • James J OMeara
      Posted March 7, 2020 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      “He is depicted as someone with poor self-esteem due to the abuse of his aunt, who treats him like a homosexual and a weakling. ..He is a failure, though it is not entirely his fault that he is. He has been made a failure by his aunt and by society. ”

      I wonder if Thomas Harris had this in the back of his mind in creating the character of Dollarhyde, the Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon.

      • James J OMeara
        Posted March 7, 2020 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

        “Ripley has talent as an actor … but can’t find work…. He does forgeries and impersonates people, but seems to do it only for the fun of it.”

        Moving on from Red Dragon, the psycho in Silence of the Lambs is creating a new persona from the skins of his victims.

  2. Don
    Posted March 7, 2020 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Interesting that you should review this book and movie. I’ve read and seen both and find them both intriguing.

    I saw the movie first and watch it when it’s rerun.

    I later read the book. I couldn’t put it down and read it all in one sitting, stopping only to refill my coffee cup and use the bathroom. It was as masterfully written as any novel I’ve ever read and better than 99% of them. Highsmith is not such a great writer in the sense that her prose if florid and dealthless. Her plotting is amazing. You just want to know what happens next. This was the first in three Ripley novels. Despite the homoerotic implications, he gets married and continues his career of forgery, theft and even murder. All three are good books and it’s interesting to see how the character evolves. But the first is, in my estimation, still the best.

    Highsmith began her writing career writing dialog and captions for comic books. Her first novel was Strangers on a Train, which achieved best seller status and a movie deal from Alfred Hitchcock in 1950. Other novels and short stories followed. Highsmith is thus one of the elite whose debut novel was both a best seller and a movie adaptation. The issue of debut novels that are both best sellers and movies is a fascinating area of study. Originally I thought only a hand full of authors could achieve that distinction and that it might make an interesting book. Now, however, I have approximately 350 index cards, each representing a debut novel adapted to a motion picture, and I’m still researching the area.

    Interestingly enough, she was a Holocaust denier. Didn’t like Jews very much.

  3. margot metroland
    Posted March 7, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Read this on Unz and enjoyed it muchly. In the back of my back burner for several years have been notes for “Patricia Highsmith on Film.” Seeing the 1999 Ripley movie again a couple of weeks back I appreciated the enhancements that the screenwriter had put into the movie. What struck me first time around (in a real cinema) were the clothes, particularly Cate Blanchett’s. There was such care in the detail that this could easily have been made at the same time as To Catch a Thief. Which reminds me that the styles in the Ripley movie are really more mid-50s than late-50s. I was annoyed initially that Dickie Greenleaf was made into a jazz aficionado rather than an amateur painter, but the translation works well in the film because it turns the original Dickie, a moody introvert, into a shallow extravert.

    The film script also took out Tom’s addiction to minor larceny (via fake IRS notices) at the start of the book, and his life as a drifter, living among gay Third Avenue window-dressers. Tom’s background is very murky in the book, so not much was lost when these details were excised from the film. I think he’s got one aunt, and little formal education (not Princeton, certainly). The one episode in the book that survives intact is the killing of Freddie Miles (though with an ashtray in the book, not an ancient sculpture).

    Of course Highsmith wrote a number of sequels to the first Ripley book, of variable quality. Some have been made into films or television dramas. When Ripley next reappears (in the second book, Ripley Under Ground), he’s married, living in France in the 60s, and perpetrating an art fraud. There is a murder, inevitably. The story has much the feel of a Claude Chabrol thriller. I wonder if there was any intention to follow up Matt Damon’s initial Ripley role with this sequel. It would have been something of a jump from the first story, but then the book is too.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 7, 2020 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Highsmith’s Ripley is a shallow narcissist whose only tastes are for expensive clothes liquor, and luggage. Her Dickie is an introvert with a love for painting. Minghella makes Ripley into the aesthete and Dickie into a shallow jazz-loving extravert.

    • FC
      Posted March 8, 2020 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      The sequence was adapted by the cinema, starring John Malkovich.

      The movie is mediocre and until now I thought it was a mere money grab attempt.

    • Petronius
      Posted March 9, 2020 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      Bonus: Pat was privately a hardcore red-pilled person.

  4. Owain
    Posted March 8, 2020 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    I very much admire the Minghella movie. There are so many beautiful scenes and the msuic is excellent, particularly the contrast between European classical music and jazz.

    Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich have also taken on the role of Tom Ripley, in stories based on the sequal novels, but I haven’t seen those films. Maybe a review of them would make a good sequal to this very enjoyable article.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 8, 2020 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      Good idea

      • Edward reichsthaler
        Posted March 9, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        The American friend can be found on streaming services but Ripley’s game you may have to buy on DVD.

        I rather like Ripley’s game which was meant to be a star vehicle for Malkovich but who interfered in the production so much the film became distinctly average, but I like American filns shot in the euro-thriller style.

        Also the setting of the Villa emo outside of Venice is fantastic.

        • Owain
          Posted March 10, 2020 at 12:45 am | Permalink

          That’s funny, I just had the reverse experience. I found a place to download Ripley’s game but so far haven’t been lucky in finding the American Friend.

          • PEPE
            Posted March 11, 2020 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

            They’re both on torrents, add the magnet links

            The.American.Friend.1977.Criterion.1080p.BluRay.x265.HEVC.EAC3-SARTRE

            e33578d5949980f839bed2c01783da3e1c852f6d

            Ripley’s Game (2002) [WEBRip] [1080p]

            907313ace960ec7d152d8b86a68f745f0eccca91

            I’d also recommend Summer Lovers if you like escapist european cinematography

            Summer Lovers (1982) [1080p]

            89fc0c27e45b8bc7282ef8268955d5888b1d391b

    • Lyov Myshkin
      Posted March 14, 2020 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      ‘The American Friend’ directed by the great Wim Wenders of ‘Paris, Texas’ fame is definitely worth watching and like Minghella’s film contains an ambiguous treatment of Ripley. I really recommend it.

      • Eleanor
        Posted March 16, 2020 at 4:30 am | Permalink

        It did not feel very “Ripley” to me but the great thing about Highsmith is her characters are more broad sketches than anything. They are, to a degree, interchangeable. This quality makes the novels very suited to varied adaptations. Ripley being a chameleon himself lends an added element of meta. Which is the real Ripley? Is there a real Ripley?

        For my money, Deep Water features the best Highsmith murderer. Vic’s wife is an adulteress and he cheerfully goes along with this to not disturb his academic-oriented domestic life. When a former lover of hers is murdered offscreen, Vic jokingly claims credit for the murder. After his wife takes on a new lover, he impulsively (but calmly!) murders the man in a pool. It’s quite an intense novel. Vic is every bit the “reasonable man” who is eventually driven too far. He’s a very sympathetic hero, much like Ripley in the Minghella film.

        The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar is a very enjoyable biography that thoroughly covers Highsmith’s various defects, affairs, and travels. Alcoholic lesbian misogynist anti-Semite with mother issues is a good summary of her character. There is another biography available but it lacks color.

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