PASSION AT TEN. ENVY AT ELEVEN. MURDER AT NOON.
He’s young and charming. He knows how to get acquainted with the right people. He likes to operate in foreign countries. He has a knack for impersonations and falsifying signatures. He relates to men much better than women, but his emotions seem strange to him. That’s because Tom Ripley is a psychopath, a man who kills in order to experience the kind of life the other fella enjoys. This is the first time we meet Patricia Highsmith’s fascinating character on screen.
When we first see Ripley (Alain Delon), he’s having a grand old time in Rome with Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), the son of a wealthy American who hired Ripley to go to Italy and convince Philippe to get off his lazy ass and start taking responsibility for his life. But Ripley is slowly becoming too fascinated with his new friend to do his job. The friendship has its disturbing moments. Philippe catches Tom wearing his clothes at one time, and he’s also the constant third wheel in Philippe’s relationship with girlfriend Marge Duval (Marie Laforet). But Philippe likes him, perhaps not so much as an equal friend, but as an admirer. Then on one fateful day, the trio takes Philippe’s sailboat out to sea and the game between these people is taken to new levels.
At one point, Philippe humiliates Tom, but he forgives him because his plan is more important. Tom makes sure to cause a rift between the lovers, one so severe that Marge decides to get off the boat at the next port. The friends continue their little excursion, but it ends with Tom stabbing Philippe to death. The game is not over, however. The challenge now is to assume the identity of Philippe Greenleaf and make the most of it.
A terrific career opportunity
The movie became a breakthrough for the director who never quite matched the success of it in his subsequent career. It was also a terrific career opportunity for Alain Delon, the actor who looked a bit like James Dean and perfectly caught the ambivalent character of Tom Ripley. The thing about him is that he’s a murderous scumbag, but Highsmith’s readers and this film’s audience can’t help but being charmed by Ripley’s boyish good looks and attractive demeanor. You can’t help but being engaged in what he’s doing, hoping he’ll get away with murder… and then, once in a while, you realize that he’s a sick, bad individual and you’re bound to admire how everyone involved pulls off this ambiguity.
A story about attractive, rich people wasting time in Italy should look equally gorgeous, and cinematographer Henry Decae makes sure it does, in color. The drama out to sea is arresting, partly because we feel like we’re actually standing on that boat, feeling the punishing sun, witnessing the disturbing events.
The themes are pretty dark, but director René Clement never succumbs to that darkness. His film is bright, amusing at times, and colorful. Ripley’s murderous scheme becomes a sundrenched little adventure in a place that looks like a perfect spot to vacation. This is not a problem; the contradiction only makes the film more interesting. There is also a fascinating psychological level in the relationship between Tom and Marge; if you can’t have the real thing, isn’t the copy good enough?
Purple Noon 1960-France-Italy. 118 min. Color. Produced by Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim. Directed by René Clement. Screenplay: René Clement, Paul Gégauff. Novel: Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”). Cinematography: Henry Decae. Cast: Alain Delon (Tom Ripley), Marie Laforet (Marge Duval), Maurice Ronet (Philippe Greenleaf), Frank Latimore, Ave Ninchi. Cameo: Romy Schneider.
Trivia: Original title: Plein soleil. Remade in the U.S. as The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); Tom Ripley next appeared in The American Friend (1977).
Last word: “We started shooting, but I was missing certain scenes. So there was a certain amount of improvisation during the shoot, notably for the episode of Greenleaf’s death, which came out of circumstances I tried to make the most of, and for the seduction of Marge, which I wrote on set during the lunch break, because I could ‘feel [Alain] Delon and [Marie] Laforêt and knew what they were each capable of. Cocteau used to tell me: ‘You always have to be ready for the unexpected. You shouldn’t refuse to shoot because it hasn’t been set down in writing; you have to move forward. Paper and writing are very cut-and-dried. A script is like a score that is missing any indication of tempo. You have to breathe life into it. It demands an element of improvisation.” (Clement, Criterion)