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Archive for November, 2017

Talent Show

It is probably inevitable that Texas-born Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995), who lived long in New York but spent her final years in Switzerland, will be best known for the first of her 22 novels, Strangers on a Train (1950).  Its innumerable official and unofficial adaptations will, equally inevitably, be overshadowed by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 version, which was co-written by BOF fave Raymond Chandler, and filmed partly at the railroad station in my former home of Danbury.  Yet five of those novels—the so-called “Ripliad,” comprising The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), Ripley Under Ground (1970), Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Under Water (1991)—feature her unique creation of con artist and murderer Tom Ripley.

As usual, I met Ripley onscreen, embodied by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (1977), the first version of Ripley’s Game.  Both that and The Talented Mr. Ripley, filmed by René Clément with Alain Delon as Plein Soleil (Full Sun, aka Purple Noon) in 1960, were remade under their original titles by, respectively, Liliana Cavani with John Malkovich in 2002, and Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon in 1999.  The American Friend also incorporated plot elements from Ripley Under Ground, filmed by Roger Spottiswoode with Barry Pepper in 2005, although I am unfamiliar with that or his TV oeuvre, e.g., Franklin J. Schaffner’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a 1956 Studio One episode adapted by Highsmith’s one-time fiancé, Marc Brandel.

Years ago, before reading a word of her work—and that still shockingly includes Strangers on a Train, perhaps a post for another day—I vowed that given the opportunity, I would engage in a page-to-screen comparison.  The American Friend (for which Madame BOF developed a belated appreciation once I had persistently persuaded her to give it another chance, after my disastrous introduction) is the only film from the cinematic Ripley canon that I own, as I do the Ripliad, but recent broadcasts of Purple Noon and The Talented Mr. Ripley have enabled me to begin.  The novel is part travelogue, enumerating the European haunts of its peripatetic protagonists, and part psychological study, written in the third person yet always deep inside Ripley’s fascinating mind.

It opens in New York, where Tom has been running a minor income-tax scam and is approached in a bar by Herbert Greenleaf with an unusual request.  The wealthy shipbuilder’s wife, Emily, is ill, and they want their son, Richard, to return home from Mongibello, the town south of Naples in which Dickie has used his own income to buy a house, spending his time sailing and painting.  Believing Ripley to be more than the casual acquaintance he is, Greenleaf (at first mistaken for a policeman about to arrest Tom) asks him to go to Italy—all expenses paid, of course—and use his “influence” on Dickie, an offer that Tom finds quite irresistible, especially since his financial, housing, legal, and personal circumstances all make it desirable that he get the hell out of Dodge.

A solitary crossing via the Cunard Line lets us get to know Tom better (orphaned by drowning, raised in Boston by his hated Aunt Dottie, running away unsuccessfully at 17 and then at 20 to “a series of haphazard jobs,” or none at all,  in New York).  His mission begins inauspiciously when Dickie barely remembers him, further complicated by the presence of fellow American Marjorie Sherwood, an aspiring author whose relationship with Dickie is ambiguous; Tom thinks that only Marge desires more than friendship between them.  In desperation, he comes clean about his true purpose to Dickie, who is amused and asks Tom to stay with him, but several faux pas strain the situation, and after more than a month, Greenleaf writes to say he considers the mission a failure.

From the start, Highsmith has established Tom’s envy of Dickie’s privileged life, their surface similarities—same age, same height—and Ripley’s talent for mimicry (“I can forge a signature, fly a helicopter, handle dice, impersonate practically anybody”).  Now, he hits on what is for him a perfectly logical solution:  kill Dickie during their trip to San Remo and take his place, signing his name on the monthly remittance checks.  Despite his hatred of water, he arranges for them to rent a small boat; in a nightmarish scene worthy of Hitchcock, Tom kills Dickie with an oar once they are out of sight of land and sinks his naked, weighted body, nearly drowning when he falls briefly overboard in the process, then scuttles the bloodstained boat just off of a deserted beach.

He is enjoying his borrowed life when another American, Freddie Miles, appears at “Dickie’s” apartment in Rome, having finally learned his elusive friend’s address, and is surprised to find Tom there instead.  His improvised explanations merely making Miles more suspicious, Ripley panics and kills him with an ashtray, sneaking the body out to Freddie’s car as though helping a drunken friend and hiding it behind a tomb on the Appian Way.  His web of lies begins to tighten with the sequential discoveries of Freddie’s body, the boat, the forgeries, and Dickie’s bags, which he had checked under an alias; meanwhile, he is forced to dodge and/or deceive the police, Marge, other friends of Dickie’s, Herbert Greenleaf, and a private eye he hires, Alvin McCarron.

Ironically, the police begin to suspect Dickie of killing not only Freddie but also Tom, so having relocated to Venice, he presents himself to the police as Ripley to prove he is still alive, and must regretfully abandon Dickie’s identity.  Among my bedrock personality traits is a discomfort with imposture (I practically break into a cold sweat when spies go undercover), so Ripley’s dizzying “Who am I now?” mindset was quite harrowing, also posing an unenviably internal conflict for a scenarist to portray.  As a precaution, he fakes a document “not to be opened for several months” in which Dickie bequeaths his money to Tom, and when Marge finds Dickie’s rings—narrowly avoiding ending up like Freddie—Ripley states that Dickie had wanted him to take care of them.

Tempting fate, Ripley writes to Greenleaf once the latter has returned to America, reporting the “discovery” of the will, which seems to confirm his and Marge’s suspicion that Dickie has either killed himself or changed his identity. Tom sails aboard the Hellenes on his long-awaited trip to Greece, wondering if he will be arrested at any moment, but because the fingerprints on the suitcases match those in “Dickie’s” apartment, he is assumed to have deposited them himself.  The book ends on a note that, while perhaps a tad anticlimactic for the reader, is one of qualified triumph for Ripley, who learns that the Greenleafs have decided to respect Dickie’s final wishes regarding the will, although Highsmith implies that he will always be looking over his shoulder…

Not overly familiar with Clément’s work, I know I caught up at some point with Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952), his heart-rending Oscar-winner about two children who cope with the horrors of World War II by creating a pet cemetery, and I’m sure I saw eons ago but have totally forgotten Le Passager de la Pluie (Rider on the Rain, 1969), a thriller with Charles Bronson and the all-too-inevitable Jill Ireland.  Apparently a pricey flop, Paris Brule-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?, 1966) is a Longest Day-style docudrama whose all-star cast embodies several historical figures.  Two Gil-faves, Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal, adapted the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre about the liberation of Paris and Hitler’s failed plan to level it preemptively.

The effect of its ending is dramatic even by Maudlin Man standards, so those who wish to may indulge me, while the many Francophobes in my orbit skip ahead.  Believing Hitler insane and the war lost, military governor General Dietrich von Choltitz (Goldfinger himself, Longest Day vet Gert Fröbe) disobeys, surrendering to the Allies, and as they enter the city, its destruction forestalled, Notre Dame’s bells are slowly set into motion, announcing its liberation while the swastika falls, torn to pieces by a crowd that bursts into “La Marseillaise.”  All at once, Maurice Jarre’s deliriously joyful “Paris Waltz” accompanies the camera as it soars into the air with their jubilant spirits, the credits unspooling over aerial shots of Paris as black and white turns to color.

Okay, Ripley, right.  Paul Gégauff, a longtime collaborator of Claude Chabrol’s on both sides of the camera, and Clément won a 1962 Edgar Allan Poe Award for adapting Purple Noon, named Best Foreign Film.  They fast-forward 40-odd pages into the novel, joining Ripley and Philippe Greanleaf (Maurice Ronet) on their lark in Rome, where they encounter Miles, who in this case already knows, and clearly disdains, Tom.  Neither Alain Delon, in a star-making turn as Ripley (his several films with Clément include Is Paris Burning?), nor Ronet makes a very convincing American, but expat Yank Billy Kearns adds a morceau of verisimilitude as Freddy (sic); Romy Schneider, then Delon’s fiancée, has an uncredited cameo as one of Miles’s female companions.

The broad strokes of Highsmith’s plot remain, yet the erratic score by Nino “Rotta” of Godfather fame epitomizes the film’s tonal shifts.  The scenarists add a thematically interesting interlude in Rome as the two buy a white cane from a blind man (unbilled and unrecognizable Jesús Franco mainstay Paul Muller), then feign sightlessness themselves, segueing into an expansion of a brief bit in the novel where they bump into a young woman and share a cab with her.  Their frat-boy antics here seem disarmingly lighthearted, yet later, Philippe displays a real streak of cruelty, and admits to Marge Duval (Marie Laforêt, strongly resembling a Gallic Barbara Steele) that he is merely amusing himself with Ripley, who fabricates a nonexistent childhood friendship for them.

The cinematic Tom has been offered $5,000 to bring Philippe home, so when the latter reveals he has no intention of returning to San Francisco, he sets the wheels in motion for his own demise.  His relationship with Marge is overtly romantic—his sailboat is even named after her, rather than Highsmith’s Pipistrello (Italian for “bat”)—and in an effective change, the scenarists conflate the Pipi, which has very little relevance in the book, with the rented motorboat.  Much of the tension among the three main characters is played out in, and exacerbated by, the narrow confines of the Marge, creating a dynamic that, to this writer, anticipated Roman Polanski’s Oscar-nominated feature-film debut, Knife in the Water (1962), or that perennial BOF favorite, Dead Calm (1989).

Although his backstory is omitted, Ripley’s fear of water is established during a prank taken too far when, to punish him for a minor infraction, Philippe forces him to climb into the dinghy, only to have the tow-line snap, subjecting a shirtless Tom to the effect of the plein soleil for hours.  In retaliation, he slips an earring (palmed during the carriage ride in Rome) into Philippe’s pocket; in the ensuing argument with a jealous Marge, Philippe commits the inexcusable sin of throwing overboard the manuscript of the book she was writing on Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.  She then demands to be put ashore, setting the stage for the murder, and the scenarists cleverly turn exposition into dialogue by having Philippe discuss the plan with Ripley, thinking it to be a joke.

Philippe is killed abruptly, with a knife rather than an oar, yet the protracted sequence in which Ripley wraps the corpse in canvas and dumps it overboard while the boat pitches in a high sea is masterful, with only the rushing water and the wind whipping through the sails on the soundtrack as he is knocked from the deck, and must clamber back aboard before cutting the cord towing the body.  Highly compressed like much else from the novel, the cat-and-mouse game with Inspector Riccordi (Erno Crisa) focuses on Freddy’s murder, ironically with an apparent jade Buddha, but it is Philippe’s that sows the seeds of Tom’s downfall.  And although she praised Alain Delon’s casting, Highsmith was, not surprisingly, unhappy that he receives his comeuppance at the finale.

The cinematic Ripley withdraws most of Philippe’s money from the bank and appends a note to the stack of cash bequeathing it to Marge, whom he also makes the beneficiary of the faked will.  He returns to Mongibello, where the grieving Marge has become a recluse, and slowly wins her over with protestations of his own love, the authenticity of his affections being open to doubt as he relaxes and prepares to enjoy nothing but “the best.”  Yet as the Marge is being hauled ashore, preparatory to its sale, it drags behind it Philippe’s shrouded body—the cord having been fouled in the propeller—which belies his supposed suicide, triggers the watching Marge’s offscreen scream, and prompts Ripley’s summons from the beach as the persistent Riccordi waits for him…

Highsmith’s pseudonymous The Price of Salt (1952) was a landmark lesbian novel reissued as Carol, under which title it was filmed by Todd Haynes in 2015 with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  “I don’t think Ripley is gay,” his creator insisted to Sight and Sound’s Gerald Peary.  “He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true.  But he’s married in later books.  I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department.  But he makes it in bed with his wife.”  Tom is equally adamant about not being “queer” in The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet I think it would be difficult to deny assertions of a homoerotic subtext in the version written and directed by Minghella, who died of a hemorrhage after surgery at only 54, and is best known for The English Patient (1996).

Clément (who had a Hitchcockian cameo as a servant, although I wouldn’t recognize him) used Delon’s smoldering sexuality—down, Madame BOF!—to emphasize the charisma with which Ripley charms his marks.  Minghella, conversely, uses Damon’s Everyman appearance to stress the self-effacing quality that fosters his chameleonic m.o., slipping in numerous references to erasure and invisibility.  He preserves the 1950s setting and includes several characters largely or wholly absent from Purple Noon, including Alvin MacCarron (sic; Philip Baker Hall), “new Venetian friend” Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport), and Herbert (James Rebhorn), who mistakes stranger Tom for a classmate of Dickie (Jude Law), due to a borrowed Princeton jacket.

Minghella does make some interesting changes, e.g., Dickie’s passion is no longer painting but jazz—his boat is named Bird after Charlie Parker—which Tom bones up on before meeting him, using it to wangle the offer to move in.  The relationship with Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) is again romantic, if hardly monogamous; Tom observes his dalliance with Silvana (Stefania Rocca), and when the pregnant village girl drowns herself after Dickie rejects her plea for help, Tom offers to take the blame, claiming they are now “brothers.”  Blanchett, aptly, plays another new character, heiress Meredith Logue, to whom he impulsively introduces himself as Dickie while debarking from the Cunard liner, later manipulating her to give Marge “evidence” of her fiancé’s infidelity.

Arising out of an argument aboard the motorboat—rented at his suggestion here—Dickie’s death does not appear premeditated, and might be considered second- or third-degree murder, possibly making Tom more sympathetic.  I would like to be careful here, because I don’t pretend to know Minghella’s intentions, but Ripley comes across as a spurned lover in the unorthodox “triangle” with Marge, and his later laments to Peter (whose character is jumped up to an obvious romantic conquest) about being locked in the darkness by his lies could easily be code for a closeted gay man.  On the other hand, based on what we know of the character, Damon’s Mr. Ripley could be effectively pansexual, changing orientation as readily, and as self-servingly, as he does identities.

Again, the author’s denouement undergoes the biggest change, following a false ending close to hers in which—despite Marge asserting that she knows he killed Dickie—Ripley evades justice, assured by MacCarron that Herbert wishes to conceal his son’s hitherto unknown violent past, supporting the theory that he killed Freddie, and honor his “bequest.”  But en route to Athens with Peter, who knows him as Tom, he finds himself trapped aboard the very same vessel with Meredith, who along with her entourage knows him as Dickie.  Seeing no recourse, he sobbingly strangles (offscreen, albeit audibly) his inamorato, who would unwittingly expose him, with Minghella once again seeming to solicit our sympathy for Highsmith’s “utterly amoral” creation.

Perhaps tipping his hand, the title credit unreels the following before finally landing on Talented:  “mysterious, yearning, secretive, sad, lonely, troubled, confused, loving, musical, gifted, intelligent, beautiful, tender, sensitive, haunted, passionate.”  The film’s five Oscar nominations included Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Law, who gives Dickie much of the magnetism Delon brought to Ripley; Paltrow is equally adept at portraying the plight of the fragile Marge, who is ever mindful of his short attention span and wandering eye.  Philip Seymour Hoffman brought his gift for unflattering but fascinating characters to the expanded role of Freddie, a true ugly American killed this time with a bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

I quite liked each version on its own merits, with their lush cinematography making excellent use of the extensive Italian locations, but since they respectively subverted Highsmith’s ending—she reportedly called Purple Noon’s “a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught”—and her protagonist’s personality, I don’t feel that either one did full justice, as it were, to her conception.  She is also said to have written, while beginning The Talented Mr. Ripley, that she was “showing the unequivocal triumph of evil over good, and rejoicing in it,” so one can only imagine what she might have made of Minghella’s mournful apologia had she lived to see it.  Meanwhile, if the stars align, I will write a follow-up someday…

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