Remembering René Clément’s take on ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’, and his documentarian eye for detail

Posted on March 19, 2018


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You sometimes peg these columns on the day someone was born, or the day they died. With the French filmmaker René Clément, it’s both. He was born on March 18, 1913, and he died on March 17, 1996, three years before the release of Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I bring up this movie because Clément made a celebrated film from the same source material, Patricia Highsmith’s novel that gave Minghella’s film its name. Clément’s version, released in 1960, was called Purple Noon, though its French title, Plein soleil (full sun), is far more descriptive of the film’s technique: the story is pure noir, but where that genre is usually cloaked in shadows, this film basks in the Mediterranean sunlight. (Clément asked his cinematographer, the French New Wave legend Henri Decaë, to capture the unique sulphury air of the light in the Gulf of Naples.)

The plot pivots on Tom Ripley (Alain Delon, in one of the two roles that made him an international star that year; the other was in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers), who is in Italy to persuade the wealthy expat-playboy Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to return to the US. What is initially a mere job — commissioned by Greenleaf’s father — slowly turns into a lifestyle. As Tom hangs around with Philippe and experiences what being rich is like, he conspires to kill Philippe and assume the latter’s identity. (This is why the names in the opening credits appear like signatures on a dotted line – more about this later.) Many lies and deceptions later, Tom gets caught. The last scene shows him walking towards the (concealed) police, unaware that they are waiting for him.

Highsmith thought that Alain Delon was excellent as Tom Ripley (“very beautiful to the eye and interesting for the intellect”), but she hated the ending, calling it “a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught.” In her novel, where the Philippe character is called Dickie, Tom ends up with Dickie’s wealth and the prospect of a very pleasurable life ahead. Highsmith’s only concession to “so-called public morality” is the hint that Tom may never be at peace again. In the closing section, he daydreams about landing in Crete, “the little bustle of excitement on the pier as his boat moved into the harbour, the small-boy porters, avid for his luggage and his tips, and he would have plenty to tip them with, plenty for everything and everybody.”

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