Monday, May 30, 2011

Monsieur Ripley

Most books should never be made into films. None should be made twice. The late Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) is proof of this axiom. The 1955 Patricia Highsmith potboiler was first adapted to film in 1960 by René Clément. Plein Soleil, as the film was called, (known as Purple Noon in the U.S. because the title High Noon was already taken [1]), is far superior to any other adaptation of a Highsmith novel.

Minghella had a thirty year career in which he directed only nine films, because he had the unfortunate habit of spending years in their preparation, and because he obviously didn't know he would die at the age of fifty four. His choice of the Highsmith book is strange, but he had the advantage of American actors (except for Jude Law) and faithfulness to the plot (Ripley gets away with his crimes, else how could he re-appear in four subsequent books?).

But the disadvantages of Minghella's remake, once one has seen the wonderfully restored (thanks to Martin Scorsese, among others) Plein Soleil, are glaring. His casting, for one thing, is bad. I always believed that Jude Law's greatest impediment as an actor was his beauty. Because we always demand more, rightly or wrongly, of beautiful people, they can be solid actors, like Law, and still fail to satisfy. In Ripley he does little more, really, than look good in his chic wardrobe. As Tom, Matt Damon is unconvincing as an Ivy League grad. Since I wasn't taken in by him, his taking in of Dickie and his father are even more unconvincing. Gwyneth Paltrow, for an Oscar-winning actress, is extremely erratic in her performances. As Marge in The Talented Mr. Ripley, she hasn't even the advantage of desirability, which would have been enough for her role. Only Philip Seymour Hoffmann, as the intolerable snob Freddie, is totally convincing.

Clément's 1960 film is so much more original, and not least because it came first. It's beautiful Italian locations were not nearly the postcard clichés they were when John Seale (Minghella's cinematographer) tried in vain to make them look fresh in 1999. It was Alain Delon's first significant role, and if he seems to be posing sometimes, it's only fitting for such an arch-poseur as Tom Ripley. (The Highsmith book is called Monsieur Ripley in the credits, designed by Maurice Binder.) Maurice Ronet is splendid, as usual, as Philippe (Dickie). Marie Laforêt as Marge is at least not out of place, unlike the diaphanous Paltrow.

I especially liked how Tom, in Clément's film, goes to the window after killing Freddie, and distractedly watches a group of children playing on the sunlit sidewalk. And the stately piano solo (Nino Rota composed the music) as he lugs the guts down the stairs.

The irony of all the ink spilled by Chabrol and Truffaut and Rohmer about Alfred Hitchcock is that French filmmakers, with considerably smaller means, had been outdoing old Tubby all along. Not only is Purple Noon superior to Minghella's stab at Highsmith, it is better than Hitchcock's highly-touted Strangers on a Train (1951).

(Incidentally, the scenes on the sailboat (the two men and one woman, the knife, an experienced sailor and an inexperienced one) were probably the inspiration for Roman Polanski's Knife in the Water.)

(1) The French title has been variously translated as Full Sun or Blazing Sun. The fact that Tom (Alain Delon) murders Philippe (Maurice Ronet) at exactly noon (his beautiful old watch is conspicuously present in the scene) suggests the idiomatic French title is closer to High Noon.

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