Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Patricia Highsmith and the Talented Mr. Ripleys

The title is somewhat misleading for Patricia Highsmith is directly responsible for only one talented Mr. Ripley--the one found in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first of five novels about his adventures. She is only indirectly responsible for the Ripleys found in the two films based on the first novel: a French version (1960) starring Alain Delon, which is titled Plein Soleil or Purple Noon, as it is in English, (no, I don't understand the choice of the title) and the Hollywood 1999 version titled more appropriately, The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Math Damon.

Spoiler Warning: I will reveal significant plot elements and endings.

In Highsmith's novel, Tom Ripley is sent to Italy by Dickie Greenleaf's father to persuade Dickie Greenleaf to return to the US. A similar theme is found in an earlier novel by Henry James' The Ambassador. Both ultimately fail, but that's the only similarity found in the two novels. Highsmith's ambassador, in contrast to James' Streuther, is a sociopath who fastens himself on his victims and lives the good life as long as he can, at their expense, of course.

Ripley is a complex character who alternates between cold "survival at any cost" behaviors and internal ruminations about how unfair people are and he is able, therefore, to justify himself by blaming everybody else for his actions. After all --what else could he do?-- he asks himself, as he murders two people: one who is about to send him packing, thereby eliminating Ripley's access to the good life, and one who is going to reveal his identity to the police, for Ripley has, by now, assumed the identity of and, most significantly, the fortune of Dickie Greenleaf.

After murdering Dickie, Ripley assumes his identity, and this part of the novel is the most complex and somewhat confusing. Ripley actually is forced to live as both Ripley and Greenleaf as he attempts to conceal his true identity, whichever that is at that particular moment. The police get involved when the body of Freddie is discovered. Freddie was last seen being helped into his car by Greenleaf (Ripley) and therefore is of interest to the police. Secondly, Tom Ripley seems to have disappeared, and the police are now also interested in what Greenleaf (Ripley) knows about him.

Ripley thus has to reappear as himself and remove that suspicion. But, in so doing, Greenleaf must temporarily disappear, which intensifies the police's interest even more. Ripley then has to re-establish Greenleaf's existence, and the plot becomes convoluted as Ripley hustles back and forth between Italy and France, sometimes as Ripley and sometimes as Greeleaf, frequently meeting people who know him as Ripley or Greenleaf. How Highsmith (or Ripley) keeps it all straight, I have no idea.

Two events that happen near the end push the plot beyond credibility. One involves Greenleaf's rings which Ripley wanted and therefore stupidly took from Greenleaf's body. When they are accidentally discovered by Marge, Greenleaf's fiance, Tom's excuse that Greenleaf gave them to him and that he simply forgot he had them is weak. Tom then suddenly remembers that Greenleaf had given him a letter to hold for awhile which he also has forgotten about until now. In the letter, "Dickie" hints at guilt for somethings he has done and declares Tom Ripley to be his heir. I was sure that the police and a private detective hired by Mr. Greenleaf would find both 'lapses" of memory too much to accept. However, I was wrong, and I find these events to be the weakest parts of the novel.

Frankly, I find Tom Ripley an unpleasant character, but Highsmith has created such a fascinating picture of him, that I read on, hoping that he does get caught in the end. Since four more novels about his adventures exist, one can guess the outcome of this novel. I don't know if I will read all four, but I certainly shall read the last one, in hopes that he will get caught in the end.

In the French film, Purple Noon, we see a different Tom Ripley, a highly efficient and coolly professional con man, who has no doubts about what must be done. Alain Delon plays him as the manipulating parasite who always comes out ahead with little or no qualms about his actions, including two murders. The film rearranges, drops, and adds plot elements in order to convey this image of Ripley. Moreover, the homoerotic elements strongly hinted at in the novel are gone. Ripley is definitely heterosexual in the film, which is rather doubtful in Higsmith's Ripley.

Another significant change involves the fake will: in this film "Greenleaf" leaves everything to Marge, his fiance. Ripley then returns as himself and courts Marge. She falls in love with him and, in this way, he will enjoy Greenleaf's fortune after all and, moreover, has turned suspicion from himself regarding Greenleaf's disappearance. However, good must prevail and evil punished at the end, so Highsmith's ending is changed and Tom is found out, just as he is beginning once again to live the good life, as Marge's lover.

In the 1999 version, with Matt Damon as Ripley, we see a very different Ripley, one much closer to Highsmith's Ripley than to Delon's supremely confident and competent Ripley. Damon's Ripley is a more complex individual who appears to be lonely and desires some companionship, much as does Highsmith's Ripley. He is hurt by the taunts and insults of Dickie and some of Dickie's friends. Moreover, the homoerotic elements are back and, in fact, more clearly brought out than the novel does.

There is also an attempt to soften Ripley's character. When Ripley murders Dickie in the novel and in the French version, we see little guilt in Ripley. It is something that has to be done if Ripley is to live as he desires. However, we are given a different Ripley in the Matt Damon version. Ripley only strikes out at Dickie after being told he is being cast off and after considerable taunting about his homosexuality. Finally Ripley strikes out and hits Dickie with an oar. Seeing Dickie fall, bleeding, to the bottom of the boat, Ripley drops the oar, and with a shocked look on his face, kneels down to help Dickie. Dickie then recovers and attacks Ripley who then kills him in "self-defense."

In this version, Dickie/Tom leaves an ambiguous suicide note about guilt and so forth and ends by saying Ripley is his best friend and he owes much to Ripley's help. There is no will in the note, but Greenleaf's father interprets the note as a suggestion to him and therefore tells Ripley that he will turn over half of Dickie's money to him.

Another modification involves the rings incident. Marge, who accidentally finds the rings, doesn't believe Ripley's story and is convinced that Ripley killed Dickie. Tom is about to kill her also, but a friend appears before Ripley can make a move and she survives, bu she is not believed.

Tom, at the end, when it appears that all is well, is forced to kill again. Since it is on a cruise ship, there is no place to hide, nor can he run anywhere. In addition, on the ship is a woman who knows him as Dickie Greenleaf. The last scene is of Ripley sitting alone in his cabin which can be interpreted as his realization that all is over--he has failed.

Earlier I had mentioned my problems with two incidents that occur near the end of the novel: the one involving the rings and Dickie's forged will. In the novel, he is successful in both endeavors. However, it seems as though there are some agree with me. In the French version, Ripley is successful in explaining away his possession of the rings, but he makes Marge the one who inherits Dickie's money, and not himself, as it is in the novel. In the later 1999 version, Marge does not believe Ripley's story about the rings, and Ripley forges only an ambiguous suicide note in which he says Ripley was a great friend: there is no will at all.

Summary Comments: I enjoyed the novel, and if I already didn't have so many books at home to read, I would go on and read the remaining four novels in the series. However, I definitely will read the last one: Ripley Under Water. That sounds ominous, but . . .

I found both films to be very enjoyable, but, surprisingly, the later Hollywood version with Matt Damon as Ripley is closer to the novel than is the French version with Alain Delon. In addition. Damon's Ripley, although softened a bit, is still closer to the complex Ripley in the novel than is Delon's. If I had to choose one to view again, I would, at least now, select the Damon version.


  1. I hadn't seen either version, Fred, nor read any of the novels. But upon reading your fine review, I'm thinking I'll see the Matt Damon version of the film. I love Matt Damon. But I was a litle leery of watching him play the bad guy. But maybe I'll be intrigued anyway....

  2. Yvette,

    He plays a very engaging "bad guy." He comes across as a shy, naive, almost geeky guy, while inside he's a shrewd manipulating murderer. It's a great contrast.

    I would also recommend reading the novel because neither of the film versions really shows Ripley as Highsmith created him, although Damon's portrayal is much closer than Delon's.

  3. Fred,

    Thanks for the reviews of the novel and films. I have seen the Matt Damon film and liked it. Now I'll have to check out the novel and perhaps Purple Noon.

  4. Cheryl,

    Glad you enjoyed the comments. I think you will enjoy the novel and the earlier version.

    Let me know what you thought of the novel and the film version.

  5. Here is a link to the film "Purple Noon":

    It is in French, with English subtitles.

  6. Cheryl,

    Thanks for posting the link.

  7. Fred,

    I watched Purple Noon. If I had never seen the other film and wasn't curious to watch this one, I'd have given up on it halfway through. No characters I really cared about. I thought they were portrayed in a stiff, cardboard-like manner and seemed more like stereotypes - the Obnoxious Rich Guy, the Deluded Girlfriend, the Con Man, etc. They didn't seem real to me. That's just my own opinion, however, and I respect the opinions of others.

  8. Cheryl,

    The French really had a different take on it. They seemed to see it as a "caper" novel or a crime novel and focused solely on the way Ripley's con game and the way he manipulated Phillipe and Marge, and, of course, he finally gets caught. The psychological aspects were completely ignored.

    I think this is what turned the characters into stereotypes.

    I was told that there supposedly is a third film version out. I know netflix doesn't have it, so I guess I'll check it out at

  9. Fred,

    Yes, I can see it as a "caper" movie, looking at your explanation. Those types of films ARE generally plot driven, with little character development. Thank you for helping me to see Purple Noon in a different light.

  10. Cheryl,

    And, character is the most important part of the novel, so the film doesn't come off too well for those who have already read the novel.