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Ripley Resurgent The Expat With Murder In His Luggage

Aggiornamento: 11 mag

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Yoni-Danziger (Creative Commons Licence)

Don’t begin your enjoyment of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley saga with Ripley, Netflix’s 2024, eight-part series. Better a French start with René Clément’s frisky Pleine Soleil, 1960, available on YouTube. (Purple Noon in its English-language dubbed or subtitled release) It was Alain Delon’s portal to success. Or you could make a start with Anthony Minghella’s retelling in The Talented Mr Ripley of 1999. It’s a movie full of the talents of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, for the very best first bite of Tom Ripley go back to the wellspring and read bad-girl Highsmith’s delicious novel of 1955, The Talented Mr Ripley. It’s a mouthful.

The book is illuminated by Highsmith’s experience as a gay woman born in 1921 Texas and her refusal to bed down with the hypocrisy of the times. She found a way to fight back that the publishing industry would accept. She hid her social injuries and—let’s say it—her womanising  beneath the surface of psyche-probing crime stories of the sort that the mainstream  permitted in those years. We can hear the author, a chain-smoking hard drinker, at her typewriter,  laughing as she punished the keys.

The Ripley story is about a theft of identity in a cloud of sexual ambiguity. The interest is in the cleverness of how it was done  and in the fertile turbulence of the thief’s mind.

Tom Ripley in New York City at twenty-five has a backstory. Orphaned, he was brought up by a loathed aunt in Boston who called him a sissy (i.e. baby talk for macho-deficiency). He abhors his own identity and dissatisfaction has made him something of a consummate actor, an imitator, forever  fantasising about being someone else. It has also made him  two-faced. The agility of his public personality makes him a perfect fit in any social situation. But his inner self, Highsmith’s narrator, is a mix of betrayal, hate and childlike imagining of an ideal life for himself over the rainbow. His amorality softens at times into a regret he had to deliver such and such low blow. He will regret one of his murders as unnecessary.

Tom dislikes his friends as much as himself and the life he leads. He yearns for something better than conning pensioners with trickery that his quick mind makes easy. The need to live dangerously is one of his vices. Risk and the fear it provokes, with a pinch of guilt added, are a stimulant he can’t do without. Chance, coaxed along by his play-acting, presents an opportunity. He’s commissioned by a millionaire  to convince his son, holed up happily in Italy, to return home to mother and moneymaking in the U.S.A.

Rich-boy Dickie, high on the 1950s exchange rate for the Italian lire, has no intention of leaving his lordly life abroad. He enjoys pretending to be painter and the close friendship of Marge, a naive American who lives near him and whose pretence is that she’s a writer. Tom wins Dickie’s friendship by playing subservient and undermines Marge’s attempt to make her connection with Dickie into  a couple arrangement that might lead to marriage.

Tom’s cozying up to Dickie is countered by Marge’s accusing the new arrival of being gay—queer in 1950s parlance. Tom’s explosive reaction shows she is half-right. Marge should have called him a repressed queer. It makes understandable Tom’s jittery unease in New York and his misogyny which is a cut deeper than a macho’s of the period. His two-tier mindset has no trouble combining idealism about his chastity with murder. But the crucial thing for  readers  to grasp is that Tom’s paralysing predicament  as a sexual misfit mirrors Highsmith’s own experience as a lesbian in the North America of her day.

René Clément’s Pleine Soleil in 1960 was first off the mark to turn the novel of a killer’s churning brain into a movie. It became a pacy French action film with a fetching soundtrack by Nino Rota. Clément could hardly tag Alain Delon, on his way to becoming a great screen lover, with being gay. He made him a clever and seductive boyish hero with an off-kilter moral compass that left little distinction between a strategic lie and violent murder. Escaping over roof tops or racing a yacht through troubled waters wasn’t beyond him.

Clément set the tone from the outset by making Tom and Dickie’s day trip in Rome into a rowdy schoolboy jaunt that might have announced a comedy to follow. Dickie isn’t Highsmith’s Manhattan gentleman but a rather rough lover of Marge. He does no dabbing of canvases but takes Marge and his minion Tom to cruise on his yacht. Tom gets in the way of the couple’s intimacy, and Dickie punishes him cruelly. Using his smarts, Tom sets the couple squabbling. Marge is put ashore to cool off and the two men enter into macho competition on the high sea with athletic action galore. Dickie is intrigued by Tom’s boast that he could steal his identity. When Dickie reneges on his promise of money and a trip to San Francisco, Tom kills him with a galley knife and proceeds with his theft.

The twists and turns of Tom’s double identity follow Highsmith’s novel. Tom murders too curious Freddie and outmanoeuvres the police. But he doesn’t set up as a solitary nabob in Venice and contrive to obtain  Dickie’s inheritance. That isn’t what a French matinee idol would do. Instead he writes a suicide note in Dickie’s name with instructions to make Marge his heir. Tom then seduces Marge. The final scene echoes Highsmith in that Tom is euphoric but endangered. Dickie’s body has emerged from the sea.  Pleine Soleil shouldn’t be shunned as a travesty of Highsmith. With its  adjustments to suit a certain French taste of the time, it’s a good movie.

On to 1999 and Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, an excellent movie stuffed with talents of its own. Highsmith’s story was a half-century old and had to be tweaked.  A mainstream film could no longer veil the homosexual issue. Dickie’s casting off of Tom is his way of stifling his own gay inclinations. Tom kills him more because of his refusal of brotherly romance than for cutting off his cash flow. Tom doesn’t premeditate the murder of Dickie. It follows Dickie’s vicious calling him a “bore” and a “leech”, a crime of passion issuing from a fist fight.

Women play an enhanced role. A village girl kills herself  because of Dickie’s ill-use of her. Marge is no longer a slow-witted victim but a serious challenge to Tom. Her character in Highsmith’s and Clément’s versions fell for Tom’s lie of how he came to possess Dickie’s rings. Here she calls it out as false and insists to the end that Tom killed Dickie. But the obtuse mansplaining of Dickie’s father and his private detective call her hysterical.

Tom, for Minghella, starts ordinary rather than sleazy in New York. He isn’t a criminal and killer but has to work himself into that role. His self-loathing is aimed at his ordinariness and his moral flaw an inability to accept it, preferring a fantasy life. Tom can’t face being accepted as  run-of-the-mill and the tender Peter, a soulmate that this script gifts him in Venice, looks like being his third murder victim for doing so. Minghella finishes like Highsmith and Clément with Tom in danger, but not stopped yet, ready for a sequel.

With Ripley, the 2024 Netflix series, we are in deeper, not to say wetter, water. The eight episodes offer more space to be filled. Director Steven Zaillian obliges with endless frames of self-conscious beauty, often overpowering walls of water, which inhabitants of the Mediterranean shore rarely experience. Never mind, the apocalyptic surf seems to be a symbol of tragedy to come. Filming in black and white, as if colour hadn’t reached the studios in 1960 when the story is set, lets us know we are dealing with art-house fare. Highsmith herself didn’t do tragedy. She did thrillers full of vinegar and hurt characters like herself. Her Ripley novel was  sprightly if grim fun, like  Alfred Hitchcock’s bloodletting.

Pleine Soleil wrapped the story up in 118 minutes, having chosen, as a movie must, what to leave in and what to leave out of a 248 page novel. The resulting noir romp had no pretensions. Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley’s 139 minutes—upped the quality in the performances and added astutely to the story while keeping within its bounds of crime fiction and delighting us with villainy unpunished.

Zaillian spends much time with Tom Ripley in New York City before the no longer young man (actor Andrew Scott) leaves for Europe. He’s not the novel’s Tom who is twenty-five, Alain Delon at twenty-three, or a boyish Matt Damon not yet thirty. Scott’s Tom is a petty fraudster who could be a premature old lag and doesn’t look of the brightest. Despite following him around New York, we don’t get the backstory that Highsmith gave us to show what had made him the way he was. Instead, we are treated to a careful reconstruction of the city as it was then. It’s impressive pictorially like the whole series, but ominous. We don’t seem embarked on a crisp crime thriller.

“Gorgeous in every frame,” says the Netflix publicity and isn’t exaggerating. But a thriller on paper or film can’t bear too much aesthetic weight, and Ripley strays in its gorgeousness far from Highsmith, Clément, Minghella and crime fiction, becoming, among other things, a rather solemn review of Italy’s great cities of art and their treasures.  It even becomes absorbed in Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio to the extent of inserting a tiny costume film of the artist, dead in 1610. The overstretched pretext is that Tom as a killer was involved with his victim  like  Caravaggio was with the pimp he slew. We can imagine the great painter and supreme sensualist having a horselaugh at being compared with a twentieth-century genophobian. Marge said of Tom in a letter to Dickie. “All right, he may not be queer. He’s just a nothing, which is worse. He isn’t normal enough to have any kind of sex, if you know what I mean.”

Highsmith’s Tom does learn about, appreciate and feel exalted by Italian high art. The novel has him reading André Malraux’s Psychologie de l’art, but it’s only a sideline. His main business is deception and crime. Scott’s Tom, though good at figures, never convinces us that he has the inner wherewithal to tackle Malraux in French or to indulge in the  introspection that Highsmith allows him:

“It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they  were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear.”

The 2024 Ripley strives to keep up to date in retelling the story. In speaking of Italy’s South today, the Camorra has to be mentioned. Actors from minorities mustn’t be excluded and the private detective Dickie’s father sends from New York in 1960 is an Afro-American. Technological advance is duly noted, and we are treated to pretty underwater camera work that only manages to obstruct  the narrative. However, the main novelty is, of course, increased freedom in talk about sex. This led, alas, to the change in Freddie from the 1999 film. Played brilliantly then by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Freddie was a fat lady’s man who could deflate Tom by a grunt or a raised eyebrow. If the story didn’t call for his murder by Tom, his sarcasm was enough to merit it. In the Netflix series, Freddie has become pint-sized and, in appearance, of neither gender though this is cleared up when the police find a  boy in his bed.

As we are taken back and forth on a Rome-by-Night tour or like Tom forced to take a gondola ride in Venice or dragged over the cobbles of Naples or through  the endless odiferous alleys of Palermo, we can’t help but think back to Raymond Chandler’s spare and dry depiction of Los Angeles. His private-eye, Marlowe, and the filmmakers on his trail were too busy solving crimes to do the tourist circuit. Netflix has tipped the story over the line and made it more background than foreground. It’s top heavy with symbolism. Must we keep seeing that crystal ashtray that crushed a couple of skulls? And, though Tom is said to be terrified of water, why are we spectators drenched with it like Captain Ahab on his foredeck? To fill the eight segments, Tom Ripley’s inner life and capacity for improvisation wasn’t enough for the Netflix director. He had to resort to drawing out events à la Hitchcock. Corpses are laboriously transported, wine forced through the locked teeth of one of them before we follow his remains to the morgue to watch the first plunge of the scalpel.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t overlook some fine touches. This is a story of Italian eyes—hotel receptionists, shopkeepers, bank clerks, policemen—with excellent performances by Italian actors in supporting roles. They watch the Americans parading their money at the end of the 1950s with a curiosity that’s part awe and part congenital suspicion. The well-heeled foreigners are mythological creatures in an Italy still awaiting its boom. Even the statues seem to have a suspect eye on Tom Ripley as he lies his way up and down the peninsula. The Netflix Ripley tries to take the saga beyond a crime thriller and ends in a jumble of genres  enjoyable as such.

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