One can’t help but wonder if Patricia Highsmith’s crime novels aren’t intended to dupe film directors. As deeply cinematic as the author’s morally contorted and readily visual style appears, adaptations of her work tend to traffic an indefinable lifelessness: They’re thrillers trapped in quicksand. How could auteurs as disjunctive as Minghella, Cavani, and Hitchcock have failed to realize that all of Highsmith’s fleeted, concrete details derive their wicked power from psychological context? Her deception is masterly: She makes the abstract not only seem concrete, but like a concrete surface, and therefore reproducible. Her Tom Ripley books are voiced in a nimble, rhythmic third person that says only precisely what needs to be seen and heard at any given moment. And yet they never stray far from the emotional perspective—the juicy, churning thoughts and affects—of their central con-artist-cum-murderer.
Highsmith is, in other words, a journalist of consciousness. The inch of perspectival distance by which Ripley’s inner monologues take on the calculated formalism of well-pruned prose allows the reader to experience the character’s hidden pathology and his dashing, plastic exterior at once. But the device also aids Highsmith’s principle metaphor: the lovably modern idea that in order to kill, men become fabulists. Ripley, in other words, is a living fiction, and the rational acrobatics he performs in order to victimize without succumbing to self-loathing accumulate into a kind of text. Ripley’s id is a harried novelist, and his ego is a spineless copy editor.
With Purple Noon, a sleek 1960 French adaptation of Ripley’s debut potboiler, director René Clément adroitly transposes this analogy from literature to cinema. Here, the protagonist’s antisocial artistry ushers him from the humble realm of spectatorship into the more exalted stance of film directorship. And, as was Highsmith’s primary concern in the book, Clément’s focus for the bulk of the movie’s running time is on the overwhelmingly tedious and taxing nature of this transformation. At the start of the movie, Ripley (Alain Delon) fittingly receives few close-ups as he pals around a crumbling Italy with Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), a wealthy gadabout who Ripley has been curiously contracted to locate and tow home by the Greenleaf patriarch. Our antihero’s naïveté is such, however, that he doesn’t appear to deserve the camera’s attention; he can’t even impersonate a blind beggar without nearly getting flattened by Italian motorists, and he insinuates himself between Philippe and the Philippe’s lover, Marge (Marie Laforêt), as an obsequious dullard.
It’s hard to believe this Ripley when he professes early on to possess the skills of a mountebank. But like a true trickster, he keeps his most threatening and conspicuous faculties under wraps while, steadily, his presence in the film’s background becomes more menacing. As Philippe and Marge squabble and make love on the lower decks of the former’s yacht, the jealousy in their third wheel’s surveying eyes is nearly demonic. And just as Philippe and Marge tire of Ripley’s vaguely eerie company, Ripley decides that he’s tired of playing the voyeur. The girl is deceived into disembarking, Philippe is stabbed, and from then on, Ripley calls the shots—quite literally, as the film’s grammar not only seems informed by the character’s narcissism, but also appears in its thrall.
At a brunch, Ripley nods his head as he spews false information about one of his murder victims, and the camera flip-flops across the scene’s axis as though carrying out his bidding. While passing himself off as the dead Philippe, Ripley brandishes a forged passport at a bank official, and his sly, seductive mouth and intimidating eyes choke the screen. By the time Ripley’s body count doubles, we have become by way of these expressionist details a powerless accomplice to a character we initially couldn’t help but marginalize.
Clément inadvertently proves, however, that the Machiavellian side of Ripley’s personality makes for better belletrism than cinema. While the movie’s early scenes are photographed with an icy, handheld fluidity (as befits the malevolent if careful observance of action by the main character), the visuals of the film’s second half tighten with Ripley’s schemes, settling into a pseudo-Hitchcockian rhythm of reverse shots and putatively pulse-quickening dollies. This mechanical aesthetic suggests that rather than having to sublimate what remorse he might feel toward his actions, Ripley simply doesn’t experience any. By contrast, Highsmith narrates Ripley’s reactions to his premeditated slaughter in terms of sexual guilt; after he kills one of Philippe’s friends, she writes that he “felt a sudden disgust and a sense of helplessness,” as though he’d just finished a visit with a prostitute. In the film, Ripley takes a break from cleaning up this second murder to bake a whole chicken and devour it daintily with his hands, like a gentleman on holiday. Clément’s revisions are likely meant to suggest that when crime is oriented around shallow exercises of power, it becomes not only destined to fail but banal as well. I doubt, however, he realized how Purple Noon illustrates that the same is true of film.