CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
PURPLE NOON (“Plein Soleil“) (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
France: Rene Clement, 1960 (Criterion Collection)
When the murder comes, it’s so swift, so unexpected, yet so oddly inevitable, that it’s hard to believe we’ve seen what we’ve seen. Whoosh! A knife thrust. A scream. “Marge!“ cries the victim, the knife stuck in his chest. He falls, dies, while his killer looks on, for a moment with seeming horror, as if he were witness to something awful, unimaginable — something that somehow doesn‘t even involve him. Did it really happen? Was it a dream? A fantasy? A lie? A movie? Yes, of course, we’re watching (and talking about) a movie: an exceptionally riveting and beautiful one about desire and cruelty and murder and malice and a game of make-believe by a psychopath/killer who is also an actor and an artist. A classic thriller called Plein Soleil, or Purple Noon, a movie shot in the adult playgrounds and mature pleasure spots of Italy (The Via Veneto and others) and released the same year, 1960, as both Psycho and La Dolce Vita — directed by a French filmmaker/artist, Rene Clement (who knew and understood sailing and the area well), from a classic novel/thriller by Patricia Highsmith, a brilliant American novelist who lived in France, and understood criminals well, if only in her imagination.
Where are we? We’re on a sailboat, as it happens, in the Bay of Naples, surrounded by blazing sunlight (“plein soleil”) pouring down on the churning blue waves, the sea waves that toss the boat like a little toy. Two good-looking young men in white and dark summery clothes, just seconds before, were laughing and smiling over a joke — the joke being that one of them, a handsome, penniless hanger-on named Tom Ripley (Alain Delon), will kill the other one, a rich reckless playboy named Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), and assume his identity and take all his money, and maybe seduce his girl, Marge (Marie Laforet), whom Tom desires but whom Philippe has mistreated and left on shore. It was a joke of course. (The murder, I mean.) They were both laughing (but Philippe’s eyes were wary, Tom’s predatory), smiling with the special joie de vivre and cruel merriment of the young and careless — the high giddy spirits of, say, Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony planning his criss-cross murder with Farley Granger as Guy Haines in Highsmith and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. But then Tom really killed Philippe. In the sunlight, on the water, in the Bay of Naples, while waves tossed the boat. Effortlessly. One thrust. “Marge!”
Tom Ripley is one of the classic villains of 20th Century literature (and Alain Delon is his classic movie embodiment). And the novel in which Ripley was introduced — 1955‘s crime classic “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — is also the book that director Clement and Paul Gegauff ( a French screenwriter who was later killed by his wife) later adapted into Purple Noon. It was an off-type movie for Clement, a highly gifted and highly regarded director, who, by 1960, had won two major Cannes Film Festival awards (for 1946’s The Battle of the Rails and 1949‘s The Walls of Malapaga), and two Oscars (for Malapaga and 1952’s Forbidden Games) and two Golden Lions at Venice, for Games and Gervaise. In addition, in 1946, Clement had served as Jean Cocteau’s “technical advisor” (virtually his co-director, some think), on the romantic fantasy masterpiece Beauty and the Beast.
Clement was a technical genius, often great with actors, who chose challenging subjects. But he had been famously attacked, along with other filmmakers, in a cruel (and influential) article by the young Francois Truffaut. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut accused Clement (and others of his generation) of being pretentious over-praised mediocrities. Truffaut was a great filmmaker and a great film critic, but he sometimes said nasty and unfair things in order (as he admitted freely in later years) to draw attention to himself and kick up controversy. His dismissal of Clement was one of his bigger critical injustices.
Did Clement take it to heart? He made Purple Noon for the Hakim Brothers, who had just produced A Double Tour with Truffaut’s critic/director chum and fellow New Waver Claude Chabrol. Clement used Chabrol’s collaborator Gegauff, as his writer (instead of his regular scenarists Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, whom Truffaut had also savaged). He also employed Chabrol’s fine cinematographer, Henri Decae. The music for Purple Noon is very recognizably by the masterly Nino Rota, Federico Fellini‘s constant composer, and a New Wave favorite. And, most tellingly, Purple Noon is a Hitchcockian film, obviously influenced by the director, Alfred Hitchcock, whom all the young Cahiers du Cinema critic/directors (they called themselves the “Hitchcocko-Hawksians”) loved. Purple Noon is a film that most of them would probably have liked to have directed, but didn’t. (Couldn’t?)
There is a notable deviation from the Hitchcock thematic pattern however. Purple Noon is not a movie about a wrong man falsely accused of a crime he hasn’t committed, like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, or Robert Donat in The 39 Steps, or a man suffering guilt for something he hasn’t done, like James Stewart in Vertigo. In Purple Noon, Ripley is guilty, and if we worry that he’ll get caught, that’s just a perversity on our part, something to make us even more uneasy. Ripley is a man trying to live a life that isn‘t his, a life that belongd to the man he killed. He is in Italy at the behest of Philippe’s San Francisco parents, the Greenleafs, to try to talk their prodigal playboy son, Philippe, into coming home. The become instead carousing hell-raising buddies, after Philippe seduces Tom (not sexually), or vice versa. After the murder, Ripley takes Philippe‘s bank records, fakes a passport, learns to forge Philippe’s signature, imitates his voice on the phone, and lays a paper trail of hotel receipts to pretend that the dead man is still alive, still joy-riding somewhere around Italy.
Ripley is the Right Man, the real killer, constantly being mistaken for his own victim. It’s a brilliant Highsmith idea, and one that generates near constant suspense.– especially in the great scene when Ripley, disguised as Philippe, is confronted in his apartment by Philippe‘s suspicious friend Freddy Miles (Bill Kearns). That Tom-and-Freddy chase was also the (only) great scene in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 American movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, the one with Matt Damon miscast as Ripley — and the only reason that second scene was great was because of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s marvelously snide performance as Freddy. (By the way, if you thought the Purple Noon Freddy’s date in his first scene might have been Romy Schneider, you’re right.)
There’s a great performance in Purple Noon too: the tigerishly seductive impersonation of the grand impersonator Ripley by Alain Delon, in his first important part and the one he parleyed into stardom. Delon is one of those impossibly good-looking actors who get careers they seemingly don’t really deserve (and that Delon said he initially didn’t want), but whose looks the movies feed on, and whom, it is said, the camera loves — only in Delon’s case, the camera loved him not just when he played something like a hero, but when he played bad boys and outlaws and amoralists, one of the baddest of them all being Ripley.
We may not really want Ripley to escape — I was reassured when the flics showed up at the end — but he certainly generates unusual simpatico for a cold-blooded swindler and killer. It is one of Highsmith’s points, though not Clement’s, that evil can be successful, but not that it should be successful.
END OF ALERT
If we know Highsmith’s work — and Gore Vidal regarded her as one of the great modernist writers — we know that Ripley kept returning to the pages of her novels (including Ripley’s Game, and Ripley Under Water) and to the movies made from them, where he was played by Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich. Both Highsmith and Clement were unusually deft and unusually successful in getting us immersed in a story where most of the people are rich and selfish (or the rich people’s employees or servants or facilitators), where the leading man is irredeemably evil and the only really likeable character is Philippe’s abused girlfriend Marge, a writer with bad taste in men, who is working on a book on Fra Angelico. Purple Noon is about the idle rich, and Ripley is a conman who wants to be idle and rich.
Delon, of course, was all wrong for the part of Ripley in one major respect. It is impossible to believe that he (or Ronet) is an American. But in other respects, he’s an apt choice, and once you see him in the part, it’s hard to discard his image. (Damon, by contrast, though he’s played some movie villains, seems too inherently nice a guy for Ripley, who hasn’t a nice bone in his face.) Delon, who has a priceless, ruthless look, who comes from the working class but looks like an Adonis, was after all an excellent pick for the role — one of the few actors who could play, as he does here, a believable love scene with his own reflection in the mirror. And Maurice Ronet, with his haunted eyes and bedazzled smile, is just right as the irresponsible Philippe.
A sharp French TV interview with Patricia Highsmith is included on the Criterion Purple Noon release package: a talk that completely changed the way I always thought if her — as a character perhaps out of a Claude Chabrol film. Here, looking like a lonely, somewhat traditional Texas-born girl, a writer who lives by herself, and happens to speak good French, she said that the major theme of her stories was guilt, but that we live in a world (the TV show seems ‘60s-vintage) that is increasingly without guilt . So she believes that a Ripley can triumph, but not necessarily that he should triumph — which may give the lie to critics who suspect that she’s an immoralist. Her favorite movie adaptation of her work (at that time) was, she says, Strangers on a Train — and she thinks Hitchcock was right to make the seemingly censor-dictated changes he did.
I’ve said that Truffaut was wrong about Clement — just as I believe he was wrong about Marcel Carne. Perhaps the reason for those seemingly over-harsh misjudgments was that Truffaut may have been too quick to find fault with other French movie about children — even an inarguable gem like The Red Balloon drew his ire — and Clement‘s Forbidden Games was one of the most admired of all ‘50s French films about childhood. So Clement, maybe wanting to prove he could master the specialties of some of the young Turks in The New Wave, made the kind of thriller Truffaut would have loved to have made, but never did. And for the rest of Clement’s career, which was over far too soon, by 1975 and The Babysitter, he was often typed as a thriller specialist, because of Purple Noon, which became one of the most influential of all French crime/suspense movies.
It deserves to be. Purple Noon still plays beautifully, especially in the scenes where Ripley battles the waves and the elements after the murder. Delon still radiates icy charm as Ripley the killer. Two years later, in 1962, a talented young Polish film director, Roman Polanski, made a thriller, set on a sailboat, that reminds you greatly of the bay scenes in Purple Noon. Knife in the Water became an international hit and eventually brought Polanski to Hollywood where, before fleeing America and the police, he made superb mass-audience thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. I wish Clement had had a few more opportunities like that — or the chance to make another Forbidden Games. Maybe Truffaut wished it as well. Maybe the maker of The Four Hundred Blows wished eventually that he hadn’t been so quick to thrust in the knife.
Extras: Interviews with Patricia Highsmith, Alain Delon and Clement scholar Denitza Bantcheva; Trailer; Booklet with a fine essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1981 interview with Rene Clement.