The film version of The Talented Mr Ripley from 1999 did a lot to bring some attention back to the works of Patricia Highsmith. By the time of her death in 1995, she had done a lot to drive people away from herself (read Joan Schenkar’s biography to get a vivid picture of the author’s demons). Her pet snails probably didn’t help either. While her own demons may have drowned her, her novels live on with surprising strength due to her keen psychological insight.
Tom Ripley was by all accounts her favourite character, one she identified with to the extent that she signed a letter to a friend “Pat H, alias Ripley” and claimed that he was writing his own adventures through her. He’s an intriguing character: one who wants the good things in life and will go to great lengths to obtain them—including murder. But I’m always mystified when people call him charming. He’s anxious, needy, resentful even and short on empathy.
I guess the films create that impression. In Minghella’s film, Matt Damon plays Ripley as bumbling and gauche at first and definitely attracted to Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf. Highsmith didn’t think Ripley was gay but she had him wonder about it without really pursuing the question. The 1960 film Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) avoided that complexity all together. Instead Alain Delon’s Ripley is hot for Marie Laforêt’s Marge and kills Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to get her as well as the money.
The 2005 film of the sequel Ripley Under Ground follows the anti-hero into his new sub-rosa career in art forgery. Barry Pepper’s Ripley is gagging for the ladies yet so blandly uninteresting. He’s far too wacky, too—hiding his landlady’s cat so he can return it for her gratitude and little latitude on the rent. He bumbles into the art forgery world and stumbled into crime. For Tom forgery is really the highest calling, more taxing than ‘real’ art (according to his creator). In the novels Heloise is the shallow rich bourgeois wife who might guess that her husband has shady dealings but would never look deeply into the matter because the nice surface is all that matters. In this film, she’s his partner in crime. This film wastes a terrific cast in minor roles (Willem Defoe, Alan Cumming, Claire Forlani, Ian Hart, Simon Callow, Tom Wilkinson), which is always unforgiveable.
The two versions of Ripley’s Game come off a bit better. Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund pits Dennis Hopper’s Ripley against his dying neighbour Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) who gives him the high hat at an art auction. With the help of fence he knows, Ripley gets him involved in the assassination of a criminal in order to have money to support his wife and child after he dies. Then things get more complicated. Hopper’s Ripley is a cool, calculating loner with a collection of art and American kitsch. It’s very much a Wenders film (so enjoyable and engaging with great music) but not entirely a successful Ripley.
The 2002 version directed by Liliana Cavani exchanges France for Italy. Ripley is played as a sensual aesthete by John Malkovich. Most reviewers were swayed by that factor alone to hate or love it. Like Purple Noon, this highly sexualized Ripley misses the mark. Highsmith’s character is most passionate about things not people. It follows the novel in most other regards. Poor Dougray Scott’s dying framer insults Ripley at a party and pays the ultimate price after being seduced into crime.
Malkovich aims to make Ripley charming, but Ripley’s appeal is not the seductive charm but the ordinary—his embodiment of the familiar yearning we all have for things out of our reach. Life is unfair. Maybe if we had a little more talent or daring we’d be more like Tom Ripley. At least it’s fun to daydream about a little murder. As Highsmith would say, ‘Honestly, I don’t understand why people get so worked up about a little murder!’
K A Laityis an award-winning author, scholar, critic and arcane artist. Her books include How to Be Dull,White Rabbit, Dream Book, A Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, Chastity Flame, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering Uterus, Respectable Horror, Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. She also writes crime as Graham Wynd.