René Clément’s remarkable adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr Ripley is a psychological thriller focussing on cruel but cool Tom Ripley and his deeply ingenious, highly skilled manner of enhancing his personality to further his finances and lifestyle. He is the ultimate fashionable yet malicious anti-hero.
Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) has a job to do: to persuade Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to return home to his father in San Francisco and, if he succeeds, Tom will receive $5,000. Unfortunately Philippe is the very definition of a playboy, spending vast quantities of money as he pursues his decadent lifestyle travelling through Europe. Return to the USA is not something he really wants to consider at all. Partly this is because he would like to spend time with his fiancée Marge Duval (Marie Laforêt) and his yacht. Tom, Marge and Philippe embark on a boating excursion but Tom devises a horrendous, devious and murderous plan which leaves Marge in the dark and Philippe stabbed and chucked into the sea. In order to create a new lifestyle for himself Tom adopts the persona and bankroll of his deceased friend, travelling wherever he needs to and for whatever purpose. But he needs to conceal his true identity and procure more cash than his original work fee offered. This strategy could result in further horrific deeds to maintain his new lifestyle.
The reclusive writer Patricia Highsmith’s novels have led to multiple film adaptations over the years. Indeed her first novel was made into Strangers on a Train (1951), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, although she was apparently not fond of the adaptation. Her most famous character Tom Ripley (the first of five novels being The Talented Mr Ripley) has likewise been present in a number of screen adaptations, played by a variety of actors from Matt Damon, Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich. Patricia Highsmith’s favourite, though, was the first: Alain Delon (who originally was cast as Philippe), in Plein Soleil, adapted from The Talented Mr Ripley for the screen by director René Clément. Certain elements of the film are macabre and soaked with dark humour in a way that recalls aspects of Hitchcock as much as they do Highsmith’s own chilling approach to her work, particularly in the scenes which involve the removal of corpses or require particular attention to details of identity. Plein Soleil is a film where revelations about a character’s skills and motivations are given time to be revealed to the viewer. Ripley plays his part with such conviction that the emergence of the dark cruelty that is a fundamental element of his character is part of the film’s charm – it constantly provides new revelations to shock the viewer. Clément’s use of mirrors not only provide a visual directorial motif but also reflects (if you’ll excuse the pun) Ripley’s different dimensions as how his character is perceived and how it evolves. Even early on, it is clear that his character is not merely a worker employed by Mr Greenleaf but a far more complex and devious individual.
Our belief in Tom’s acting ability is enhanced both through the narrative and they way the characters are filmed – Tom, Marge and Philippe are all rich society bright young things. They are people of leisure; they eat and drink expensively and are hugely fashion-conscious (Bella Clément, René’s wife providing the hip costume design, as well as being involved in ensuring Delon played the Ripley role he wanted) to the point of being undeniably cool in their looks and mannerisms. The cinematography by Henri Decaë is exquisite and reflective of the characters’ aspirations and occasional brutality, here produced in a lovingly restored print that does not look fifty-plus years old. Similarly the score by Nino Rota is cool and engaging but never overused.
The DVD and Blu-Ray extras include a fascinating insight into the film by Alain Delon (‘René was the greatest director I’ve ever known’) that covers the background, the filming and even the behind camera unaccredited appearance of an actress’s boyfriend, one Roman Polanski. Other features include a look at the restoration of the print and an hour long documentary featuring numerous aspects about the production and René Clément’s role within of that strong period of French New Wave film-making, as well as discussions with the other ‘Hitchcock of French cinema’ Claude Chabrol, another director whose work is perhaps not as appreciated as it should be.
A welcome re-issue and restoration of a deeply created psychological thriller that is as fascinating as it is compelling. And undeniably cool.
Plein Soleil has recently been restored and is released in cinemas on August 29th. It will receive a Bluray release on September 16th.