There have been two films from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley: the 1999 film with the same title directed by Anthony Minghella, and this, Réné Clement’s 1960 offering. Plein soleil means literally Full Sun, though it was translated as Purple Noon in the US and Blazing Sun in the UK. What is instantly striking about this version is that it has pretty much the same strengths and defects as Minghella’s more recent adaptation – which suggests that this story is eminently filmable, even if neither movie could be called ‘great’.
The story is straightforward: college student Tom Ripley (played in Plein soleil by Alain Delon) is sent on an errand by a wealthy couple to travel to Italy and fetch their wayward, spoilt son Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet). Ripley, though, becomes seduced by Greenleaf’s decadent lifestyle, kills him, and assumes his identity. The rest of the story concerns Ripley’s attempts to sustain this deception, while the police become increasingly suspicious…
At first, Delon as an actor has the air of a pretty boy with little interest in character or complexity. As the film progresses, however, it becomes more and more evident how perfect he is for this role, and how well the movies can exploit an actor’s good looks if cast correctly. As embodied by Delon, Tom Ripley is a blank slate, a largely unreadable figure onto whom various characters (and we, the viewers) might project meanings and desires. And yet his beauty is a mask which throws us off the scent, a beguiling surface behind which he can hide and scheme.
In this regard, Delon is perfect. There’s a great moment where he is hiding just inside a doorway, ready to clobber Freddy Miles (Billy Kearns) over the head, and the camera holds on Delon, poised, relatively unflappable – he could be simply awaiting an introduction – and cherishable even as he carries out his grisly business. Clement wasn’t the only director to spot this potential. Delon went on to give fascinating performances in, among others, Rocco e i suoi fratelli/Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (1963) and Le Cercle Rouge/The Red Circle (1970).
It’s interesting to compare Delon with Matt Damon in Minghella’s version: Damon’s Ripley is a pasty, unattractive nerd – the shy, yet devious insinuator – in comparison with Delon’s tanned, louche dandy. Both embodiments work, and ultimately amount to the same thing: an identity crisis, seesawing between adoration and psychosis.
It’s all the more jarring, in a good way, that this character is placed in the seductive surroundings of northern Italy. And Clement portrays it superbly. Cinematographer Henri Decae, who at around the same time shot the beautiful black and white Les Quatre Cent Coups/The 400 Blows (1959), here proves himself equally adept at colour: the ocean, the food and drink, the clothes and cars all sit scorchingly on the screen. And Nino Rota’s score is as lush – and as absurdly catchy – as his work on the likes of Romeo and Juliet (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Amarcord (1973).
What holds Plein soleil back from classic status is the pacing – like Minghella’s version, it’s inclined to drag its feet. Clement seems just as intoxicated with the scenery as the story, which is understandable, but Plein soleil sometimes comes close to the existential preoccupation with landscape felt in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) – a formidable approach in itself, though not necessarily appropriate for such a psychologically twisted tale. Still, the viewer’s patience is rewarded for the sequences, bordering on slapstick, in which Ripley seeks to outwit the authorities and other interested parties.
Shown as part of the Ciné Lumiere’s French noir season, Plein soleil is, in a way, about the downward spiral of fate, and indeed its final act is very different from Minghella’s more explicitly psychoanalytical rendition. Whichever way you see it, though, Tom Ripley is a danger to himself and to others. And like Plein soleil, he may lull you into a false sense of security – and then strike.