René Clément’s 1960 movie is a beautiful thing. It has Italian locations – in the deep South too; astonishing scenes filmed on a boat that would not be out of place in one of Wernher Herzog’s more ambitious (ie mad) productions; and a sun every bit as hard and uncompromising as its original title suggests. And it has one of those endless stream of European actresses of that time who can just ooze erotic charge out of the screen, in this case singer-actor Marie Laforet. And, topping the lot, in his breakthrough role, only Alain Delon.
Of course, he plays Tom Ripley, one of the twentieth century’s great literary creations, and one notoriously tricky to capture on film. Matt Damon wasn’t much good in the 1999 film The Talented Mr Ripley and John Malkovich scarcely better in 2002’s Ripley’s Game. Delon, eyes darting and staring as befits his situation, gets much closer to Patricia Highsmith’s asexual, amoral antihero, even with the terrible dubbing. There’s Ripley’s magnetism, his look that sees through the merely clever (especially through the merely clever) and his almost wilful courting of danger, the better to give himself the chance to thumb it in the eye and walk away smirking. Delon is at his best when the least active in any scene, the watcher and learner, soon to be the manipulator.
Mme Laforet may be introduced as little more than very upmarket eye candy, but she shows how Marge falls not just for Ripley’s looks (who wouldn’t!) but also for his Dorian Gray approach to his evil. She never says that she knows, but we know that she knows – and, once in Ripley’s grip (metaphorically and literally) she doesn’t care. It’s a very accomplished performance for a woman barely out of her teens.
There is one flaw in a near flawless film. Ms Highsmith would never have scripted an ending like that – and said so having praised much of the rest of the movie. Nor would Ripley, a consummate professional in his derring deeds, ever be so sloppy. It’s the only false note, but it’s a real clanger.
I had not heard of this movie until my attention was drawn to it by a below the line comment on a Guardian click-gathering list piece – which goes to show that it’s sometimes worth reading BTL stuff even these days. There’s an excellent print on a Russian website (click here). Better still, read The Talented Mr Ripley, on which the film is closely based – it’s the kind of book that you envy those who are yet to read it, as so much pleasure lies before them. And now they can picture M. Delon in their mind’s eye as Ripley, well, it’s even more of a treat.