Remembering René Clément’s take on The Talented Mr. Ripley and his documentarian eye for detail

Clément’s version of The Talented Mr Ripley, released in 1960, was called Purple Noon, though its French title, Plein soleil (full sun), is far more descriptive of the film’s technique

Baradwaj Rangan March 19, 2018 16:10:45 IST
Remembering René Clément’s take on The Talented Mr. Ripley and his documentarian eye for detail

One sometimes pegs these columns on the day someone was born, or the day they died. With the French filmmaker René Clément, it’s both. He was born on March 18, 1913, and he died on March 17, 1996, three years before the release of Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I bring up this movie because Clément made a celebrated film from the same source material, Patricia Highsmith’s novel that gave Minghella’s film its name. Clément’s version, released in 1960, was called Purple Noon, though its French title, Plein soleil (full sun), is far more descriptive of the film’s technique: the story is pure noir, but where that genre is usually cloaked in shadows, this film basks in the Mediterranean sunlight. (Clément asked his cinematographer, the French New Wave legend Henri Decaë, to capture the unique sulphury air of the light in the Gulf of Naples.)

The plot pivots on Tom Ripley (Alain Delon, in one of the two roles that made him an international star that year; the other was in Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers), who is in Italy to persuade the wealthy expat-playboy Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet) to return to the US. What is initially a mere job — commissioned by Greenleaf’s father — slowly turns into a lifestyle. As Tom hangs around with Philippe and experiences what being rich is like, he conspires to kill Philippe and assume the latter’s identity. (This is why the names in the opening credits appear like signatures on a dotted line – more about this later.) Many lies and deceptions later, Tom gets caught. The last scene shows him walking towards the (concealed) police, unaware that they are waiting for him.

Highsmith thought that Alain Delon was excellent as Tom Ripley (“very beautiful to the eye and interesting for the intellect”), but she hated the ending, calling it “a terrible concession to so-called public morality that the criminal had to be caught.” In her novel, where the Philippe character is called Dickie, Tom ends up with Dickie’s wealth and the prospect of a very pleasurable life ahead. Highsmith’s only concession to “so-called public morality” is the hint that Tom may never be at peace again. In the closing section, he daydreams about landing in Crete, “the little bustle of excitement on the pier as his boat moved into the harbour, the small-boy porters, avid for his luggage and his tips, and he would have plenty to tip them with, plenty for everything and everybody.”

Suddenly, there’s a touch of paranoia. “He saw four motionless figures standing on the imaginary pier, the figures of Cretan policemen waiting for him, patiently waiting with folded arms. He grew suddenly tense, and his vision vanished. Was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached? In Alexandria? Istanbul? Bombay? Rio?” Now consider Clément’s ending. We see Tom walking towards the policemen (he thinks he’s received a phone call), but we do not see him getting arrested. He’s smiling. There’s a drink in his hand, and behind him, the boundless blue sea. And the film ends with this frame. Thus, “cinematically” speaking, Tom is still free, still unaware that the evidence has piled up against him, still looking forward to Philippe’s life, which now appears to be his.

But Clément did admit — in a superb interview conducted by Olivier Eyquem and Jean-Claude Missiaen, in the February 1, 1981, issue of L’avant-scène: Cinéma — that he could not have spared Tom Ripley the punishment. “Somehow it reassures people. It is immanent justice.”But he refrained from showing the actual arrest because he knew the audience was on Tom’s side. He said, “[Ripley] is a horrible guy, but you don’t make films with despicable people – that doesn’t work. People want to relate, they want to identify... So how will I make Ripley likable? By humiliating him... He is treated feudally [by Philippe and his friends], which puts everyone on his side. Many viewers even think it’s too bad he gets caught at the end. After everything he did!”

These insights into why a filmmaker does what he does are always thrilling. Clément began his directorial career with a series of documentary shorts, and this eye for realistic detail is evident in three remarkable stretches of Plein soleil, which are so skilfully edited that they seem to play out in real time. The first two stretches show how difficult it is to dispose of a body, though the killing itself is quick, unfussy. (For contrast, see the clip above, which contains Hitchcock’s depiction in Torn Curtain of how difficult it is to kill someone in the first place.) The third stretch expands one line in Highsmith’s novel (“He spent that evening practising Dickie’s signature for the bank cheques.”) into the elaborate scene below.

Why go into such detail, when Clément could have simply shown Tom practising Philippe’s signature a few times? (We’d have bought it, for it’s not that big a point in the plot.) Clément said, “In my opinion, a director must always prove what he puts forward. A writer can allow himself to say that a woman is incredibly beautiful, that she has delicate features and that her eyes are uniquely gentle. But as a director, I have to show her and ask myself who will play her. I can’t just dream anything up. If a sequence has two or three elements that crucially determine the action but are simply unbelievable, I can’t say, ‘Did you see that? It’s unbelievable!’ The script has to make them plausible.” What matters in the film isn’t whether something is possible, but whether it’s plausible. Do we buy it? Are we convinced? In Plein soleil, absolutely.

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