If René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960) is not a guilty pleasure, it certainly feels like one. But before getting to the guilt, a word about the pleasure. Aside from anything else, it is a film that lingers in the mind as an irresistibly satisfying slice of worldly enjoyment. The original title, Plein soleil, conveys the pervasive power of that enjoyment, with its suggestion of the Mediterranean sunlight in which so many of the film’s scenes are baked. When it first came out in America, Purple Noon was like an advertisement for a life of luxurious sensuality, with hints of La dolce vita–style decadence and New Wave–style modishness, pristinely opulent hotel rooms and lobbies, and large helpings of sand and sun. The passage of time has only accentuated that allure, since the Italy we sample here in such generous detail is a vanished tourist’s dream, underpopulated and unpolluted, a paradise for footloose Americans: the seaport waterfronts teeming with fresh-caught fish, the bodies bronzed from long and carefree afternoons in the sun, the luscious blues and greens of a sea made for open-ended yachting excursions.
Purple Noon is the very opposite of film noir. No murky labyrinths here: all is apparently open and bright, inviting every variety of self-indulgence. Each frame filled by Henri Decaë’s astonishing cinematography is a place that begs to be entered and savored. The color values are almost too beautiful to be endured, especially since we sense that they are not only beautiful but accurate, no Hollywood fantasy but the almost tangible textures of a world where texture still matters. This is a film that can hardly be watched without nagging waves of desire and envy—all the better to become complicit in the desires and envies of the murderous hero. By the end of the film, we do not simply understand Tom Ripley; we want what he wants.
To that extent, and despite the freedom with which it reworks many of the book’s details, the film is deeply faithful to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)—much more so than Anthony Minghella’s later version, which, along with making elaborately unnecessary additions to Highsmith’s story line, reduces Ripley to a figure of pathos and the film to a critique of his misguided yearnings. Highsmith, on the other hand, does not so much critique Ripley’s motives as share them. Her book—which was once pigeonholed as a genre entertainment and now seems one of the novels of its period most likely to endure—has the force of a fully realized and quite perverse fantasy, a The Count of Monte Cristo for postwar Americans, or at least those postwar Americans who could identify with Tom Ripley’s sense of primal dispossession and infinite yearning.
Highsmith had the coldest of eyes, and she reserved her empathy precisely for a character who feels entitled to deceive or destroy anyone who gets in the way of his sincere desire to become the person he was meant to be. Her Tom Ripley is an astonishingly detailed inner portrait of a young psychopath who merely wants the best of everything. He is neither a diabolical Other nor a clinically observed specimen, but someone we come to know as an intimate companion, sharing his thoughts and seeing the world through his eyes—the eyes of a rejected child who cannot rest until he has had his revenge on the world for denying him a place at the banquet table. The novel’s uncompromising amorality, right down to the note of triumph on which it ends, gives it the invasive force of myth. Myths are not morality plays, even if this one does imply a twisted self-help credo: you really can have whatever you want, as long as you’re willing to kill people and clever enough to cover up your crimes.
Clément’s decision to curtail Ripley’s triumph at the end is very much in line with the cinematic conventions of the time, but also evidently reflects the director’s sense that the punishment of transgression “somehow . . . reassures people.” Cinematically, however, he still gives Tom the final victory: in our last glimpse of him, as he strides, unaware, toward a police stakeout, he is still free and savoring the completeness with which he has realized his desires. Tom’s triumph is also that of Alain Delon, whom we have watched throughout the film as he watches the others and studies them, trying on masks and rehearsing deceptions, to emerge finally into this serene moment of perfect accomplishment. It was Delon’s first important role, and it is hard to imagine the film without him.
Highsmith uses densely detailed accounts of Tom’s thought processes to acquaint us with the nuances and bizarre contradictions of his personality. Delon achieves the same nuance and complexity without words. His Tom is mime and mimic. Even without benefit of words, we are aware of his darting intelligence as he sizes up opportunities, his moments of forbidden pleasure, like stealing an earring and then planting it on someone else. He crouches with the attentiveness, only seemingly calm, of a dangerous animal, and then goes into action with the spontaneity of a child surrendering to a compelling temptation. In the company of the detestable Philippe (Maurice Ronet), a bullying trust-fund kid whose idea of fun is throwing the manuscript of his fiancée’s book overboard, Tom seems at one moment like a desperately toadying hanger-on catering to a superior’s whims, at another like the picture of unjustly abused sincerity. Alone with the much put-upon Marge (Marie Laforêt), he radiates sympathetic understanding. Alone with himself, he has in moments of danger the immobile alertness of a lizard on a rock, right up to when he finally permits himself a long-suppressed smile of enjoyment.
Delon captures the essence of Highsmith’s character: that he discovers himself as he goes along, and finds his way into murderousness through a kind of innocent and delighted improvisation. When he dresses in Philippe’s clothes and seems to make love to his mirror image, all the while murmuring sweet nothings to the absent Marge, he gives himself over to it as if lost in play, and reacts, when Philippe discovers him, with the sullenness of a child shamed at being found out. Even as he advances into the arts of deception, taking elaborate pains to master Philippe’s signature and employing ever more complicated strategies of evasion—darting into phone booths or climbing out of windows to avoid detection—he still seems to be playing at dress-up and only pretending to be one of the adults. When he reveals—to Philippe himself—his idea for killing him and taking his place, it’s as if he’s dreaming it up on the spot and laying it out for Philippe to be charmed by his cleverness.
The film marked a decisive turn in René Clément’s career. A superb technician, he had trained as an architect and made his entry into filmmaking as a cameraman. His first directorial efforts included a series of documentary shorts, and his early successes—among them the documentary-style Resistance epic La bataille du rail (1946), the internationally acclaimed Forbidden Games (1952), the meticulous Zola adaptation Gervaise (1956)—marked him as a realist with a powerful sense of narrative construction, and, especially on the basis of the child performers in Forbidden Games, a gifted director of actors. All his gifts are on display in Purple Noon, but in a context quite removed from the more affirmative and humanistic values of his earlier work.
The eye of the documentarian is very apparent in this film shot almost entirely on location, and that rugged sense of contact with the real accounts for a good part of its persuasiveness. Clément does not merely show us two quick and brutal murders, he makes us live their arduous aftermaths by demonstrating how very difficult it can be to dispose of a body. The work of the actors redoubles that persuasiveness. Even when they are theatrical, it is the authentic theatricality of people who turn everyday life into a performance, the privileged artificiality of a privileged class. Right from the opening scene, in which we come upon Tom and Philippe on the town in Rome—clowning it up like a Renaissance princeling and his master of the revels, amusing themselves in turn with a blind man and a drunken pickup—real background and actorly foreground are seamlessly blended, with the same mastery that Clément had already demonstrated in the mass exodus from Paris in Forbidden Games and the nineteenth-century street scenes of Gervaise. Clément also gives support to his central characters in their coastal resort town by adding elements not found in Highsmith’s book, a struggling ballet company and a drunken expatriate—only peripheral figures but indispensable to the illusion of a genuine milieu.
The screenplay is a brilliant work of adaptation; we slide with ease into the heart of a complicated situation with almost effortless exposition. On many points, the film improves on what Clément called the “completely indefensible” gaps in plausibility in Highsmith’s original. (Highsmith’s genius for motivation was sometimes coupled with an almost disdainful indifference to matters of routine believability.) In this area, Clément called on the assistance of Paul Gégauff, who had written The Sign of Leo for Eric Rohmer and Les cousins and À double tour for Claude Chabrol, and who may have been brought in to add some New Wave chic to the proceedings. The result was an elegant streamlining of all the complicated business involving forged letters, fake wills, disguised voices, and fictional itineraries, by means of which Tom Ripley demonstrates the art of being in two places at the same time.
Gégauff added to the mix as well his distinctive brand of capricious cruelty and unrestrained misogyny, with Ronet’s Philippe serving as a somewhat rougher stand-in for Jean-Claude Brialy’s decadent city cousin in Les cousins. (He also foreshadows the role that Gégauff himself would portray in Chabrol’s 1975 Une partie de plaisir, a self-portrait so self-consciously repulsive as to make comprehensible his subsequent murder at the hands of his second wife.) Highsmith’s Dickie Greenleaf is a feckless dabbler, a more or less brainless golden youth who imagines, despite all evidence, that he has artistic talent, and whose very emptiness triggers Tom Ripley’s “heartbreaking surge of envy and of self-pity”: he covets Dickie’s life precisely because Dickie so manifestly doesn’t deserve it. The Philippe Greenleaf of Purple Noon is of a different order, a spoiled, self-satisfied brute who seems to invite killing.
Clément and Gégauff made many other significant changes. Notably, but not surprisingly, considering when the film was made, they elected to suppress the overtly homosexual themes that are woven throughout the novel. Marge, who in the novel is merely an annoyance for Tom, here apparently becomes an object of desire—if she is not merely a convenient way of getting at Philippe’s inheritance. And Dickie Greenleaf, who in the novel represents what Tom wants to merge with and become, is replaced by the odious Philippe, who is merely an obstacle to be gotten out of the way. But the emotional entanglements of the Tom-Marge-Philippe triangle and the slipperiness of Tom’s inner life allow multiple readings. The subtext of what we witness is open-ended and limitless in its ambiguity. However precise and elegant its surfaces, Purple Noon remains tantalizingly elusive, a beautifully made object always just out of reach—in that respect, just like its source novel.
For a brief moment, the film earned Clément the reputation of a French Hitchcock, a path he pursued with diminishing success thereafter. What he was not able to find again was Purple Noon’s singular grace: a lightness of touch, a nearly comic elation operating in odd but harmonious counterpoint to its motifs of cruelty, envy, unappeasable longing, and mad calculation. Small wonder that the alchemy by which such unlike elements are fused here proved impossible to recapture. If Purple Noon lends itself to repeated viewings, it’s because we can’t find its particular insidious shade of pleasure anywhere else.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, The Fall of the House of Walworth, and the upcoming collection Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film 2002–2012. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.