This is the first post in The Cinematic Mr. Ripley, a series for the MovieThoughts category of my blog that considers moral themes in Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels and the film adaptations of those books. This post looks at Purple Noon, the 1960 French adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Alain Delon.
It has been said by Philip French and others that Patricia Highsmith’s novels attract European adaptations. This may be in part because her books have amoral overtones, which fit well with the existentialism of European movements like New German Cinema or the French New Wave. Purple Noon (original French title Plein Soleil), directed by René Clément, is a prime example of the French New Wave, and handles the amorality of Highsmith’s material in an interesting way.
Based on The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first novel in Highsmith’s Ripliad, Purple Noon follows young American tourist Tom Ripley. Tom is staying in Italy with his school friend, Philippe Greenleaf. Philippe (Richard “Dickie” Greenleaf in the novel) is a spoiled millionaire’s son living on his trust fund.
Tom spends most of his time sightseeing and being the third wheel in Philippe’s affair with a woman named Marge. However, as Philippe tells his friend Freddie with a laugh, Tom is supposed to be doing something vital. Phillippe’s father sent Tom to convince his son to return home.
When Philippe stops sending letters promising to come home by Christmas, Tom realizes his chance to get $5,000 for bringing Philippe back is gone. Not only that, but Philippe seems to be getting bored with with his friend, leaving the penniless Tom in a fix. Unfortunately for Philippe, Tom has figured out it’s not hard in 1960s Italy to make a foreigner with few responsibilities disappear, and take the identity himself. All Tom has to do is remove certain obstacles….
More or less from the start, ambiguity is written into Purple Noon. We start by seeing Tom and Philippe exploring Rome, buying a white cane from a blind man and generally behaving like foolish young tourists on a jaunt. Then back at Philippe’s apartment in Mongibello, Philippe tells Tom to leave while he spends time with Marge, and Tom does something odd in the next room. Picking out some of Philippe’s clothes from suitcases, Tom dresses in front of the mirror, talking in an impression.
“My Marge! My love,” Tom says to the mirror, “My little Marge knows I love her and won’t leave her for the wicked man that Papa sent…”
Tom leans in to kiss his reflection in the mirror, then realizes Philippe is in the room. Embarrassed, he changes while Philippe stares at him. “Those my shoes?” Philippe asks.
Highsmith’s novel makes this “Tom and the other two people” dynamic vague. In the book, Marge is interested in Dickie Greenleaf, and while Dickie doesn’t reciprocate her feelings, he is gentle because he wants her friendship. Tom seems jealous of the Marge-Dickie friendship, and at one point Marge and Dickie both speculate about Tom’s sexuality. Does Tom kill his friend because he has repressed yearnings that he can’t express? Does he kill his friend for the money? Does he do it because he’s a sociopath who feels like he’s been crossed?
Or is it that as Nick Jones puts it, “Tom is more in love with the idea of Dickie.” Is Tom’s friend is everything Tom wants to be… and he’ll kill to become somebody new?
Rosabel Smegel notes that Highsmith doesn’t clearly answer these questions. The ambiguity opens the book to any number of interesting interpretations.
Clément makes things more conventional. Here, Marge and Philippe are clearly together, a young woman who has run off with a young man that she hopes love her. Tom, as played by Alain Delon, is good-looking in a metrosexual way, but doesn’t seem to desire his male friend. Clément stated in a 1981 interview that he saw Tom’s actions as a kind of anthropophagy (i.e. humans consuming each other). Several scenes of Tom eating food ravenously after he has committed a crime – gobbling down a peach on Philippe’s boat, eating a chicken in his apartment kitchen while a body lies in the next room – amplify that image. Tom consumes people.
However, even with this explanation, Purple Noon still leaves many things mysterious. In one scene, Tom tells Marge a story about hanging out with Philippe in their schoolboy days, and Philippe privately tells Marge that they never knew each other in school. Clément established in the 1981 interview that Philippe is lying here, but the reasons why aren’t clear. Does Philippe like leaving Marge in the dark about his past? Do Tom and Philippe really have a history, or is Tom a con man who Philippe keeps around because he finds him entertaining?
Similarly, while we know that Tom is consuming his friend’s identity, the end goal isn’t totally clear. Does he “consume” Philippe to become Philippe, to have Philippe’s money, or to replace him as Marge’s lover? The movie leaves these questions hanging. As Geoffrey O’Brien puts it, “Purple Noon remains tantalizingly elusive.”
When it comes to the ending, Purple Noon plays with ambiguity in an interesting way. Highsmith’s novel ends with Tom Ripley convincing the authorities that his friend Dickie committed suicide. The Greenleaf family thank Tom for his efforts, and bequeath him Dickie’s trust fund. Justice is evaded, because in Highsmith’s worldview, “neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not” (Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, 56).
Clément stated that he considered an ending where Tom escapes Italy, but concluded that even if Tom got away, he would be stuck. “Everything [Tom] did becomes meaningful in the face of a well-structured, specific society, but not in the void,” Clément observed. Instead, Purple Noon ends after Tom has faked Philippe’s suicide, leaving a suicide note that gives all his money to Marge. Tom re-enters Marge’s life and seduces her, knowing that soon Philippe’s father will come hand over Philippe’s trust fund to Marge. We can imagine what will happen to Marge next.
Marge leaves Tom to meet Philippe’s father and arrange to have Philippe’s boat sold. Tom relaxes in a beach chair, glad that the hardest part of his work is over. At the boatyard, Marge watches a machine pull Phillipe’s boat out of the dock for shipment… and sees a body-shaped object wrapped in a cable that attached itself to the rudder.
Back at the beach, several policeman ask a waitress to call Mr. Ripley, tell him that there is a telephone call for him. Tom slowly stands, and confidently walks out of the camera frame. In the background, we see the beach and a ship sailing past. Earlier in the film, as Tom killed Philippe on his boat, a ship with white sails appeared (Clément explained that this references the legend of The Flying Dutchman appearing when someone dies on a ship).
This “justice unexpectedly restored” ending allows the movie to be moral, without moralizing throughout the story. Clément noted that “Somehow it reassures people,” fits their desire for “immanent justice.”
At the same time, it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. O’Brien notes that we don’t see the actual arrest, just Tom walking off. Nor do we have any hints earlier that Tom had missed anything that would incriminate him. The fact that he is found out because evidence got stuck to the boat is surprising, but not contrived. Tom admitted he was afraid of water, so it’s not surprising that he didn’t check the boat in detail.
Thus, Purple Noon gets the tension of Highsmith’s book, forces audiences to ask, “would we mind if this murderer got away?” without actually giving in to that desire.
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