This is the fifth 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 Ripley’s Game, the 2002 film directed and co-written by Liliana Cavani, adapted from the novel of the same name.
What do you do if you’re adapting a movie based on an eternally young character and subtract the youth? That question is key to Ripley’s Game (2002) directed by Liliana Cavani and starring John Malkovich.
Like Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), the plot is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1970 novel Ripley’s Game. Where Wenders’ script played fast and loose with the plot, this film follows the book. At least, it follows the book after the opening scene.
The novel opens with Ripley’s American “business associate” Reeves Minot visiting him. Reeves offers Ripley a huge sum to kill some Mafia gangsters in Berlin. Ripley initially ignores this idea, then has a better one. This movie opens in Berlin, with Ripley meeting an English gangster named Reeves (Ray Winstone). Reeves gives Ripley some forged art, Ripley takes the art to a mysterious dealer who says he has “always wanted to meet the man behind the… reputation. I’ve heard so many things.”
Ripley smiles and says, “Who knows? Some of them may even be true.”
Unfortunately, the dealer tries to under-pay Tom and then insults him. Violent things happen, and Tom leaves with the art and the dealer’s $1.2 million dollars. Outside, he gives Reeves all the money, and tells him to pay the forger they hired. Ripley leaves with the art hidden on his person.
Three years later, Ripley has done well from selling the forged art himself. He’s married to a harpsichordist named Luisa, they live in Italy’s Veneto region, in a restored Roman villa which might be called “ostentatious.” Ripley accepts an invitation to a house party from his neighbor, picture framer Jonathon Trevanny.
At the party, Ripley mingles well, charming Jonathon’s wife Sarah and their young son Matthew. As he wanders, Ripley hears a half-drunken Jonathon in the kitchen. Jonathon’s friends ask what he thinks of Ripley’s work on the villa and Jonathon grumbles that Ripley “renovated the heart and soul” out of it.
“See, that’s the problem with Ripley,” Jonathon says, “all that money and no taste.”
Jonathon’s friends look uneasily at the kitchen door. Jonathon sees Ripley standing there. Ripley coldly responds to Jonathon’s attempts to tide things over.
Back at the villa, Ripley finds Reeves, who is still bitter about being cheated in Berlin but has an offer. He will pay Ripley $50,000 to “de-regulate… some problem neighbors.” Ripley considers Reeves’ arguments that the hitman must be someone unknown who can’t be traced back to Reeves. He offers no help. That night, Luisa asks about the Trevanny party and tells Ripley that Jonathon has leukemia. Ripley calls Reeves the next day with an idea about an “innocent” who can do the job.
Various people have noted that John Malkovich makes Tom Ripley colder than previous incarnations, and colder than Highsmith’s eternally endearing young American. Neil Young’s Film Lounge complained that this film “Hannibal Lecterised” the character, that it was to The American Friend what Red Dragon was to Manhunter (based on the same book, but one movie far superior).
There’s some truth to this. Michael Mann’s Manhunter and Wim Wender’s The American Friend are both stylish films with strong images. As film critic Alan Jones might put it, they are the kind of movies you could take any frame of and put in an art gallery. Ripley’s Game, like Red Dragon, takes a more meat-and-potatoes thriller approach to its material.
However, Red Dragon failed to make Thomas Harris’ characters compelling or do anything clever with its visuals. In Ripley’s Game, the characters are sometimes mysterious (we rarely learn anyone’s backstory) but they are all interesting and believable. The visual style isn’t flashy, but deliberately retro (David Rooney of Variety said it evokes 1960s films, and Nick Jones called it “an old school Euro-thriller”). Ripley’s Game may not be as visionary as The American Friend, but it’s very memorable.
Whether or not Ripley’s Game turns Tom Ripley into a Lecter-esque figure hits at a larger issue. The internal timeline of the five Ripley novels doesn’t match the publication dates. Ripley Under Ground (published 1970) is set “six years” after The Talented Mr. Ripley (published in 1955). However, Ripley Under Ground mentions a policeman finding a long-buried 1965 coin. Ripley’s Game was published four years after Ripley Under Ground, but set six months later. Highsmith leaves it unclear what year Ripley recruits Jonathon Trevanny: all we really know is that Ripley is still young. This makes Tom into something like an affable vampire, time standing still for him:
The five novels were written over thirty-six years. Topical references appropriate to that time-span occurs but Tom Ripley ages five or six years at the most. He is a fly caught in the amber of the Fifties.Grey Gowrie, Page xiv in The Talented Mr. Ripley/Ripley Under Ground/Ripley’s Game (Everyman’s Library)
From start to finish, Tom Ripley is an endearing young man eager to impress. Alain Delon’s approach in Purple Noon was to make Ripley cold-blooded but so handsome no one can hate him. Matt Damon played Ripley as a starry-eyed boy with darker depths. Barry Pepper tried (with poor script and directing) to make him an Adonis figure. Dennis Hopper was a prematurely aged 31 when he played Ripley in The American Friend, but still had a young man’s handsome profile and soulful blue eyes: his Ripley is tortured, but charismatic.
Malkovich was older than any of these actors, so he plays Tom Ripley as older than he was in the books or earlier films. Therefore, he’s not an endearing young man but he can charm people, as seen at the Trevanny party and his interactions with Veneto locals (including Jonathon). He’s witty, occasionally fawning, generous with gifts (quality wine for the Trevanny party, a harpsichord for Luisa, homegrown mushrooms as Jonathon’s belated birthday present).
Around criminal colleagues, Ripley is cold and sometimes cutting. Other times he is drily funny without mocking anyone: before killing someone on a train, he lights a cigarette, than sees a no-smoking sign. “This is a non-smoking car? How rude,” Ripley says as he grinds the cigarette under his foot.
In other words, Malkovich’s Ripley is colder than previous Ripleys, but their charm was a young man’s game. If Highsmith wrote Ripley as a middle-aged man, this is easily what he could be: cold wit replaces faux charm. Since he lacks a youth’s need to impress, this Ripley owns up to his amorality.
“I lack your conscience,” Ripley says to Jonathon, “and when I was young that troubled me. It no longer does.”
That also means that Malkovich’s Ripley can’t help but be similar to Hannibal Lecter – the two characters have always had common territory anyway. Lecter tries to live on the best food, music, etc., and disparages people he finds tasteless. Tom takes a similar snobbish attitude in The Talented Mr. Ripley, disparaging a friend’s lodgings: “that grimy single room… those slithering stacks of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and those big chi-chi smoke glass bowls all over the place” (13). Leigh Singer observes that in Anthony Minghella’s film, Tom kills Freddie Miles because Freddie knows too much… and because he insults Tom’s décor.
Grey Gowrie’s description of Tom’s life sounds like one Dr. Lecter would enjoy:
There is gardening, teaching yourself French and German, listening to music, buying works of art, playing the harpsichord, painting a bit, enjoying good food and sensational wine (Montrachet is served several times and one murder weapon is a bottle of Château Margaux) and reading enough to acquire a Jamesian veneer of the free-spirited American swimming in Europe’s ancient cultured waters.Page xiv in The Talented Mr. Ripley/Ripley Under Ground/Ripley’s Game (Everyman’s Library)
Ripley and Lecter also both seem to playact their snobbishness. Tom Ripley was a penniless Boston orphan before gaining Dickie Greenleaf’s money, anything but “to the manor born.” Some reviewers have suggested that Lecter protests too much to be a real connoisseur, hence Hannibal Rising doesn’t work (it made Lecter a real aristocrat). If we take René Clément’s idea in the film Purple Noon that Ripley stealing identities is symbolic “anthropophagy” (people eating people), the Lecter-Ripley connection becomes stronger.
The idea that Tom has acquired culture and uses it as a crutch is central to the film Ripley’s Game. He expresses distaste for Reeves’ rough manners, but his own manners could be acquired. The fact Ripley gets angry when Jonathon says he has no taste suggest the comment touches a truth he doesn’t want to admit.
Various scenes of Ripley admiring art – playing the harpsichord, touching the Michelangelo-esque paintings on his walls – present an irony. He loves art, but can’t relate to the passionate human relationships that feed great art. Jennie Kermode suggests these visuals show Ripley “has substituted beauty for emotion.”
The closest Ripley gets to showing an emotional response is around Luisa (which may be an act) and his attempts to keep Jonathon safe. When he learns that the second assassination left witnesses who are coming for revenge, Ripley tells Jonathon to “stay away, stay safe.” Ripley seems uncomfortable as he says “stay safe,” speaking quickly like he wants to get it over with. Perhaps he’s embarrassed that he cares.
As Ripley acts detached (and perhaps wonders why he can’t be colder), Jonathon routinely shows his active conscience. Jonathon chooses to do a crime to provide for his family, but doesn’t enjoy any of it. He’s physically uncomfortable when he lies to his wife about what he’s doing. When he’s done his second killing, Jonathon breaks down and says that he can’t look his son in the face anymore.
Jonathon’s strong conscience creates an interesting dilemma at the end of Ripley’s Game. When criminals come for revenge, Ripley advises Jonathon to stay away. Instead, Jonathon comes to man the fort at Ripley’s villa. Somehow, he feels he has a “brothers in blood” bond with Ripley, that he owes Ripley for helping him on the train. Ripley doesn’t understand Jonathon’s emotional reasoning, but takes the offered help.
Later, in a scene not in Highsmith’s book or Wender’s adaptation, Jonathon pays the ultimate cost to keep Ripley safe. As Jonathon dies, Ripley looks confused and asks, “…. why did you do that?”
As in the book and Wender’s movie, Ripley gets away with murder. He ensures Jonathon’s widow has the money, gives her a story that will convince police. In the final scene, Ripley arrives at the Teatro Olimpico where Luisa is holding a concert. He listens from the back, smiling. He stops smiling and recalls Jonathon’s death from his own point of view: Jonathon jumping in front of him and almost smiling as he passed.
Was Jonathon smiling because he died leaving money for his family? Was he smiling because, in a bizarre way, protecting Ripley meant that Jonathon was contributing to a cause instead of feeling helpless? Can Ripley relate to such feelings?
The flashback ends. Ripley puts on a bigger smile and looks back at Luisa playing. The movie’s last shot moves from Luisa to the theatre’s stage set behind her. Like the art that Ripley buys and decorates his home in, the stage set is beautiful. This is the beauty Ripley has pursued over human connection. However, to quote Nathaniel Booth, it is “the artificial blue of a stage set.” Ripley has chosen what he will pursue, and it’s kept him alive and prosperous while Jonathon suffered and died. However, one wonders if for all his struggles, Jonathon lived the richer life.
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