The Cinematic Mr Ripley: Final Thoughts and Factoids

Wrapping up my MovieThoughts series on the Tom Ripley novels and the five films based on them, and my review of Deep Water, I had some final ideas that didn’t fit into the posts. Like my “Things I Left Out” post about T.H. White, this post collects the afterthoughts for anyone who may be interested. These thoughts are a mix of trivia and ideas I couldn’t fit into the posts.

Interesting Cast Notes

While none of the five films based on the Ripley novels share cast members, there is at least one interesting background connection between two of the films. Dougray Scott, who plays Jonathon Trevanny in Ripley’s Game (2002), later married Claire Forlani, who played Cynthia in Ripley Under Ground (2005).

Questions About “The Guiding Force”

Generally, during this MovieThoughts blog series I aimed for describing these films from an “auteur perspective,” where the director is seen as the guiding force for the movie’s ideas. I used that less in my post about Ripley’s Game because there may be a question of who directed what. IMDb’s trivia section includes a claim that financial problems created delays, and Liliana Cavani couldn’t finish directing footage because she was committed to directing an opera. According to this claim, Malkovich directed about a third of the film’s footage himself. Malkovich was involved behind the scenes in other ways: his production company Mr. Mudd co-produced the film, and he mentions in a BBC interview that he worked with other people on set to extend Ripley’s dark humor.

Highsmith and Hitchcock

While Highsmith’s novels have been ripe material for European filmmakers, most American viewers probably only know her work from Strangers On A Train, Hitchcock’s adaptation of her 1950 novel. The film substantially changes Highsmith’s plot to create a black-and-white morality, and one could see it as the Roman Catholic Hitchcock finding a moral spin on an amoral story.

However, there’s been some debate on how much Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing informed his work, and to how he intended a clear moral framework in his films. Hitchcock’s Villains by Eric San Juan and Jim McDevitt makes an interesting (if not fully convincing case) that Hitchcock was always more interested in his villains than in his heroes. Perhaps Hitchcock had a little bit of Highsmith’s sensibility in each of his films.

Something is Rotten in Fontainebleau

It’s been said more than a few times that Hannibal Lecter and Tom Ripley have some common territory. Toby McKiver suggests that Highsmith’s character can be seen as something of a model for the more famous killer. That point about territory applies in more ways than one. Hannibal Rising establishes that Lecter commits some of his first killings in the French town Fontainebleau in the early 1950s. The Talented Mr. Ripley was published in 1955 and describes Tom committing his first murders in Italy sometime in the 1950s. Ripley Under Ground establishes that Ripley has settled in a French village, which Ripley’s Game locates as “some twelve miles from” Fontainebleau. In short, young Hannibal Lecter and young Tom Ripley missed meeting each by only a few miles and perhaps 5 years.

A Likeable, Undefinable Killer

While Anthony Minghella gave Ripley a compelling character arc in his adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, he accomplished this by simplifying the character’s motivations. Highsmith doesn’t give a single clear explanation for why Tom kills Dickie Greenleaf, although there is a scene where he feels dissociated from Dickie:

It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, pg. 85-86

Does this passage indicate Tom is a sociopath angry to find he’s failed to connect again? Is his desire to “know” Dickie a frustrated sexual attraction? Does he just want to become someone else, and Dickie presents the best person he can transform into? The book doesn’t tell us outright which of these options is correct.

The books aren’t clear on exactly what’s wrong with Tom either. He’s often labeled a psychopath or sociopath (“Tom Ripley, the likable psychopath,” Sam Jordisan calls him), but Grey Gowrie notes this is not quite correct.

“He is not amoral… because he is aware of his own immorality and harbours a detached interest in the morality and the ethical behavior of others… He is not psychopathic for he is able to imagine the lives and feelings of others.”

Pg. xi in Everyman’s Library of The Talented Mr. Ripley/Ripley Under Ground/Ripley’s Game

Like Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Tom defies psychiatric definitions. This may explain why the books have been hard to adapt into marketable mainstream films – unlike Lecter, he can’t be treated as a simple antagonist.

Strangely, this opaque attitude that makes Ripley hard to adapt to mainstream film may be the very reason he has survived. In The Art of X-Ray Reading, Roy Peter Clark cites Stephen Greenblatt’s idea that “opacity of motive” helps characters: “the theory is that the less we know about someone’s motives (such as Iago’s), or the great the complexity of the motive (such as Hamlet’s), the greater the work of art” (107).

Similar points can be made about Vic Van Allen, the jealous husband in Deep Water. Vic appears normal at first, a cuckolded husband who wishes his wife would stop having affairs but sees no way to stop her. Halfway through the book, he takes a darker turn. Highsmith gives him some motivations for his dark behavior – his family life will be destroyed if his wife leaves, his passion projects will disappear if he has to divide his assets with his wife – but never states outright if this is about emasculation or just lack of control. Does Vic want to get back into his wife’s arms, or just make sure no one else has her? Highsmith paints an opaque portrait, which works for the book but less well in the 2022 film.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Heloise?

If Tom is opaque, his wife Heloise is only slightly more defined. In Ripley Under Ground, one of the first ways that Highsmith describes Heloise is someone “whose morals Tom considered next to non-existent” (Everyman’s Library, pg. 300). In a fight, Tom realizes that while she “never said it in so many words,” (pg. 543) Heloise knows that he killed Dickie Greenleaf. Heloise also shows no shock when Tom admits he has killed again, only tries to keep him from getting more involved. She knows what her husband is, but doesn’t ask questions, and sidesteps getting too involved in his schemes. This may suggest that (like the odd couple in Terence Malick’s Badlands) that she is the true sociopath, not the one doing the killing. Whatever her pathology, she builds a relationship with Tom that is more symbiotic than loving, affectionate but with minimal attachment:

Highsmith draws Heloise well and subtly, cat-and-mousing once more with the degree of her complicity in Tom’s life. Her knowledge of him is based on her own desire not to know, not to experience things deeply, and to remain for as long as possible pretty, desirable and vain. Tom’s crimes, petty or otherwise, are usually accompanied by a gift to Heloise of luggage or apparel chosen with particular taste and care.

Grey Gowrie, pg. xv in Everyman’s Library of The Talented Mr. Ripley/Ripley Under Ground/Ripley’s Game

This makes Heloise a hard character to adapt. The movie Ripley Under Ground hints that she knows more than she lets on. However, since the film draws Tom in pretty broad strokes, this only shows how shallow the rest of the movie is. The movie Ripley’s Game plays the character (renamed Luisa) similar to the books. She knows her husband has been offered an assignment to kill someone, that he manipulates other people, but she never says outright what he is doing. Mostly, she talks around what he’s up to. This allows the couple to have what looks like harmony on the surface.

However, Ripley’s Game subtly comments on this relationship. Several scenes of the Ripleys together, and then the Trevannys together, parallel each other like the movie is contrasting the two marriages (a trick Michael Mann uses in Heat). This doubling shows that Sarah Trevanny is more involved in her husband’s life than Luisa is in Tom’s life. Sarah suffers for being involved because her husband makes terrible choices, but its heartbreaking because she has an attachment that Luisa doesn’t have. So, while Luisa doesn’t suffer like Sarah does, Luisa seems to have missed out on “the better thing.”

Does Tom Defy Time, or Does All Time Slow Around Him?

I referred in my posts about Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game how Highsmith leaves the chronology unclear, so Tom seems eternally 25-35 years old. The fact Highsmith’s thrillers don’t hinge much on technical knowledge (characters switching off mercury-based bomb detonators, etc.) means that readers don’t notice how fuzzy the timeline is. This adds to the sense that Tom’s world has slowed down, that normal time doesn’t apply around him. Grey Gowrie, writing in 2001, notes the 1950s-1960s setting that informs The Talented Mr. Ripley:

It is hard to explain to anyone under fifty today how paradisal, selfish paradise though it may have been, France and the Mediterranean were in the twenty years following the war. Seas were clean, fish plentiful, peasants picturesque and, superficially at least, accommodating; mass tourism and its architectural litter unknown, and sunlit idleness seasoned with culture available for as little as ten dollars a day. Twenty dollars spelt luxury.

Grey Gowrie, pg. xiv in Everyman’s Library of The Talented Mr. Ripley/Ripley Under Ground/Ripley’s Game

In other words, Tom Ripley’s Europe was a charmed one, before 1970s concerns about industrial pollution and the rise of tourist traps. Keeping the chronology vague perhaps helps the book’s maintain a sunny view of Europe, “back in the day when…”

Perhaps that also makes Tom’s crimes fell less real. Did you ever feel like you could truly get into trouble while on holiday?

What Books are The American Friend Based On?

In my review of The American Friend, I referred to how the opening scenes use material from Ripley Under Ground, the prequel to Ripley’s Game. Although Nicholas Ray is playing an art forger doing the same work that Bernard Tufts does in Ripley Under Ground (creating paintings allegedly by a late painter named Derwatt), Ray’s character is named Pogash. The two characters both have something otherworldly about them (Tufts has an idealist’s concern about whether he’s respecting Derwatt’s legacy, Pogash comes across like an embittered Old Testament prophet who can’t be an idealist anymore). Beyond that, Ray doesn’t seem to be playing a character based on Bernard Tufts.

In interviews included in Criterion’s edition, Wenders said that he added the Pogash scenes to provide work for Ray, a once-acclaimed director (Rebel Without A Cause) whose alcoholism had left him with little work. This also fit into Wenders’ approach of casting film directors to play the villains (Nicholas Ray as Pogash, Dennis Hopper as Tom Ripley, mobsters and bodyguards played by Gérard Blain, Samuel Fuller, Peter Lilienthal and Daniel Schmid).

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