Highsmith Redux

Fenster writes:

Paleo links to a Guardian article proclaiming Patricia Highsmith as the screen’s new It Girl.



Reminds me of a couple of blog postings of mine from exactly 10 years ago saying much the same thing.  This was pre Fenster’s stint at 2Blowhards, at his first blog–i.e., for sure you didn’t read them.  They exist only in the internet archives now, so I reprint them here.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

The Ripley Who Won’t Die

It’s a good time to be Patricia Highsmith, or at least it would be if she weren’t dead. The late, unlamented, unlovable writer of thrillers is riding high, zeitgeist-wise. It’s really not much of a comeback since she was never much of a cultural icon in her native country in the first place. But there’s a bio of her life on the shelves and more of her work is making it to the screen. Highsmith, a native of Texas, transplanted herself to Europe and it is there that her work has gathered the greatest acclaim. A glance at the Internet Movie Database reveals that, after Hitchcock’s 1951 filming of her Stangers on a Train, most screen and TV adaptations have been European–French and German, mostly. Old Europe seems to have taken to her dark sensibilities. Post-Strangers, she continued to turn out a series of fairly nasty noirish novels, including five featuring that clever sociopath, Tom Ripley. It’s Tom who seems to have become lodged in our consciousness at the moment.

That talented chap has made it to screen four times so far. The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first of the Ripley books, was filmed first by Rene Clement in 1960 (as Plein Soleil), with Alain Delon in the title role, and then again in 1999 by Anthony Minghella, with Matt Damon as Tom. The third book in the series, Ripley’s Game, was first filmed by the German Wim Wenders in 1977 (as The American Friend), with Dennis Hopper in the title role, and then again in 2002 by the Liliana Cavani, with John Malkovich as Tom. Another Ripley novel, Ripley Underground, is now in production (under the title White on White), directed by Roger Spottiswoode, and with Barry Pepper as Tom.

Interesting, I think, that while Tom has been played, appropriately enough, by an American in four out of five of these films, the directorial impetus has been predominantly European: Clement is French, Wenders German, Minghella English and Cavani Italian. Spottiswoode, though an old Hollywood hand, is Canadian. It also is worth noting that the recent film Swimming Pool, which features a main character with Highsmith sensibilities (and consequent lack of charm), was directed by yet another Euro–Francois Ozon.

The Ripley of the moment is Malkovich. His 2002 model, while applauded at various festivals, never quite made it into full-fledged theatrical release, and was just released to DVD. It is worth seeing, as both Nathan Lee and Anthony Lane have noted, in The New York Times and The New Yorker, respectively.

I first encountered Tom, with quite a start I should add, around 1977 when The American Friend came out. While Wenders took certain liberties with Highsmith, transporting the central action from sunny Southern Europe to a dark, dank Hamburg, Dennis Hopper made for a wonderful Ripley. He didn’t seem to be acting the part of the out-of-control sociopath–maybe because he wasn’t. But he wasn’t exactly Highsmith’s Ripley.

In comparison, Malkovich seems, as Lane indicates, made for the part. His cool, mannered Ripley stands in contrast to Hopper’s crazed version, and while Hopper has an undeniable manic energy, Malkovich seems truer to Highsmith’s vision. Both are preferable to the Damon version, who had far too many regrets about sex and death to qualify as a first-rate sociopath (Jude Law could have handled the part more effectively).

There’s a wonderful moment–if I may call it that–at the end of the new Ripley’s Game in which Ripley’s patsy Jonathan takes a bullet for him. As Jonathan lies dying in Ripley’s arms, Jonathan smiles, perhaps because he has found some meaning in the ridiculous game Ripley has fashioned. Ripley looks at Jonathan incomprehendingly, as if Jonathan were a faithful dog willing to die to protect his master. Ripley seems to be wondering: what in the world must be going through that undeveloped canine brain of yours?

“Why did you do that?”, he asks Jonathan. And he really wants to know, really doesn’t know the answer. Jonathan dies without answering. And once again, Tom lives to fight, steal and cheat another day while mere humans, with recognizable human emotions, don’t make it. It’s a pretty bleak vision.

More Highsmith

And on the subject of Highsmith, there’s another recent movie in which the influence of her work is apparent. It’s the French quasi-thriller Man on a Train. The similarity in name to Strangers on a Train must have been intentional, since this recent film, like the Highsmith original, has its own version of “criss cross” immortalized in Strangers. But there is a little Ripley in this as well. The idea of a sick, sensitive European being swept off his feet by an apparently amoral American is straight from Ripley’s Game. There’s also the theme in Highsmith of Americans being from Mars and Europeans from Venus, to use the modern metaphor. Wenders in particular did a good job of rubbing Europe hard up against America, and that theme is also in Man on a Train. In this instance, though, the American criminal is not really an American, but a Frenchman, played by Johnny Hollyday. Still and all, there’s more than a tip of the hat to Ripley in the parallel, and more than a little bit of an American in Hollyday’s part.

Hollyday was, after all, a kind of French Elvis in the sixties, and has that kind of iconic status in Gallic terms. And the part he plays is self-consciously “American”, what with his references to “Nevada” and his leather jacket.

Indeed, the first minutes of the film, which are priceless, give the game away. Hollyday’s aging hipster/bank robber arrives in a small, out of the way, French town to the sounds of western guitar music. Immediately you realize that this is a Western, retold for Europe. Hollyday steps off the train, as thousands of lone gunmen have stepped off similar trains in towns way out west, as the camera pans across a line of bicycles where the horses ought to be.

Hollyday swaggers into town looking for . . . he’d head for the saloon, right? Well, not in Europe. In this little French town, he steps into a pharmacy. The first words spoken in the film are not uttered over a whiskey, but over a headache medication that the local pharmacist says they are out of: “Sorry, we’re out of Trinitrin.”

Welcome to Venus!

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Movies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Highsmith Redux

  1. Nice stuff. Couldn’t agree more that Hopper was a peculiar Ripley and Damon barely a Ripley at all.

    As for Highsmith … Unpleasant and ugly she may have been at the end but (NSFW alert) once upon a time she was pretty cute.


  2. Matra says:

    Another Ripley novel, Ripley Underground, is now in production (under the title White on White), directed by Roger Spottiswoode, and with Barry Pepper as Tom.

    Anyone seen it? It has only a handful of (bad) reviews at IMDB.


    • Fenster says:

      Not the greatest film and Pepper is only a passable Tom. But it is my favorite of the novels plot wise and they didn’t screw the plot up too much = defintitely worth a view.


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