In the next few months, I'm going to be reviewing a few of the movie screenings that the Auckland Film Society is hosting at the Academy theatre. The first is Rene Clement's 1960 thriller Purple Noon (Plein Soleil), a blackly comic, scintillating thriller featuring the first cinematic appearance of Patricia Highsmith's sociopathic anti-hero Tom Ripley. Full disclosure: I have not seen any of the other movies featuring Tom Ripley, nor have I read any of the books. My exposure to Highsmith is limited to Strangers on a Train and the short story collection Little Tales of Misogyny.
French heartthrob Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley, a poor young man who has wrangled his way into the inner circle of Phillippe Greenleaf (Maurice Renot), an errant rich kid who is wondering aimlessly through the Med with his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforet). Tom has been tasked by Greenleaf's father with bringing him home to America to take over the family business. That cover story is dispatched as quickly as Greenleaf, as Tom kills him and then proceeds to steal his identity, his money and Marge.
With his ridiculous good looks, Alain Delon looks the part of a shallow narcissist to a T. In his early 20s at the time of production, Delon's youth adds a bizarre sense of naïveté to Ripley -- as he screws up and makes mistakes, it feels like Ripley is learning how to become a criminal mastermind. At the same time Delon manages to convey the vacuum behind Ripley's eyes. An alien without real human emotions, Ripley is constantly searching for a new identity that can replace his own. There is a sliver of pathos to Delon's Ripley -- in a way his schemes of wealth and status are a way for him to connect with other human beings.
On its own merits, Purple Noon is truly exceptional. The performances are superb, the Eastmancolor photography is beautiful, and director Clement manages the perfect balance between suspense and comedy in a way that manages to evoke the mordant tone of Highsmith's work. One sequence especially, in which Ripley tries to carry a corpse out of his apartment building without attracting the attention of his neighbours, is equal parts Buster Keaton and Alfred Hitchcock.
A fine companion piece to Alfred Hitchcock's superlative adaptation of Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, Purple Noon is the kind of sophisticated adult entertainment they do not make any more.