I’ve spent the past month—and more—focussing solely on Indian cinema. Time for a change, I thought.
This, therefore. Director René Clément’s Plein Soleil (literally, ‘Full Sun’, but known as Purple Noon) is a French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, and was the first major film of Alain Delon, who really does dominate the film. In more ways than one.
Plein Soleil begins innocently enough. On a bright sunny day, we are introduced to Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) and Philippe Greenleaf (Maurice Ronet), who are sitting at a café in Rome. Philippe is drinking, while Tom is signing postcards—using Philippe’s signature. He shows one off to Philippe, and Philippe bursts out laughing: it’s a great forgery, he says. “Sign a few more!”
They continue to chat, as Tom signs some more postcards. Marge, Philippe’s girlfriend, is mentioned—Philippe is worried she’ll be upset because he left without telling her. To appease Marge, Tom suggests Philippe buy her a book on Fra Angelico, about whom Marge is writing a book. She can copy it, he suggests, and there’s more laughter.
There is something odd about the relationship between these two. They are obviously well-acquainted, perhaps even fairly good friends—the ease with which they chat seems to indicate that. But it appears, as they talk, that Tom is in some way subservient to Philippe. Philippe sits back and drinks; Tom writes the postcards. Philippe tells Tom to go buy the book on Fra Angelico; Tom does so.
The reason for this hard-to-pinpoint relationship is revealed when Freddy Miles (Billy Kearns), a friend of Philippe’s, happens to arrive. He is openly disdainful of Tom. Philippe, in an attempt to defuse the tension, quickly sends Tom off to buy the book before the shop closes.
[Note: Freddy’s female companion in this scene is played by an uncredited Romy Schneider, at the time in a relationship with Alain Delon].
When Freddy and Philippe are alone, Philippe tells Freddy that Tom and he had been friends, but they’d dropped out of touch over the past five years. Now, with Philippe languishing in Italy for a while, Philippe’s father Mr Greenleaf, back home in San Francisco, has been getting impatient. It is he who’s financed Tom’s trip to Italy, with Tom being given a mission: to fetch Philippe back to the US. For that, Mr Greenleaf will pay Tom $5,000.
Tom’s return—with the Fra Angelico book—brings this conversation to a close.
That evening, Tom and Philippe are winding their way about town, when they meet a blind beggar. There’s some horseplay, much throwing about of money—Philippe gives the blind man an outrageous sum of money for his cane (which Philippe thinks is smart), and for a taxi to take him home, and some more. Tom watches. It’s obvious that Philippe has a lot of money to burn. And that Tom does not. That $5,000 promised by Mr Greenleaf is going to be very welcome indeed.
Somewhere along the way, Philippe—wearing dark glasses and brandishing the white cane—manages to fool a woman into thinking he’s blind. In the process, they get friendly, and spend the rest of the evening, along with Tom, getting drunk and amorous. The woman seems quite happy to have both Philippe and Tom paw, nuzzle, and kiss her. She is also amused to discover that Philippe isn’t blind, after all.
Before the men can go too far, however, their female friend calls a halt to the proceedings and leaves them in the carriage they’ve hired. She also leaves behind an earring, which Tom finds and carefully pockets.
The two men are seen next at the town of Mongibello, where Marge (Marie Laforêt)—working on her Fra Angelico manuscript—lives. She is, as Philippe had predicted, very annoyed.
But Philippe is a skilled lover, and she is hopelessly in love with him. She’s soon forgiven him and is busy canoodling with him…
…while Tom, in the adjoining room, is amusing himself by trying to imagine what it would be like to be as wealthy as Philippe. He doesn’t merely imagine it, either; he pulls out one of Philippe’s jackets and wears it; slips on Philippe’s smart shoes, knots one of Philippe’s ties around his collar; even uses Philippe’s comb and hairbrush to give his hair a smarter, more posh look.
In the midst of all this, Philippe walks in, and is (not without reason), annoyed to see what Tom has been up to. When he questions Tom, Tom exacerbates matters by flawlessly mimicking Philippe’s deeper voice, and his distinct accent. But he also, obediently (though without a word, thus showing some of his resentment) removes all that he’d donned from amongst Philippe’s things.
Shortly after, Tom receives a message from Mr Greenleaf, cancelling Tom’s mission, since he hasn’t succeeded in bringing Philippe back. Say goodbye to those $5,000, Tom.
Tom confronts Philippe: he hasn’t written to his father saying he’ll be returning, has he? Philippe is dismissive; it’s his life. He’ll go back to the US if and when he wants to.
In the meantime, he’s intent on enjoying himself. He withdraws a large sum of money—several million lire—and spends part of it on a yacht. He decides he will take Marge for a cruise and they’ll take Tom along. Not, as it turns out, so that Tom can have a holiday, but so that Tom can steer, and keep an eye on the boat, and do the rest of the dirty work around while Philippe and Marge shut themselves in below decks and have a little fun.
Tom, bored and curious, eavesdrops on their conversation—and, worse, is found out. Philippe loses his temper. He forces Tom into the dinghy attached to the yacht, lets the connecting rope trail well behind the yacht, and goes back into the cabin, to Marge. Tom pleads with Philippe to pull the dinghy back and let him onto the yacht, but to no avail.
The result is something even Philippe hadn’t intended; while he and Marge are downstairs, the rope connecting the dinghy to the yacht frays and snaps. Tom is left adrift, the dinghy bobbing along on the sea while the yacht goes on ahead. By the time Philippe and Marge realize what’s happened and go back to rescue Tom, he’s lying semi-conscious and badly sunburnt. They haul him back and attend to him, and Marge is especially worried.
Things go back to being as they were. But with one minor difference. One sunny afternoon, while Marge and Philippe are sleeping, Tom slips into the room, quietly opens the wardrobe, and puts the earring, left behind in the carriage by that woman in Rome—into the pocket of one of Philippe’s jackets.
Marge, when she finds it, reacts the way Tom had expected her to: she flies into a rage. There’s a huge quarrel between her and Philippe, and Philippe gets so wild, he throws her precious Fra Angelico manuscript into the sea. That is the end of it. Marge insists on being dropped off at the nearest coastal town.
Now Tom and Philippe are on their own, sitting on the deck and playing cards. Philippe guesses that Tom planted the earring, but doesn’t seem to hold it against him. In fact, in a cold-hearted sort of way, Philippe seems unperturbed, either by Marge’s leaving, or by Tom’s betrayal. Instead, jokingly, he asks Tom if Tom had wanted to kill Philippe when he was adrift in the dinghy.
Tom admits that he did, and Philippe goes on, asking Tom how he would manage that… and begins making suggestions. Tom could kill Philippe, and assume Philippe’s identity. Oh, yes: Tom is already good at mimicking Philippe, and can forge his signature reasonably well.
It sounds like a lark, but all of a sudden, Philippe seems to get nervous. Even if Tom can forge his signature, he can’t write entire letters in Philippe’s handwriting. Ah, but Philippe uses a typewriter, Tom points out: and typewriters can be as distinctive as handwritings.
And, before it gets any further, Tom carefully slides out a dagger from under the bench, and quickly, ruthlessly, murders Philippe.
It takes him quite an effort to roll Philippe’s corpse inside a sheet of canvas, tie the anchor line around it, and throw the anchor overboard.
Philippe is gone [damned, perhaps, by his own words? Were Philippe’s suggestions partly responsible for bringing on his own death, or was it inevitable? Was it premonition, in some way?]. Tom now sets about becoming Philippe: he takes over the boat and all of Philippe’s possessions—down to his monogrammed clothing. He doctors Philippe’s passport and puts his own photo in it.
He withdraws more money, checks into a hotel as Philippe Greenleaf, and settles into life as his now-dead ex-friend and victim.
But will it last? After all, there are a fair number of people, even tucked away here in Italy, who recognize both Philippe Greenleaf and Tom Ripley. Will Tom be able to hoodwink them all? And, has he, as he’s gone about becoming Philippe Greenleaf, covered his tracks well enough?
What I liked about this film:
The cinematography, by Henri Decaë. The stunning blues of the Mediterranean; the cobbled lanes and vibrant markets of rural Italy; the rugged cliffs, the busy streets of Rome: all are, in any case, beautiful—but Decaë renders them even more so with the use of interesting angles and memorable frames.
The juxtaposition of silence and noise, action and inaction. There’s the dramatic scene where Tom kills Philippe, for example. It’s all very quiet, the sea lapping gently at the boat while the two men talk. And then, just after Tom stabs Philippe, a sudden squall seems to spring up out of nowhere, buffeting the boat, throwing Tom overboard, and generally making it very difficult for him to get rid of the body. But, as soon as he’s managed that—the sea falls silent again. An interesting reflection of what Tom is experiencing, too? Or just coincidence?
And there’s another unforgettable scene where another man is killed, again very suddenly. And what we see right after the blow is struck—is not the dead man himself, but the scattered bag of foodstuffs—vegetables, and some poultry— that the man had been carrying. There’s something chilling about the focus on the very mundane food (that chicken, for instance, as dead as the man).
Last, but by no means the least: Alain Delon. Besides the fact that he looks wonderful, his acting is excellent.
What I didn’t like:
Plein Soleil has an interesting premise, and it is—till well after Tom has assumed Philippe’s identity—gripping and suspenseful. But somewhere along the way, it begins to drag, with unnecessary diversions (the arrival of some characters who are only very incidental to the plot, for example) that slow the story down. Also, while Tom is shown as being a resourceful criminal who thinks on his feet, he makes some terribly basic mistakes. Even the most amateur of crooks would know that leaving fingerprints around, left, right and centre, isn’t a good idea.
While I haven’t read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, I have seen the 1999 adaptation of the novel, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. A brief discussion, therefore, of how the 1999 film compares to the 1960 one.
The Talented Mr Ripley is approximately 20 minutes longer than Plein Soleil. That’s partly because, unlike Plein Soleil, it begins not in Italy, but in the US, so we get the back story of how Tom Ripley came to Italy to take young Mr Greenleaf (in this version, Dickie Greenleaf, rather than Philippe) back home. The greater length of the 1999 film also allows for more complexity, and for more characters. For instance, Cate Blanchett plays a wealthy American girl named Meredith, to whom Tom (while disembarking, and intoxicated by the luxury he’s been wallowing in) introduces himself as Greenleaf—thus, inadvertently, first donning the mantle he will later deliberately wear.
Also, an important difference between the two films is that the 1999 film makes Tom homosexual—and this leads to his not just finding Dickie Greenleaf’s wealth very attractive, but Dickie himself.
What struck me the most about The Talented Mr Ripley was the way in which it takes basically the same story as Plein Soleil, and gives it a different perspective. In Plein Soleil, Tom appears to be, from the very start, a fairly self-assured young man. Even if he has no money and doesn’t know how to hold his cutlery correctly, he is still not a greenhorn who is completely bowled over by the luxury of the Greenleafs (Green leaves? Interesting name, for a family that has a lot of the long green).
On the other hand, in the 1999 film, Tom’s head is totally turned by Dickie’s wealth. It’s not just the fact that he tries on Dickie’s clothes or shoes in his absence; it’s also the undisguised enthusiasm with which he plunges into life in the fast lane—looking forward to a skiing holiday with Dickie and Marge; suggesting they go to Venice; and generally taking full advantage of the money floating around. This is a grown man, but his somewhat naïve approach to what he cannot have—money, and even Dickie—seems to belie his years. (There’s a scene where Marge breaks the news that the ski trip is off; the way Tom turns his head away, shaking it slowly, brought to my mind a little child denied a treat, trying hard to hide his disappointment by turning away).
Plein Soleil is a simpler, more straightforward film about a man who commits a crime, and then assumes the identity of his victim to keep from being caught—and to reap the benefits of his crime. It is, at its core, a crime thriller with a good bit of suspense: will Tom Ripley be caught? Or will he go free?
The Talented Mr Ripley, on the other hand, is more psychological. It goes deeper into Tom’s motives (which are different, considering his sexual feelings towards Dickie). It also lets the second half of the film become not just a tale of Tom trying to keep a step ahead of nemesis, but also about his emotional entanglements, as he tries (rather ineptly) to convince—by turn—both Marge and Meredith that he loves them, while all the time being in love with someone else.
Patricia Highsmith (who, by the way, praised Alain Delon’s portrayal of Tom Ripley) was described as having characterized Ripley as a ‘suave, agreeable and utterly amoral’ person. By that account only, Plein Soleil’s Ripley is true: Delon is suave. It’s not that Matt Damon’s acting is bad (it isn’t, not at all), or that The Talented Mr Ripley is bad (though it drags a bit at times). It’s just that Damon’s Ripley is projected as an (initially) wet-behind-the-ears poor young man, whose lust sends him down a path that he becomes addicted to pretty soon. Not suave, not really agreeable (in fact, “Boring,” as Dickie cuttingly describes him). Just amoral.
Advice? Watch both. Or, if you don’t have the time for both, watch Plein Soleil. It’s a fairly good crime film. And the talented and beautiful Mr Delon is enough reason by himself to make it worthwhile.